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It’s sometimes rainy in Philadelphia

One of the tallest LEED certified buildings in the world is the Comcast Corporation headquarters in downtown Philadelphia. But the City of Brotherly Love has a commendable green story closer to the ground and spread throughout the city’s neighborhoods.

Make that stories. This beautiful city is infused with smart designers, planners, architects, builders and leaders who recognize not only the utility of things like green infrastructure and high-performance buildings, but the social responsibility of a cleaner, greener world. Needless to say, there’s no shortage of innovation in Philly.

Start with the Philadelphia Water Department’s “Green City, Clean Waters” initiative. A plan that will take 25 years to fully implement, it employs stormwater management tools such as bioswales, raingardens, permeable pavement, stormwater planters and street gutter bump-outs. Large building owners are encouraged to install vegetated roofs while homeowners are installing rain barrels or cisterns to capture water for use in dry periods.

But what I find particularly smart about the Philadelphia program is their “green vacant land” strategy. It seeks to convert some, possibly all of the city’s 40,000 vacant parcels of land to rain gardens. The water department works with community groups to identify appropriate vacant parcels where stormwater runoff can be directed, turning blight into community assets. I wrote about this based on an interview with Mayor Michael Nutter in a round-up piece in Green Building & Design magazine about the use of living architecture in several cities.

As with almost all green infrastructure, one cannot overlook the aesthetic and social value of vegetated spaces.

Philly’s strides in creating a great green city aren’t restricted to public works. A private developer, Onion Flats, is responsible for a series of innovative structures, reuses and rehabs as well as new construction that tickle the imagination and reinvent what we think of as urban housing. Their Ridge Flats development in the East Falls neighborhood is perhaps the largest-scale net-zero housing in North America; it was built in surprisingly simple ways with prefabricated building components. My article about the development also discusses how the multi-unit structure neatly connects with a bike path along the Schuylkill River.

At the University of Pennsylvania’s new Golkin Hall law school building, the LEED Gold building went mostly underground to preserve a popular lawn area on the urban campus. But as I explain in this article, they found a way to still bring in sunshine to subterranean areas of the building. Rooftop vegetation and that grassy quad do their part to capture rainfall here.

As this article on explains, old metropolises such as Philadelphia were built without much regard to stormwater runoff, pollutants, and other drainage issues we now associate with urban environments. The writer touches on a critical fiscal matter: how a new stormwater management service charge – call it a tax if you wish – was imposed on Philadelphia property owners based on surface area impermeability. Owners of big parking lots take a big hit on this if they have no bioswales to absorb rain runoff; businesses can reduce their bill with stormwater mitigation, the initial costs of which the city supports with loans and grants.

I happen to be a fan of the show “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” (starring Danny DeVito et al.). But when it rains – because with climate change, it sometimes does so in torrents – it’s good to know their green infrastructure works hard on buildings tall, short and even underground.


Rag Flats, a development by the Philadelphia firm Onion Flats, is the repurposing of an actual former rag factory into residential units. The developers focus on sustainability in all projects, here incorporating vegetation as part of a resident amenity that naturally captures rainfall.

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Russ Klettke

Business Writer

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