Sustainability lecture focuses on planning, assigning roles and documenting efforts

It was a question people always ask, and a question Katherine Gajewski, Director of Sustainability for the City of Philadelphia, strongly dislikes.

“What’s your office’s definition of sustainability?” asked someone in the crowd at Valley Green Inn this week.  

Gajewski, who was delivering a lecture on the status of the city’s sustainability efforts, went on to say that her office does not actually have a working definition, preferring to leave the topic to broad interpretation so as not to limit their focus.

“Sustainability is about planning forward,” she said. “It kind of varies from opportunity to opportunity.”

That’s not to say that there isn’t a sustainability framework – there is – but it’s huge and complex. For example, Gajewski said the simple way to look at their goals is to examine the five “E’s”: energy, environment, equity, economy and engagement. If this doesn’t clarify things, perhaps the 15 targets – quantifiable goals to reach within the city – will. But if the targets don’t either, then maybe taking a look at one of the 150 initiatives Greenworks is undertaking might.

Greenworks representatives have their work cut out for them. Basically, Gajewski said, she and her colleagues work as the central organizers in a huge infrastructure attempting to get every city department onboard with sustainable goals.

With so many ideas swirling around sustainability, Gajewski said the question on everyone’s lips was, “Who is going to do all of this work?”

“So we just started mapping it out,” she said. Greenworks is now trying to get every department in the city involved in some way to move toward sustainability.

Examples are everywhere; the Streets Department works on recycling while the Water Department focuses on energy, the Office of Transportation and Utilities looks over bike and pedestrian issues while Parks and Recreation plants more trees and develops more open spaces. 

“Greenworks is the City’s overarching umbrella sustainability plan,” Gajewski said in an email following the lecture. Projects like the recently announced Green City, Clean Water Program and Green2015, which both focus on sustainability issues, venture further into specific topics falling under that umbrella. 

Once the ball gets rolling, though, it shouldn’t stop. “Documentation is really important to us,” Gajweski said. For posterity’s sake, Greenworks wants a paper trail that shows everything that has taken place under their supervision. That also allows for the successive administrations to pick up where Greenworks leaves off. 

Nutter extolled the virtues of sustainability while running for mayor, making it a mainstay of his campaign. The Office of Sustainability was developed within six months of his administration taking office and has been growing by leaps and bounds.

However, the wheels have only just started spinning. “This is really phase one sustainability that we’re in right now,” Gajewski said.

Gajewski has spent time in Portland, Seattle and Chicago, and has seen all that green opportunities have to offer. She didn’t think there was much of a chance that Philadelphia could come even close. But she underestimated the city. “We have this great existing network,” she said. That network allows for information to travel fast and for projects to pick up quickly.

Time seems to have changed her perspective. “Greenworks is probably bigger than it was originally envisioned to be,” she said. “There’s just a lot of activity happening in a lot of places.”

This presentation was part of the lecture series Valley Talks, sponsored by Valley Green Bank and the Friends of the Wissahickon. 

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