How we treat the environment is coming full circle, from the sustainability of the Native Americans, to the factory and dump era, and, finally, to remediation.
We are in the midst of an environmental restoration renaissance. It’s taken almost 50 years, but the momentum is building. After decades of investigating, remediating, and redeveloping contaminated brownfields to construct new buildings, we are turning our sights to serious restoration of our urban wetlands and waterways, and to “green infrastructure” systems to help manage and clean stormwater.
When William Penn first set foot on American soil in 1682, he saw a wooded land filled with birds and animals, sparkling rivers and lakes full of fish. Native Americans lived sustainably, taking care not to decimate populations of plants and wildlife.
Philadelphia’s incoming European colonists were farmers, shipbuilders, miners, artisans, and tradespeople. From small shops – leather tanners, shoemakers, millers, woodworkers, metalsmiths, bakers, and brewers – they turned raw products into all the goods needed for food, clothing, shelter, and entertainment. Wastes were minimal and mostly recycled.
By 1800, Philadelphia was a bustling port and America’s largest city. The Industrial Revolution brought manufacturing prominence, propelled by coal and iron mines, factories, railroads, and banks. As goods were produced faster and in larger quantities, waste dumping also accelerated, polluting land, creeks, and rivers. Wars sped up production urgency. Like yeast reproducing in a vat until they eventually perish in the alcohol they create, no thought was given to the mass poisoning that lay ahead.
In the 1950s, as factory production skyrocketed, the costs of goods dropped, and our daily conveniences increased, many people did not notice that chemical and plastics production and disposal began killing fish, amphibians, and birds. But some did notice, like Rachel Carson who wrote Silent Spring in 1962.
Concerns about pollution and environmental protection crystallized in nationwide Earth Day demonstrations in 1970. The Environmental Protection Agency was established and new laws were rapidly passed to protect air, water, endangered species, and the oceans. In 1976, with the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act, wastes could no longer be indiscriminately dumped; they had to be tracked from cradle to grave. We finally understood that there is no “away.” There is no magical place we can send all our garbage where it will never come back to haunt us. We stopped dumping and began the long slow process of restoration.
In 1980, EPA’s Superfund Program began investigating and cleaning up contaminated sites where no viable owners could be found. In the early 2000s, cities, states, and developers partnered to rebuild on old industrial brownfields, and return these underutilized sites to the tax rolls. BrightFields (Best Firm #7 Environmental for 2016) remediated the Bartram North and South properties and portions of the Frankford Arsenal that are now ready for new construction. The EPA calculates an average return of $17 on every public dollar spent toward brownfield redevelopment. So in 2016, we pause and reflect on 150 years of industrial dumping and less than 50 years of cleanup and restoration.
Today’s focus is on pulling up sections of impervious concrete and pavement, cleaning up polluted soil, restoring floodplains, revegetating riverbanks, and creating new ponds, wetlands, bioswales, and tree boxes to manage storm water and mitigate flooding. These green infrastructure projects are bringing environmental, social, and economic benefits to cities across the county.
Philadelphia Water Department’s 2011 Green City, Clean Waters Plan, the first in the nation, lays out a visionary 25-year blueprint to clean the city’s stormwater by infiltrating it into thousands of green installations. Already, the difference is visible in hundreds of new projects that provide park-like beauty and functional ecosystem value. Research shows when people are exposed to green plantings and healthy ecosystems, they will be calmer, happier, more inquisitive, and alert.
A special focus has been placed on showcasing green infrastructure projects in schools. Understanding and caring for the environment is critical for our children and their future. If we can teach kids how to care for the land and water, we can grow more environmentally-aware generations of people. I’d like to see Environmental Science taught in pre-schools and kindergarten. I love the Green Woods Charter School in Roxborough, it is a national model for teaching the EIC Program – Environment as an Integrating Context.
There are many partners working to green-up the city, from community gardeners and urban farms like GreensGrow in Kensington and Walnut Hill Community Farm, to the Philadelphia Orchard Project and the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society’s Pop-Up Gardens. Talented design and construction teams are working on the Schuylkill River Trail, Frankford Creek Greenway, and Bartram’s Mile. Corporations like PECO and Brandywine Realty have installed green roofs on top of their buildings. So what’s my vision? I see a bright green future for the city of Philadelphia!
Marian Young is president of BrightFields, Inc., an environmental consulting and remediation firm focusing on brownfield redevelopment and ecosystem restoration. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared in Philly Biz.