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Mayor Cherelle Parker has promised to make Philly 'safer, cleaner, and greener.' Here's what she's doing on the 'green' part

Sean Collins Walsh, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

PHILADELPHIA — Mayor Cherelle L. Parker, who last year ran on a platform of making Philadelphia "safest, cleanest, greenest big city in the nation," has unveiled ambitious plans in her first six months in office to improve public safety and clean the city.

But what about the green part?

The "clean and green" section of Parker's budget address to City Council in March focused almost entirely on cleaning efforts. And during budget negotiations this spring, it was City Council members who fought to include climate change-minded initiatives such as $5 million for the Philadelphia Energy Authority's Built to Last program, which provides subsidized energy-efficient home repairs.

Administration officials say the mayor supports Built to Last and other environmental programs and isn't backing away from her goal of making Philadelphia a greener city.

"The Mayor looks at greening in terms of both near-term initiatives that residents can see, touch, and feel, and long-term planning to make Philadelphia's communities safer, more prosperous, and more resilient," Parker spokesperson Joe Grace said.

Environmental advocates say they're optimistic about Parker's agenda.

"Overall, we're very excited about this initial first step but cognizant of the fact that there's more work to be done," said Adam Nagel, director of government affairs for the environmental group PennFuture and a member of Parker's "clean and green cabinet."

Here's what to know about Parker's green agenda:

What does Mayor Cherelle Parker mean by making Philly greener?

Last year's election was dominated by public safety, and Parker was rarely asked to elaborate on her green agenda. So it's long been unclear whether she was calling for a focus on literal greening — such as planting trees and improving parks — or efforts to address climate change by reducing carbon emissions.

Planting more trees would undoubtedly aid in the fight against global warming because they absorb carbon dioxide from the air. But given that more than 70% of Philly's carbon emissions come from buildings, according to the Municipal Energy Office, the city cannot fully address climate change by bolstering public green spaces alone.

Parker's driving motivation throughout her political career has been to bolster what she calls "middle neighborhoods," working-class areas that are neither wealthy nor and desperately poor and that have been shrinking in cities across the nation. And she has often talked about how suburban towns are clean and lined with trees, a dignity she wants city neighborhoods to enjoy.

But Grace said Parker is committed to fulfilling both meanings of making Philly the "greenest big city."

"Greening includes a continued commitment to climate goals while improving community quality-of-life and access to green economic opportunities for all," he said.

What is Parker's green agenda?

Parker's short-term greening initiatives are largely tied into her plans for cleaning the city. She created the Office of Clean and Green Initiatives, led by veteran city bureaucrat Carlton Williams. Williams is currently overseeing Parker's plan to "deep clean" every block in the city this summer, which includes freshening up green spaces and landscaping vacant lots.


"These efforts not only beautify our neighborhoods, but also address environmental issues like the urban heat island effect and poor air quality," Grace said. "Further, greening interventions have a proven effect on public safety."

He pointed to a Penn study on the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's LandCare program, which cleans and landscapes vacant lots, that showed it reduced gun violence by 29% and improved mental health outcomes.

As for long-term climate goals, Parker has committed to following through on former Mayor Jim Kenney's 2017 Municipal Energy Master Plan, which calls for the city government to cut its own carbon emissions in half by 2030 by making city-owned buildings more efficient and developing renewable energy sources.

And she has also embraced the goal of making Philadelphia as a whole — meaning not just the city government — carbon-neutral by 2050, Grace said.

Nagel said he's encouraged Parker is pursuing both tracks.

"With any new administration, there are always questions relative to where certain issues will fall in priority, and Philadelphia is a city that faces a lot of pressing issues," Nagel said. "I think there is a genuine interest in decarbonization and pursuing the climate goals that were started by predecessors, and I also think it does mean green space."

What green plans did Council add to the budget?

Nagel said he saw two major wins come out of the recently approved city budget, which will take effect July 1.

First, he applauded the city's investment in Built to Last, which will allow Philly to draw down on federal matching funds for the program. And he credited Councilmembers Jamie Gauthier and Katherine Gilmore Richardson with getting the administration to commit to boosting funding for the Philly Tree Plan, a 10-year effort started last year to increase and maintain a tree canopy covering 30% of the city, up from less than 20% now.

The tree plan commitment, however, is not a budget line item. Instead, the administration agreed "to use funding that is already in the budget, but [did] not specify particular organization," according to a Council budget memo.

Nagel said he and others will work to ensure administration follows through that promise to boost funding for the program, which has so far been funded largely by the federal government.

The program has received a $12 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Grace said the city and partners are now applying for a $20 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that could support the planting of 4,750 over three years, "focusing primarily on communities in North and Southwest Philadelphia that experience high heat rates and low tree canopy."

Matt Rader, the horticultural society's president, said he was "delighted" by the mayor's focus on "ensuring that [greening] means tangible experience at the block level."

"Caring for the physical space of the city — the streets, the sidewalks, the public spaces — and keeping them clean and making them green is truly transformational," he said.

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