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Want Your Municipality to Go Green in Reducing Stormwater Pollution? Three Tips from the Philadelphia Water Department

October 04, 2017 02:00 PM

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​Not everyone likes trees and gardens.

Yep, it’s true.

As difficult as it may be for sustainability believers like us at the Philadelphia Water Department to accept, the reality is there are many tree skeptics—those who loudly protest when told their block is about to be "greened.”

We gave public outreach deep consideration in the many years of planning we did before the 2011 launch of  Green City, Clean Waters—Philadelphia’s green infrastructure-based plan to reduce pollution from stormwater runoff and combined sewer overflows. Nonetheless, we’ve continued to learn plenty of lessons about what it takes to introduce a program that fundamentally changes the way people interact with infrastructure.

Tip 1: Overcome the shock of the new and green 

It’s crucial for municipalities and utilities considering green stormwater solutions to be prepared for community residents who are reluctant to embrace what is to them a novel approach.

Signage at a rain gardenFor example, one of green infrastructure’s biggest selling points is that it can transform urban landscapes. This can be a cause for concern to people who call those landscapes home, don’t know how green infrastructure works, and don’t understand why it’s important to manage stormwater.

Whereas the traditional sewer infrastructure is virtually invisible, green infrastructure systems, such as tree trenches and rain gardens brimming with sedge grass, Russian sage, and black-eyed Susans, become a permanently visible part of the community. This can be a shock: many people are accustomed to water infrastructure that’s out of sight, out of mind.

Championing green infrastructure benefits may lessen skeptics’ reluctance somewhat, but building real support takes more than a go-green sales pitch. Real support comes only with real engagement in projects. This means providing many community meetings, activities, and other opportunities for residents to (a) learn what to expect from green infrastructure projects and (b) provide input. Providing input is key: it’s ultimately how people become invested.    

Tip 2: Make the abstract real

Further complicating the issue is the fact that stormwater runoff is something abstract to many people. In their eyes, rain flows down the street into the sewer inlet and is gone.

Unless they experience local flooding or happen to live near a sewer outfall and can see the overflow happening during a storm, people generally don’t consider rain a pollution problem that warrants ripping up a sidewalk to control.

With Green City, Clean Waters, we’ve continuously sought to make the abstract real and build support for green infrastructure projects. Here are some of our methods. 

Maintain continuity with regular community meetings. In 2016 alone, we held 125 talks with civic groups to preview green projects.

A transformed lot in West Philly

Open with the benefits of green infrastructure. Quality-of-life benefits from green infrastructure are valuable conversation starters. Residents might not know about sewer overflows, but they know how unbearably hot a treeless block can be and that poor air quality is the culprit behind high asthma rates. When they hear about cooler streets, the role plants play in cleaning our air, and improved property values, they perk up. And when they make a connection to something that directly impacts their lives, they’re more likely to get on board learn about why we need to manage stormwater.

Use multiple communication formats to drive home a single point. We also use presentations, videos, diagrams and animations to drive home a single point: that stormwater runoff and sewer overflow are the biggest sources of pollution in our waterways and the number one water quality issue of our time. This has made an impact with many residents. 

Get residents to the riverbank. Sometimes, however, getting people down to the rivers that supply their drinking water is the most effective way to build support for stormwater green infrastructure. At our volunteer litter cleanups, for example, people learn that most of the trash lining our urban riverbanks was carried there by stormwater runoff flowing from Philly neighborhoods. They get a physical and emotional connection to the issue. Last year, more than 1,350 volunteers helped remove 33.3 tons of litter from our watershed parks.

Think creatively. We’ve also expanded our outreach with more creative efforts. For example, at one of our first vacant land green infrastructure sites​, in addition to working with neighbors to gather input, we teamed up with Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program and local elected officials to create a beautiful natural space that reflects the community and manages tens of thousands of gallons of runoff.  

At another vacant lot site where a rain garden is planned, we recently partnered with residents to clean up the lot, discuss why managing stormwater is important, and build a temporary sculpture garden:


We’ve hosted open house events to encourage conversations about projects, created virtual walking tours, and led real walking tours. This fall, we’re taking West Philadelphia high school students on a bike tour of local existing and planned green projects.

Tip 3: Think ahead to ownership

Because green projects become a part of neighborhoods, it’s essential to foster community ownership. We’ve done this in several ways.

For example, through our Soak It Up Adoption program, civic groups all over Philadelphia help us maintain green infrastructure sites, keeping them weed and trash free. 

At home, residents can engage with green infrastructure by taking part in the Rain Check program, which includes a crash course in stormwater issues and provides access to free rain barrels and more.

It’ll Happen!

As a result of all this cheerleading and outreach, we’ve engaged nearly 380,000 residents since Green City, Clean Waters started.

Do we still have tree skeptics? You bet. But we also have more than 1,000 acres of Philly’s urban landscape feeding into green infrastructure systems that are woven into our communities. 

Each acre is helping to protect our rivers and, we think, make our neighborhoods a little better, too.


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