Joe PiotrowskiAssociate Director of the Water Division, Region 3, US Environmental Protection Agency (2002)
EPA support was and is critical to the success of Philadelphia’s Green City, Clean Waters program. Joe describes why the EPA got interested in WPLP and the catalytic role that EPA played in encouraging a partnership between WPLP and the Philadelphia Water Department. From an interview in 2002.
I can't remember how many years ago it was that I learned of Anne Spirn's work. We were working on a federal agency coordinating group in Philadelphia called the Philadelphia Urban Resources Partnership, which was basically designed to get the federal agencies working together on environmental and conservation issues related to the City of Philadelphia. As we were looking into things and looking into issues, I can't remember exactly who it was that first pointed us in Anne Spirn's direction. I guess maybe it was the Water Department that talked about some of the work going on in West Philadelphia in terms of the Mill Creek Project.
We were particularly interested in connecting conservation and environmental issues with some of the lower income areas in the cities. Dr. Spirn's work in West Philadelphia with the Sulzberger school intrigued us. We were also very interested in seeing how a university would relate to local citizens and a local citizens group and how university professors, students, administration could help with what the EPA calls local watershed efforts. It was kind of tough to see the watershed in Mill Creek, but that's the watershed we were talking about even though it's buried. This has to do with environmental justice, where we make sure that areas where the environment may not come to mind as the most pressing issue also get due consideration. So one of the reasons we were interested in what Dr. Spirn was doing in West Philly was from that perspective and what we could learn from it. The other interesting thing of course, were the partners who were involved in connecting people to environmental issues and connecting people to water related issues. We hoped that what was going on would be a good model for partnerships in other places. There are other projects that take a general approach in terms of connecting to citizens and educating students. But no project that we've been involved in in the Region Three area-we include Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, D.C., Maryland, and Pennsylvania-have we seen quite this kind of effort between local schools, local citizens, and a major university.
There are challenges up and down the line. The first challenge, and I think the one where EPA helped to play a major role, was bringing the right people together at the right time, getting them talking to each other, getting some recognition and allowing more partners to get on board. One of the recent examples of that is a Growing Greener State of Pennsylvania grant for a few hundred thousand dollars that is now being targeted in the same area as a follow-up to some of Dr. Spirn's work. Another big challenge here is connecting people who have other kinds of priorities in terms of day-to-day existence and getting them to be involved in thinking about the water environment. They could be walking from their home to school, going from the school to recreation and never see a stream, a lake, a river, or a reservoir. That was one of the really interesting things, especially in this section of West Philadelphia. Another interesting challenge, is that engineers-of course-are used to the way the equations work and the way that text books give the answer and they do a great job of coming up with that answer. But here with the connections to the community, needing to build things into the community's desires and situation, and really fitting something to how the community and some of their leaders want to be involved in this project is a very different way for engineers to react.
Most of my experiences, other than throwing a few shovels of dirt and saying a few remarks here and there, have actually been with government agencies and the University in terms of some of the project planning, connecting the right people and providing some of the visibility. From a federal level, it's always interesting to figure out what our role is with the city involved, departments in the city involved, the mayor's office involved with blight programs, the Water Department involved, with faculty involved the way Dr. Spirn was with her graduate students. Sometimes it's hard to figure out what is the role for a person from the EPA? And I think the role here was really as a catalyst to bring the right people together, which in this case, may have happened to be at the right time. And knowing where the money is and pointing people in the right directions.
One of the great things to come out of this was the recognition of what we've done over the last hundred and fifty years of development to bury some of these city streams, a recognition of maybe what we've lost and maybe what we could regain with some connection back to the water and the environment. One or two of the projects out there are being used as the model to connect some of the storm water related initiatives to some of the entire city's blight initiatives. And that was very unexpected. It was really unexpected because when we started this we were in a really different mayoral administration. But the new mayor who's been here for about two and a half years started an anti-blight initiative when he came in the door. This project is likely going to be a model for how to make these connections across the city.
At least in some ways the economic problems in the city aren't as great as when we first started talking about some of these problems. The economics and the city's focus was in a different direction. I think you really have to get past some of the basic economic issues before you can get people in government to pay some attention to these kind of issues. The other part of this is the recognition that once local citizens get involved with some of the right help, like the University provided and like the Water Department is now providing, it takes off on a local level. Once it's taken off on a local level it's part of the local politics and part of the city politics and priorities.
One of the things we've talked about recently is using some of the things we're learning there to actually change city codes for the future-to make the city codes more receptive to things like storm water infiltration, to get the city to use those techniques when it's doing renovations in places like recreation departments. If we can make that happen, we'll have really impacted the future of the city.
Based on an interview in April 2002 by students in an MIT class on Media Technology, and Youth, and City Design and Development.