AGENDA / ENVIRONMENT Revive Penn's green legacy

Posted: November 27, 2007

Being "green" is part of this city's DNA. From its founding, Philadelphia was meant to be a "Greene Countrie Town," set between two rivers, nestled into Penn's Woods.

As big, brawny and brawling as Philadelphia became, something in the city's soul always aspired to live at respectful ease with nature, to preserve its legacy of urban forest and flowing rivers, to let green beauty feed its spirit.

That aspiration found its voice in the 2007 city elections, as issues of environment - preserving parks, reducing energy use, building "green" - moved toward center stage as never before, pushed by groups such as the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, Philadelphia Parks Alliance, and PennFuture's Next Great City project.

Environmental issues aren't just a preoccupation of comfortable elites. From all corners of the city came a cry to fight the creeping ugliness, to pick up litter, thwart graffiti, clean trash-strewn lots, plant shade trees on broiling blocks. These ideas are urban and practical; they attack the disorder that breeds crime and ruins neighborhoods.

Citizen forums made it clear: People all over the city thirst to live with beauty, to be part of William Penn's green vision.

Living up to that legacy is not easy. Our bad habits are many. These goals have long been low on the priority list, so finding the will and money to achieve them is hard.

But clearly "the environmental agenda" no longer smacks of distant, optional, suburban concerns. It can be part of the city's economic strategy and help lift up its hardest blocks.

Working to be "green" can, to quote the most famous Philadelphian of them all, make a city healthy, wealthy and wise.

No. 1 PRIORITY

WHY IT MATTERS: The park system allows the city to breathe. It protects the watershed. It bolsters neighborhood property values. But this jewel of a system is an underfunded political orphan and prey to development.

WHAT TO DO: Set the city's target for park funding at 1 percent of the city budget ($38 million this year, compared with the actual $13 million). Add staff; invest in neighborhood parks. Change how the Park Commission is named, to make it more qualified and accountable.

SHORT-TERM ACTIONS

Curb runaway runoff

Spare the city's ancient sewers and soggy basements. Tell City Council to support new Water Department rates that would charge large businesses for the runoff they cause, as a spur to redo paved spaces to limit runoff.

Green lots of lots

Fully fund ($4 million a year) Philadelphia Green's program to clean, green and maintain vacant lots so that it reaches all distressed neighborhoods.

Made by the shade

As a start on reviving the urban forest, replace the 23,000 street trees the city has removed since 2001 ($8 million cost).

City of murals

Expand support for the Mural Arts Program, a font of urban beauty.

LONG-TERM ACTIONS

Yes, we can cans

Commit to increasing city's pathetic 6 percent residential recycling rate to 35 percent (roughly the national average) by 2011. This would save $17 million a year in landfill fees. Expand the RecycleBank pilot program that used customer incentives to increase recycling rates in parts of Northwest Philadelphia.

Embrace Green Plan

Finish work on the city's new strategy to protect and expand green spaces in all city neighborhoods. Seek public-private partnerships to execute the plan.

LEED the way

Weave the LEED standards of the U.S. Green Building Council into the new zoning code being written, offering incentives to developers to build green. As an interim incentive before the code is done, offer fast-track approval to green projects.

IDEAS FROM CITIZEN FORUMS

* Take that, Ray Nagin: Let the city, civic groups, schools and individual citizens join in an immediate, urgent and sustained anti-litter blitz, so that New Orleans' mayor can never call our city filthy again. Raise fines for littering, and enforce them. Create service learning programs for youth to combat litter near where they live.

* Train the trashmen: Citizens complain that sloppy work by city sanitation employees often leaves as much trash on the street as gets put in the truck. And they want city government to lead by example, by maintaining its properties well.

* Dogged devotion: Create more dog runs at parks and recreation spots. These help keep animal waste off streets and create good neighborhood gathering spots.

Help Us Improve the Agenda

COMMENT on-line on the project Web site, where you can read an expanded version of the Agenda: www.greatexpectations07.com

Registration for the Citizens Convention this Sunday is closed.

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