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How to build the greenest city in the country

How to build the greenest city in the country

Posting in Cities

Philadelphia set a goal to make the city the "greenest" in the country by 2015. We discuss the city's progress with its new sustainability director.

In Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter's 2008 inaugural address, he announced his goal to make the city the "greenest" in the country by 2015. Nutter quickly created an Office of Sustainability and later instituted Katherine Gajewski as director.

I spoke with Gajewski recently about how far the plan has come -- and what more needs to be done in order for Philadelphia to reach its ambitious goal.

Why is the "greenest city in the country" goal so important to Philadelphia?

We looked at what the benefits would be of a really aggressive sustainability plan. It was going to help position Philadelphia for what we think is an impending clean energy economy in the United States. It was going to help prepare our workforce, our economy, our jobs base. It was going to look at neighborhood greening in a way we thought had multiple positive impacts. At this time of budget constraints and concessions, we were finding a lot of value added and savings to be found in looking at resource conservation. It made a lot of sense.

On top of that, we put out this goal of being the greenest city. It was really inspiring to Philadelphians that we could think big and deliver. Cities like Philadelphia are uniquely and inherently sustainable. We have dense, walkable neighborhoods. We have transit. We have a 9,200-acre park system. These are the things you can't build for anymore. The bones of Philadelphia are inherently green, so how do we take that and modernize it?

How will you know when you've achieved your goal?

[The goal is] fulfilling each of the initiatives. We have over 150 specific initiatives within the Greenworks Philadelphia plan. We put almost all of them on a really aggressive timeline between now and 2015. Along the way, we're starting to do the number crunching [and trying] to figure out what the criteria are that we can measure ourselves against. We work closely with other cities to see what a helpful measurement tool would be for us to compare and contrast between each other.

What kinds of sustainability efforts are you seeing from other cities?

There has been a sea change in the last two or three years in how local government is looking toward sustainability. This is something local government has wholeheartedly embraced. What makes Philadelphia stand out is the level to which Mayor Nutter has elevated the [sustainability director] position. It's a cabinet-level position. It's very tied to his agenda and leadership plan.

We're still waiting for the federal government to pass climate or energy legislation. Local governments, in the meantime, are more nimble and able to act. While we're waiting to see what comes from D.C., we're on the ground promoting our sustainability plans. It's really a phenomenon to look at how cities have become the leaders in this regard.

You've been Philadelphia's sustainability director for almost a year. Talk about some of your accomplishments so far.

The first target area of Greenworks is around energy and the first goal is to reduce municipal energy use by 30 percent by the year 2015. We put together a program that involves transitioning all our city departments to energy budgets, which in this first year will have a 10 percent conservation goal attached. We've secured funding to help some departments that have identified high-payback projects to fund those projects.

Another area is helping businesses and residents save on energy use. We were one of 25 communities across the country to receive a Retrofit Ramp-Up grant. We came up with a concept we're hoping can be replicable across the country. We were realizing folks didn't have access to capital to loans to make energy efficiency improvements. We created two programs. One is the Greenworks Loan Fund which makes very low-interest loans to businesses for energy efficiency improvements. We are also partnering with the Keystone HELP loan to buy down the interest on that program to make it even more affordable for residential homeowners.

What projects will you focus on over the next 12 months?

The energy cluster is still going to be really important. In the second year, it's going to be refining our energy and energy efficiency work. We have a few of our first city solar projects coming online this year. We have a goal in Greenworks of purchasing and generating 20 percent of electricity from alternative energy sources. That's a target we really want to advance.

We're hopeful that in the coming year we're going to be hearing from the EPA on our green city clean water storm water management plan. If we get final approval this year, it'll be the first plan that's gone before them that takes an inherently green look at storm water management.

We're also going to start planning on a goal that's very dear to the hearts of many Philadelphians. We've committed to 500 additional acres of open space to fill the equity issues we have in some parts of the city. We're going to be doing a plan on how we'll realize that goal.

What are the biggest challenges you face as you work toward becoming the country's greenest city?

The budget over the last two to three years has made some of this work much more difficult. For example, we have a huge tree planting goal in our plan. We know trees are important for public safety and quality of life. This year, we had $2.5 million proposed in the city budget for tree planting and that was slashed. You've got to go back to the drawing board. We're going to have to be creative to think about how we advance some of these goals.

The other component is still waiting for the markets to shift. Solar is still really expensive and only applicable to certain contexts given the pricing. We'd love to put solar up everywhere, but every project has to be assessed from a cost benefit analysis standpoint. We'd love to see some of those costs come down. That really needs to happen at the statewide level and the national level.

How could this work you're doing in Philadelphia be a model for other cities?

One of the big lessons coming out of Philadelphia is leadership and commitment. Just two years ago, we didn't even have an Office of Sustainability. A year later, we're able to put out a robust progress report on all we've been able to get done. To demonstrate that you're taking the plan seriously, to be sharing the results and sticking with it, that commitment can be the difference between a really successful sustainability plan and one that flounders.

Image: Katherine Gajewski

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure