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  • Writer's pictureChris McClurg

We share the rain

Updated: Feb 14, 2022

On my first week of graduate school Hurricane Ida rolled through Philadelphia. I wasn’t looking for a sign that I made the right decision changing careers, but I got one. Classes were canceled, I-676 flooded, and Philadelphians swam in the sewage filled expressway. Philadelphia’s aging water infrastructure, like in many older American cities, combines sewage and stormwater systems. When extreme rainfall occurs these pipes overflow, temporarily damaging aquatic ecosystems, local waterways, and the health of ambitious swimmers. As the climate crisis worsens, Philadelphia is more at risk to extreme weather events like Hurricane Ida.

All first years in the Master of Environmental Studies (MES) program reviewed the resiliency of Penn. Environmental disturbances impact the infrastructure, ecosystems, and health and wellness of the university. Resiliency means not only being able to withstand watery blows, it also means riding the waves of change, using adversity as an opportunity to flourish. Given the shadow cast on my matriculation, I wanted to focus my research on stormwater.

Philadelphia and Penn are inextricably linked; the rain that falls on Penn’s campus ends up with the rest of the stormwater in Philly. In 2011 Philly’s mayor, Michael Nutter, recognized the connection between green spaces and clean water, enacting the green cities clean water program. These green spaces are dedicated to absorbing the first inch and a half of rainfall. For context, Ida dropped 2-8 inches on Philadelphia, depending where you live. Penn reportedly noticed the connection between green spaces and clean water some 60 years prior. Architect Ian McHarg planted native species, incorporated permeable paving, and disconnected the sewer lines from the drainage system on Woodland Walk. Penn has undoubtedly expanded on McHarg’s vision.

Stormwater touches various priorities for the University. Creating a healthy and productive campus in the city isn’t easy. Penn Park simultaneously meets the challenges of having healthy communities and healthy waterways. The green space brings together athletic fields, an open space for recreation, and the Penn Park Orchard and Farm. The park also has a 20,000-gallon cistern. That cistern feeds water back into irrigation systems for the farm. Recreation, nutrition, and stormwater management are together in one place.

Penn Park

In less conspicuous areas Penn still has significant urban forestry and green spaces. One major area is Shoemaker Green. Green spaces are critical for mental and physical resiliency. Access to green spaces reduces heart rate, anxiety, and blood pressure. On sunny days Shoemaker Green, Woodland Walk, and Penn Park, are areas where students can break way from the stress of school, reaping physical and mental benefits. On rainy days these areas sequester rain.

Green roof at Penn's Golkin Hall

Like the walkways that connect buildings, the buildings themselves support resiliency. Penn has a sustainability goal for every new building to achieve Silver LEED status. Green roofs can garner a number of LEED credits. They also retain water as the vegetation absorbs rainfall. Penn has to date 34 green roofs and plans to incorporate them into future building plans.

As far as future plans go, eyes are on the sustainability office. The university releases a sustainability report annually—one of the starting points for our classroom research. The report details Penn’s commitment to different areas of sustainability like Transportation, Purchasing Practices, or Physical Environment. Water use and stormwater management fall under Physical Environment. This year’s report rightfully highlighted Penn’s reduction of emissions, mostly offset by a solar PPA. A working group for identifying improvement areas for stormwater management was cited, but no commitments were mentioned yet. An artifact cited across research projects was the 2013 Stormwater Management Plan. The plan outlines key infrastructure and objectives of the university. While infrastructure doesn’t change much year to year, the impact from Ida warrants a review of the plan as a goal in the sustainability report.

Stormwater connects human health with the health of local ecosystems. Rewards for investing in stormwater can be hard to see though. The stormwater management plans tries to visualize them. The first inch and a half of rainwater that falls on Penn surfaces would fill a pool the size of our football field 14 ft high. That water doesn’t end up in a pool though. It ends up in the Philly combined sewer system or, hopefully, in soil. As Penn builds more green spaces, recognizing the impact stormwater has on the greater Philadelphia community is important. While my classmates and I are interested in the academic side of sustainability, the impact sustainability has on equity is our main focus. This semester my classmates and I founded Penn Club H2O. The club is a group of MES students drawn together by a desire to foster social responsibility efforts across society and the Penn community. I asked my club mates why water, and my friend Amisha shared her perspective:

“Coming from India, water and sanitation is a primary issue faced by millions of women and men everyday…my interest in water stems from the desire to create impact via environmental justice and equity.” – Amisha Shahra

Water at Penn breaks boundaries between the campus and the greater community. Penn has taken strides towards sustainability, green roofs and green spaces included. The rest of Philadelphia is comparatively behind though. Green spaces are predominately available surrounding campus. Going forward our goal should be taking lessons learned on campus and partnering with public and private organizations to improve citywide stormwater management. The rainfall and stormwater issues in Philly are shared, so our institutional knowledge, and the health benefits of green spaces should also be shared. The Water Center at Penn is already partnering with the WaterNow Alliance to provide step-by-step stormwater management guides to local decision makers. While this effort, and Penn’s on campus stormwater management progress are noteworthy, our club is looking further. Water equity is important, and we believe Penn should expand efforts to support Philadelphia further. Our hope is the university and the Water Center become anchor institutions for waterway health. The next generation working in environmental advocacy will share the consequences of future climates. We want to share methods to minimize those consequences too.

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