Joanne Dahme

I work for the Philadelphia Water Department, which is working on a grant project where one of the partners is the Mill Creek Coalition. This summer we spent lots of time in the Mill Creek neighborhood because one of the projects under our grant was creating an environmental curriculum, a watershed-based curriculum for the Sulzberger Middle School, which is another grant partner. Last summer we spent three days a week with some 25 kids from the middle school who were in one of these summer-based programs. We did some watershed walks, sewer sampling, stormwater drain marking (inlet stenciling), in addition to some classroom work. We talked about natural watersheds and how the Mill Creek Watershed, which was once natural over two hundred years ago, turned into a very urban watershed. We addressed what those connections are still for those kids, how what they do in their neighborhood affects the water quality in the Schuylkill River.

At the same time we did our first demonstration project, which was building an outdoor classroom right across from the school on 48th street. We took a vacant lot and cleared the lot. The kids did a little design work for us and over the summer we actually hired a landscaper to build an outdoor classroom for the children to use, which will be kicking off this spring. Besides the above ground landscaping, it pretty much mimicked what the natural watershed once looked like. It's actually the footprint of a rowhouse that used to be there. There's going to be a mural painted on the adjacent house. The kids actually designed a mural, which shows how the urban watershed works in their neighborhood and connects them to the Mill Creek sewer. Underground, the site is actually a stormwater best management practice. The site drains to the center where we have a dry streambed, which is the best management practice feature.

We did a lot of work with the community. As a result of the outreach work in this project, we were dealing with the Mill Creek Coalition in particular. When we were designing some of the site plans, particularly this outdoor demonstration project, we had gone to the community. We were looking at a number of vacant lots or that we could use as our first demonstration project. The community gave us a lot of feedback about what they wanted to see. They actually wanted to choose the lot right across from the school. We weren't looking at that vacant lot, but they wanted us to do this lot first because it was right across the street from the school and the school recognized that they had a real need and they had a real interest in establishing this outdoor classroom.

At the same time, we heard from the community that they had other concerns beyond those that were being covered by the grant. They had concerns about flooding in their basements. They had an impression that the Mill Creek sewer was causing subsidence in their neighborhood, causing water in their basement. So we created a complementary program to address those issues. We did inspections of the Mill Creek sewer, and shared the results of those inspections with the community. We did some block inspections, picking five blocks where the residents had cited the most concerns. We did sewer inspections, and we checked the water mains on those blocks. We created sort of an education program about how property owners can better manage their stormwater at their property, to make sure their laterals are working, and to make sure their water services are working, and to protect their own properties from subsidence. That is an ongoing program that we're working with them on.

We've been lucky that we've been able to use the resources at the Water Department and other units to go in and do the inspections. We have created some partnerships. We tied in with a group called University City Green. Working with the Mill Creek Coalition, we were able to do some more outreach to other residents in the community. We were able to get another state grant under the Growing Greener program to do outreach regarding the drainage issues that residents are concerned about. Right now we have and additional grant where this group called Global Action Project is going out and recruiting at the block level. They talk to block captains who are trained to talk to the residents in the neighborhood about drainage issues.

It was exciting working in a very community level. Through a project like this, I had a real opportunity to nurture relationships with people in the community and hear about their concerns and interests there. I think it made me a better representative, both for the Water Department going out into the community, having a better understanding of real community based concerns, and vice-versa learning from the community, what they had to deal with on a daily basis. Working on these neighborhood-based projects, I gained a better sense of how to do community outreach, and build something so they may see us as a real resource. We're trying to brainstorm now how we can work with other city agencies to perhaps better engage the community. We want to get their feedback about projects, greening projects that can be built in other sections of the city. So the city and residents can gain benefit.

At the end of the 5-week classroom session in the summer, we had a little graduation event and the parents were invited. For the schoolteachers involved at Sulzberger, we did a teacher training so they could take over this watershed-based curriculum and continue it into the school year and many years to come. This spring we'll be training the teachers and the kids to do site maintenance of the outdoor classroom. The kids and the school are going to take over the maintenance for the site. The kids may be doing some annual planting. They're also going to be providing site tours to their neighbors and to city officials and to other interested groups that want to come see this outdoor classroom. The kids will be talking about the underground, invisible best management features that are working on the site.

It was pretty exciting to see the kids really get into it. They're a handful! But I think with kids, as with any kids, we have learned how to keep them involved and engaged every step of the way. They were really interested when they were outdoors doing the projects. We tried to get them involved in the environment as much as possible, recognizing that these kids are going to be our future watershed stewards. Whatever we were doing out there was only going to be sustainable if the kids really had a grasp of how even though they live in a urban environment, they can be real environmental stewards. They can have a real impact on the quality of their neighborhood and the quality of the natural areas that exist inside of Philadelphia. I thought that was really important. I also saw the benefit of having kids in the program because they take that message back to the parents. So when we had these meetings, their parents would come to these meetings and hear about what the kids were doing and take real interest. There was a real opportunity for us to do adult education through the children.

The adults were amazed at the kids. We had a number of ceremonies tied into this site. We had the groundbreaking in July, a dedication in October, and the kids were really involved. We had the kids talk to the city officials, the neighbors who came, and the media about what they learned when they were building this site: what they learned about the Mill Creek sewer and what they can do in their neighborhood and how that could improve water quality. They had the language down! They were great. They were able to express in really basic terms, and they were enthusiastic about it. They talked about their concepts for the mural they designed and what their concerns are for the neighborhood. Using kids to really engage the rest of the community is really important.

The five weeks that I worked over the summer were the most memorable part of the project for me: seeing the connections, the lights go on for the kids while we're out there. These are sixth and seventh graders. They surprised me often with the knowledge they already had or with how quickly they were able to grasp some of the concepts. The kids were really really excited about going out to the sites and working on it and getting their hands dirty, and seeing what improvements they can make. And they were wonderful. I guess I was in awe when I heard them talk to the adults and to the media about the work that they were doing. I thought it really doesn't take that much. It just takes some one-on-one attention, giving them some good information, getting their feedback about how you're presenting it, and doing really hands-on work, which I think is essential to make the concepts really come alive.

We're hoping to create these long-term relationships. We'll be committed to going out to the community again to get their feedback about the conceptual designs that we create. The sense I get, you can't just do one project and call it a success.The community wants you to be there on a much more long-term basis. They want to see work continuing, not just a quick-hit project. You go in optimistically thinking you can do all this work, move on, but you can't do all that. You really have to create long-lasting partnerships to make the projects you create sustainable in that community.