Philadelphia has a problem—well, it has many problems, but one particular issue drives this project and steers the course of its development. Before we begin our story about a solar-powered sunflower, STEM education, civic hacking, soil sensors, and the strange people you meet at Radio Shack, we’d be remiss not to paint the background for all our efforts.
Like many older American cities, Philadelphia mostly has a combined sewer system. The unfortunate byproduct of this system is that, when it rains, the volume of combined stormwater and sewage in the pipes is too great for water treatment plants to handle. The result is an overflow into our rivers and streams, and a negative impact on water quality and aquatic life. The Philadelphia Water Department’s solution to this complex environmental problem is Green City, Clean Waters, a 25-year plan to reduce combined sewer overflows and improve our waterways by implementing green stormwater infrastructure.
Simply put, green stormwater infrastructure (GSI for short) mimics the natural process of plants and soil absorbing water. Instead of allowing stormwater runoff to enter the sewer system and cause overflows, GSI tools (such as rain gardens, planters, green roofs, porous pavement and tree trenches) capture that water and allow it to soak into the ground. It’s more cost-effective than building a giant underground storage tank. It makes the city a greener place. It’s innovative, and it is happening on a massive scale. This is a snapshot of our Big Green Map—a depiction of the GSI projects currently completed or in design; there will be hundreds (maybe thousands) of more dots on this map in the decades to come:
How will the Water Department monitor these GSI projects to make sure they’re working? How do we maintain them so the plants don’t die? How do we engage and educate Philadelphians to take part in this massive greening of the city?
It’s the 21st century. We’re going to use technology. We’re going to partner with creative and talented people who want to help, and we’re going to share our work—mistakes and all—with the world.