A Conversation with Christine Knapp
ecoWURD Correspondent D.L. Chandler talks with Christine Knapp, the Director of Philadelphia’s Office of Sustainability.
D.L. Chandler: So, what exactly is the Office of Sustainability?
Christine Knapp: Sure! So we’re the office that coordinates the implementation of Greenworks, which is the city’s sustainability plan. I like to say we are a coordination area because we’re not necessarily leading all these different initiatives. We’re a place where all this work can get coordinated. There’s a few areas, in particular, of the work that we do lead, but the vast majority of it, really, is done in partnership with other city departments.
DL: What’s the big picture overview that the office hopes to achieve?
CK: To set common goals, work on policies, collect data, do engagement and outreach collectively. The whole city, we’re all going in the same direction, because it is a big task and so we do need everybody sort of working collaboratively to get to these goals.
DL: How long has this office been in place and, additionally, how long has the Greenworks program been in effect?
CK: Mayor Nutter committed to creating the office when he became Mayor in 2008, so the office was created that year. The first Sustainability director spent about a whole year writing the first Greenworks plan. So Greenworks itself, as a plan, was launched in 2009. And it was really that first plan which was really supposed to end in 2015 to sort of be the Nutter Administration’s sustainability plan. When Mayor Jim Kenney came in and I came into this office, we set about updating Greenworks, which we did in 2016.
DL: And how long is the new implementation of that initiative set to go on for?
CK: Similarly, we think of this as the Kenney Administration’s as long as that … (laughter)
DL: As long as that reign lasts (laughter). And we know the primaries are coming up next year…
CK: But we did take a slightly different approach. We didn’t set goals around 4 years or 7 years, or anything like that. We set annual initiative goals, because you have a to-do list for seven years. And you’ve either done everything on those lists, and you’re just taking credit year after year, or you haven’t done them and maybe there’s a good reason why and maybe that thing doesn’t belong on that list anymore and that needs to change…
DL: Exactly …
CK: So we felt like an annual refresh on what the initiatives and activities are that we’re undertaking made sense. The structure of Greenworks, the big picture goals and visions we have are for this administration. But the to-do list is refreshed every year.
DL: Why should Philadelphians know about Greenworks?
CK: Greenworks is our vision for a truly sustainable Philadelphia for all. We use the term vision because we think that it’s a helpful way for people to understand what this is about. It’s about picturing a Philadelphia in the future where every Philadelphian has access to natural resources; Is able to breathe clean air, is able to affordably use energy that’s clean and powers their home. That they are able to get around on transportation that is accessible, and safe for them to do so.
So, where you can picture that Philadelphia, right? Easier than if I told you we want to reduce energy use by 30%, that doesn’t really give you a vision, right? So we set visions around eight key vision areas. Then we set certain objectives year to year, of what we are going to do as a city to move toward achieving those visions, including some metrics and you know some data we can collect to show how we are doing in those regards. But, more importantly, what I think we did in this version of Greenworks that’s a little different, we also told other people what they can do to help us meet that vision. City government alone is not going to achieve these visions. So we heard from people, when we were updating Greenworks, that they wanted to know what they could help us with. So we made that very a explicit part of our update; this is what an individual, a business owner, an institution in the city can do to help us meet these goals.
DL: So, one of the things I’ve run into as a reporter, just looking at and examining environmental sustainability in the city and other larger cities across the nation, what we have discovered is that impoverished communities, especially Black communities, are the most affected. The same issues that plague White or more affluent communities no doubt affect those on the inverse. What, if anything, is Greenworks doing to address the concerns of those communities that are most affected?
CK: What I would just add to your point is not only are those communities most vulnerable to things like climate change, they are actually contributing the least to those problems. So, it’s even more sort of inequitable regarding environmental impact, right? When we were updating Greenworks, we did some community engagement and outreach, we heard from community organizations, from stakeholders, to see what they wanted to see. In the new version, and one of the things we heard repeatedly, was that the city had made significant progress in sustainability over the course of the eight years of the other administration, but not all neighborhoods were experiencing those benefits equally. And that they wanted to see us have is an explicit focus on how we could address those inequalities.
DL: Has there been a larger bridge built between the office and those communities and the stakeholders? Who are those stakeholders? Are they community leaders or organizations or are they just people who just happen to be there in the middle of it?
CK: So, yeah, the project you’re going get a deep dive into today is about North Philly’s heat map. This is a great example where we had this map done during our climate adaptation study that we did for the city, and using satellite data we were able to see how hot certain areas, well, how hot the whole city is. It’s over the course of 7 different days throughout two different summers to kind of average it all out, to make sure it wasn’t just a weird day. What you can see when we map it by census block is that there are red areas of the city that can be as much as 22 degrees hotter than these blue areas of the city. And when we lay this over with demographic information, these neighborhoods that are all red are all either African American, or Latino-majority neighborhoods. You can also lay it over with other demographic information and find higher poverty areas, you know there’s a lot of correlations. So, what we did was work with the health department to also look at data and demographic information that would tell us who was most vulnerable to heat. It’s kinda OK if you live in a hot neighborhood with an air conditioner in the house and you jump in your air conditioned car.
DL: … and you’re fine …
CK: Right, if you’re not vulnerable to it, but if you have say … obesity, asthma, heart, cardiovascular disease, if you’re elderly or any of those things … even young children, pregnant women, all those people are more vulnerable to heat. So, we then had an additional mapping exercise on top this to see where people live that are the most vulnerable. We then created a city heat team, so different departments – Health, Emergency Management, Streets, Water Department – who might have relationships in the communities and decided to work with Hunting Park because that was just an area the city felt we had good enough relationships, we knew who some of the actors were. We really decided to figure out who was already working on the ground in this neighborhood. Let’s not start from scratch.
CK: Hunting Park, it’s kind of interesting. We didn’t know this when we selected it but half of the neighborhood, sort of the west side of the neighborhood is predominately African American, the eastern side of the neighborhood is predominantly Spanish-speaking, Latino. We worked with Esperanza, which is a organization on the eastern side and the Lenfest Center which is on the west side of the neighborhood. And those are two anchor organizations in the community with deep engagement and roots and trust with the community. So, we’re working with them in addition to Hunting Park.
CK: We’ve collected over 530 or so surveys over the course of the summer to understand how people currently experience heat, what they would like to see to cope better with heat, and what they would like to see in their community in the long run to actually bring the neighborhood temperatures down. Because we know this is now, climate change is only going to make things worse.
CK: So we want to get in and start figuring out strategies to cool neighborhoods, but we don’t want to go in and say “Here’s a whole bunch of trees that you don’t want”, because they won’t work and they will all die and they won’t provide shade. Do you want trees? Where do you want trees? What kind of trees? So, that’s the sort of example of our new strategy of how to address not just broad-based sustainability issues like heat, but how to do it with an equity lens on it.
DL: Yeah the effort, I think that’s what I appreciate about what you just told me. When we speak to people in city government, they only focus on the data. Data, data, data. You know let’s get the facts down, and then we get a team together, then we go out there. We hire a team from within our already established city government agency. Then we go out there and fix the problem, but it doesn’t. Not to use a pun here, but it’s not sustainable.
CK: Right, it doesn’t last…
DL: It doesn’t work that way, you have to go into these communities and identity not only the people in those communities, but,the people who really care about it.
CK: We went to a community event where a woman, who was an elder said, ‘Well the city came back here, you know, in the 60’s or something asking the same questions and I never heard back from them.” And so, you know, 50 years later and she still remembered that the city hadn’t followed through with her.
DL: Is this the largest project the office is taking on right now?
CK: This is certainly the biggest example of community engagement . I also just want to address some of the changes and approaches that we’ve taken. As I mentioned, when we updated Greenworks, we heard heard from folks that they wanted more information on how they could be apart of it. I can say that the first years of this office were about really getting the city of Philadelphia to be a more sustainable body. You want to lead by example, you want to sort of showcase your own leadership before you go tell other people how to do the work. So I think in the last couple of years we’ve been trying to be more externally focused. Not that we’re perfect, but that it’s now time for us to also share and encourage others to be apart of it.
CK: So one of the things we’ve produced is Greenworks on the ground, and so it aligns with the eight visions. There’s eight parts on these sheets, one for each of the visions, that gives individuals our perspective. We have a version for community groups and we have a version for institutions. It shows – a step-by step list of actions you can take in your life to help us achieve our common goals. And you can see that each of them is connected to a phone number or a website or some contact where you can get more information. So that’s a small example of that. The other is that we used to do an annual report every year that was very government, very…
CK: Exactly, So we decided to take a different approach with our annual report last year and we created what we call our Greenworks review, which is sort of a magazine style approach. So that’s where we have this interview with Charles Ellison in there. We have stories from kids. A resource guide, there’s a coloring book in the back. We have one of the Philadelphia Eagles players saying how he bikes to training. It’s featuring real Philadelphians, real stories about communities that are doing work on soil safety and how to garden in your community. But this is also a representation of how we can use some of this key information, and then turn it into something that is understandable, readable, and actionable by the average 40-hour week worker.
DL: Speaking of strategies. Let’s say, I don’t know, a year from now, and you’re hearing from on the ground that the Greenworks initiative is starting to take hold. Is there a way that you want to continue to engage young people? It appears that if we set the habits in young people early, it becomes their lifestyle versus an order.
CK: Yes. The school district has a sustainability plan that was modeled on Greenworks called Green Futures. It not only has more of that internal operational stuff, but it also has some educational guidance, so that kids are actually learning about sustainability and the environment as they are going through school, as well. And I think to your point, I think a lot of sustainable behavior, it becomes practiced because it becomes habit. So the more we teach kids as a habit when they are kids, they just do that for the rest of their lives and also they are really good at annoying their parents.
DL: (Laughs) I heard that ….
CK: We’re doing another magazine this coming January. One of the features we want to do is showcase all the student environmental clubs that are doing some really amazing things that we’ve been helping with over the course of the last year. There are a couple of schools that participated in what’s called the Aspen Challenge. One school did a big waste project, trying to reduce bottled water, reducing use amongst their peers. The other did energy efficiency projects where they swapped out all their light bulbs. They’re both great demonstrations. We want to create learning materials for schools, so we can hand these to students and say, you know here are the things you could be doing, in your own classroom, in your own building. So that’s hopefully something we’re going to produce at the same time when we release the new review this January.
DL: It’s been said that community leaders and faith leaders are the best stewards for talking about the environment to their constituencies or their congregation. But who else? Is there someone else we need to be talking to when it comes to these issues, beyond individuals and families. So is it just the faith leaders? Do we get the police involved? Do we get the Fire Department involved? Is there any wider strategy to have everybody that has a stock or stake in the community to work with Greenworks and work with the office?
CK: Yeah, that is a great question. When we were writing the magazine, we were trying to figure out who our audience was. The audience we kept in mind were like … they are people who play community leadership roles of a variety. They could be a small business owner, they could be a faith leader, they could be a block captain. They know a lot about where they live, they know a lot about places to get resources. And people go to them for information because they know a lot about a lot of different things. If we can get this information into these peoples hands then they can help us spread it and communicate it further and translate it, right? Because again, we use the best information to make it more accessible.
DL: But could they do better?
CK: They could probably do better, right? So we wrote this with those sort of community level, civic leaders in mind. Which takes a lot of different strides, you know, in terms of positions they could be in. So yes, I think we identified a few of them. Block captains, in particular, I always find fantastic as an example.
DL: What other things are coming up in the office?
CK: We are launching a couple of different projects this fall around energy efficiency. We want to help residents understand energy use for a building or living space before they rent it or buy it. Sometimes we hear a renter finds a house, they rent it out and then the weather hits and suddenly a 400 hundred dollar bill in the winter. A bill that they didn’t expect. We don’t want people to get into those situations unexpectedly. So we want to try to figure out how to get information about the efficiency of an apartment or house or building before they get into it.
We think that’s something that will help drive landlords to also make that rental unit more efficient. Or make the homeseller make some improvements. And at the same time we want to make it easier for people just living in there to make their apartments and homes more efficient, as well. So we will try to figure out how to provide a simple phone number or place to go to get that information about utility rebates, incentives that exist, finance, however we can help.
How can we help you make it as simple as possible to get from A to Z and make their home more efficient? Because we think, we know for sure, that in the city, with the poverty rate that we have, that for low income folks, their energy bill is usually their second highest bill after rent or mortgage. So that’s what we call high energy burdens. We know there’s a lot of folks that are trying to choose between paying their PECO bill or buying food or other things. We want to cut that down so people don’t have to make those choices and can spend that money on other needs.