Grassroots: What Philly is quietly doing to become a greener metropolis

Five years after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Jeanine Kayembe led a service trip of 30 young people from Temple University and North Philadelphia. 

While many other college students re-constructed homes through Habitat for Humanity, Temple students volunteered on an urban farm, which focused on community revitalization and food security.

“Once we got back, we noticed how the Lower Ninth Ward kind of looked like North Philadelphia,” she explained, “but there was no storm here. Some of these problems exist in our city also, so how can we combat that?”


Coincidentally, when the group returned home, the Village of Arts and Humanities had an empty lot that couldn’t receive funding in North Philadelphia. The group, now known as the Philly Urban Creators, decided to adopt the space as their own and start an an urban plantation called the Life Do Grow farm.

Since, they have used different agricultural techniques, such as raised plant beds, greenhouses, and aquaponics, to grow seasonal foods from tomatoes to pumpkins to kale. Additionally, the farm hosts a Farmer’s Market every first Friday of the month from April to November.

“For us, sustainability means these food systems will stay forever because they depend on people and not larger institutions that provide food,” Kayembe added.

It’s a method sprouting life all across Philadelphia.

Sustainability doesn’t mean compromising beauty

The recent Philadelphia Flower Show proved as much by introducing the city to new eco-friendly, yet gorgeous designs inspired by the Dutch Wave Movement.

“Dutch green design teaches us how to make green beautiful,” said Sam Lemheney, chief of shows and events for the Philadelphia Flower Show.

Take Dutch architect Bart Hoes’ presentation of his sustainable roof garden. To accompany vibrant tulips, the garden strategically uses natural resources, such as the pergola gutter to catch rainwater and the olivine stones to bind carbon dioxide and clear the air. Despite the tiny space, Hoes created a practical masterpiece that many Philadelphians can replicate at home.

Additionally, Stony Brook Nursery curated a traditional yet innovative garden space of perennials with tree hedge framing and a trimmed boxwood structure. Symbolically, the designers wanted to portray the collision of control and disorder, using a combination of artificial and natural resources.

How can the flower show’s sustainable techniques be seen to the city’s many neighborhoods year-round? I talked to a few community leaders to find out.

The Pennsylvania Horticulture Society, which sponsors the event every year, is also committed to making Philadelphia beautiful. Likewise, the organization works on year-round projects in the city, like greening civic landscapes and educational trainings. Through PHS City Harvest’s workshops, for instance, urban gardeners learn to create a new infrastructure for food production, distribution, and consumption.

Ultimately, through every one of their programs, the organization’s goal is to connect the surrounding community with horticulture with harvesting and urban gardens.

“We also clean up vacant lots around Philadelphia,” explains Alan Jaffe, senior director of communications and media for PHS. “We’ve cleaned and greened over a third of [what amounts to] thousands of lots. As a result of the Philadelphia LandCare Program, we have helped rejuvenate some of those neighborhoods.”

In a similar vein, the fifty-block, three-mile above-ground plaza known as the Rail Yard hopes to rejuvenate some of the city’s neighborhoods. This project coincides with a $10.3 million renovation and repurposing of the Reading Viaduct into the Viaduct Rail Park. Just like New York City’s High Line, the elevated Viaduct tracks carried trains for nearly 100 years.

Recently, the City of Philadelphia announced their decision to commission a public art installation by local artists, Brent Wahl and Laynie Browne for the Rail Yard. As Wahl constructs a physical sculpture, Browne will add a poetic touch with engraved granite pavers.

“[Actually], text engraving all along the pathway,”  Browne explained. “The sculpture itself will be integrated into the design of the park, engaging visitors with the landscaped environment around them and providing contemplative space.”

Green architecture

Last November, Mayor Kenney released a Greenworks plan in collaboration with the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Sustainability. Among many of the plan’s visions, one was to provide the entire city with access to clean, affordable energy.

The Office of Sustainability's energy office brings this promise to life with their Building Energy Benchmarking initiative, which save $1.4 million a year in energy costs. In 2012, Philadelphia City Council passed an ordinance which required property owners of buildings over 50,000 square feet or more to disclose their energy and water usage.


In 2017, the legislation expanded to include multi-family residential spaces. Overall, the benchmarking initiative tracks the energy of over 3 million square feet of buildings all across the city.

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” explains Christine Knapp, director of the Office of Sustainability. “We wanted building owners and managers to think more about how much money they’re spending on energy and whether their building can perform better. We’re giving them the opportunity to compare to other buildings of similar sizes.”

To create awareness around conserving energy, the Office of Sustainability also works with the Delaware Valley Green Building Council, a nonprofit dedicated to sustainable architecture through education, strategic initiatives, and policy and advocacy work. Through education, the organizations hope to inspire more Philadelphians to go green.

“In Philadelphia, 60 percent of the carbon emissions that cause climate change come from the building sector, and an average commercial building wastes 30 percent of its energy,” says Katie Bartolotta, policy and program manager for the Delaware Valley Green Building Council. “Making improvements to our built environment represents the best chance we have to reduce our region’s climate impact and save money.”

Future visions

The benchmarking project introduced the city to the 2030 Districts Project, a movement to create high-performance building districts all over the world, which is now spearheaded locally by DVGBC.

The Philadelphia 2030 District brings together both private and public property owners, government officials, prominent community leaders, and representatives from utility companies to reduce energy usage, water consumption, and transportation-related emissions by 50 percent by the year 2030. So far, 9.5 million square feet of space throughout the city has committed to the initiative.

Too often, those unfamiliar with sustainable practices confuse the potential to save money with what would amount to a large investment. The truth is that you don’t need to spend money in order to adopt environmentally-friendly habits. That’s why a main component of the network, Bartolotta stresses, is all about educating building managers on eco-friendly practices.

“For buildings that may not have the funds to make capital investments to improve their systems, you can take courses to learn tips and tricks for how to run your systems more efficiently and save money,“ explains Bartolotta. “We want to create as many opportunities for peer information sharing and networking to help folks work towards ambitious goals.”

This article originally appeared in Philadelphia Weekly