“The City has begun its Climate Adaptation planning process in 2020 and this work will establish further deadlines. Certain adaptation measures are already underway and will continue such as OOS’s heat resilience work. The City is currently exploring adaptation pathways and determining the costs of planning and actions related to these pathways.”
PHILADELPHIA CLIMATE ACTION PLAYBOOK, January 2021, page 38.
As part of our effort to raise awareness of the need to improve our home resilience and to educate homeowners in the U.S on solutions to climate risks, we gather information on resilient actions, strategies, and challenges from key cities in the U.S.
In this blog, we focus on the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and its climate resilience. Philadelphia is the largest city in Pennsylvania. It is located on the fall line between the flat Atlantic coastal plain and the Piedmont plateau region and has a “mixed humid” climate: the summers are hot and humid, while winters get cold.
Cheyenne Flores, a Community resilience specialist in the city of Philadelphia helped to lay out the aspirations, challenges, and efforts that the city undertakes to adapt to a changing climate.
In recent years, residents of Philadelphia are experiencing worse storms, heavier precipitation, and higher temperatures than the historical average.
In September 2021 Philadelphia was impacted by Hurricane Ida and two weeks after the storm subsided, the City was still managing its damage and historic flooding impacts.
According to a report based on the 5th assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) from 2014, Philadelphia is expected to face a warmer and wetter future across all scenarios for the near-term and mid-century time periods compared to historical observations. Average annual temperatures and annual precipitation in Philadelphia are projected to increase for all time periods.
The city acknowledges the projections of future climate vs. Philadelphia climate today, and is preparing for a hotter and wetter future.
The City’s Climate Resilient Actions
The Office of Sustainability works in collaboration with other City agencies, community members, universities, institutions, and organizations to promote climate resilience through different strategies.
The City recognizes that sustainability comprises both mitigation and adaptation of climate change. Therefore, the City’s efforts towards greening are a pathway towards resilience as well. For example, increasing the tree canopy in Philly contributes to climate mitigation by absorbing carbon emissions and reducing the environmental impact. It has also been shown to decrease temperatures by providing shade and evapotranspiration, and decrease flooding by allowing floodwater to easily infiltrate the ground, contributing to climate adaptation.
The city is facing ongoing challenges of insufficient funds and cross-sectoral collaboration, which are vital for implementing climate resilience solutions and their success. Yet, Philadelphia is working on several sustainable and climate-resilient projects:
- In June of 2020, the Governor of Pennsylvania signed an Executive Order that directed Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to begin a rulemaking process that will allow participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). This initiative is a cap-and-trade program that aims to reduce carbon emissions from the electricity sector.
- To reduce pollution from stormwater and sewer overflows, the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) developed a Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI) that promotes natural permeable infrastructure throughout the city. The program is part of the “Green City, Clean Water” goals and is planned, designed, constructed, and maintained in different ways across the city, mainly by Public, Public-Private Partnerships, Incentives (see below), and Stormwater Regulations (see below).
- The Office of Sustainability has been implementing a Beat the Heat Hunting Park neighborhood heat resilience plan. This inspiring initiative collaborates with community members in a Philadelphia neighborhood that experiences hotter than average temperatures. The community is working together to develop heat resilience solutions bottom up.
The success and potential of this project urged the OOS to develop similar projects for other neighborhoods in the city. Residents are encouraged to use the Beat the Heat Toolkit to develop heat resilience plans for their communities.
Promoted Home Resilience Strategies
Philadelphia Parks & Recreation and Fairmount Park Conservancy run the TreePhilly program. This initiative promotes residents to plant and care for trees. Each fall communities in different parts of the city host “community yard tree giveaways”, in which everyone with a yard on their property can get a free tree. Residents who don’t have a yard can request a street tree for the front of their property. The program also provides information on tree maintenance, and by request, provides a list of certified Arborists approved by Philadelphia Parks & Rec.
As of Spring of 2022, this initiative is responsible for providing more than 21,500 trees.
The Office of Sustainability developed a Greenworks guide to help individual residents practice sustainability, safety, comfort, and climate resilience in their homes. The guide provides recommendations regarding water usage, improving air quality, increasing energy efficiency, and climate preparedness. It includes specific recommendations for climate resilient homes such as:
- Considering rooftop solar: installing solar panels to allow direct access to clean energy.
- Purchasing Energy Star labeled appliances.
- Performing energy audits to identify potential energy improvements for increased energy efficiency.
- Planting trees to increase shaded areas.
Beat the Heat
Through the mentioned Beat the Heat Hunting Park project, the city promotes additional heat resilience solutions such as:
- Cool roofs: roofs designed to stay cool in high temperatures by reflecting the sunlight rather than absorbing heat. Cool roofs can be made by applying a highly reflective type of paint, placing a sheet covering, or installing highly reflective tiles or shingles. Nearly any type of building with low or no slope can benefit from the climate resilient architecture of a cool roof.
Philadelphia’s local regulation requires that new and renovated roofs will be designed as cool roofs. Beat the Heat program promotes cool roofs even for properties that didn’t necessarily need a roof replacement.
- Weatherization is a home improvement that aims to increase energy efficiency and protect from weather elements such as heat, wind, and moisture. Weatherization may include improved air sealing, insulation, moisture controls, and ventilation.
The city recommends considering purchasing flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Damage from merely a few inches of flood can cost more than $10,000 for a 1,000-square foot home, a cost that is not covered under a homeowner’s policy.
The city promotes installing backwater valves with the Basement Backup Protection Program. Backwater valves can prevent wastewater from backing up through the pipes during extreme precipitation and flooding.
Through a Rain Check Program, the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) urges residents to help manage stormwater runoff. The PWD specifies strategies that hold an important role in capturing stormwater. Uncaptured stormwater could otherwise add to sewer overflows and damage Philadelphia’s rivers:
- Rain gardens are shallow, planted depressions that absorb water from the roof, through a downspout. The water is diverted into the rain garden, allowing the water to drain directly into the soil. This strategy can prevent hundreds of gallons per year from entering the City’s sewer system.
- Permeable pavers: Pavers, stones, or bricks that allow water to soak into the ground below. As opposed to impervious surfaces like concrete or asphalt that increase stormwater runoff.
- Metal downspout planters: planters designed to absorb and filter stormwater before it enters the sewer system. The downspout planters are filled with a base layer of gravel, a stormwater-friendly soil mix, and native perennial vegetation. All these attributes allow for better water drainage.
- Rain barrels: a storage container that is connected to a downspout and captures stormwater runoff from the roof and holds it for later usage. It can later be used to water non-edible plants or for outdoor cleaning.
- The Philadelphia Energy Authority (PEA) manages the Solarize Philly, the first citywide solarize program. The program allows a group of property owners to install solar together at a reduced price and makes the process as easy as possible. PEA carefully selected high-quality installers and equipment and negotiated discounted prices and consumer protections to help Philadelphia grow its solar market.
- Philadelphia provides a solar rebate of a one-time payment of $0.20 per watt for residential projects once the solar project has been installed and has received Permission to Operate.
Unfortunately, due to COVID, funding for this program is on hold. Residents can still submit an application for the waitlist. If funding is restored, applications will be processed in the order they were received.
- As mentioned, residents can request a free street or yard tree through the TreePhilly program, to provide shade and cooling, help absorb stormwater, and improve the air quality.
- The Basement Backup Protection Program provides free plumbing upgrades to homeowners who experience water backing up through basement fixtures during wet weather. Licensed contractors perform installations, with a one-year warranty.
- The Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) provides several incentives to promote stormwater management:
- Through the Rain Check program, the PWD helps residents manage stormwater at home, by subsidizing the cost of the mentioned stormwater management tools. The program provides free rain barrels and a significant discount on other stormwater management tools. Residents can use a tool that will help determine the right stormwater solution that fits their property and attend a workshop that educates them on the specific solution and its maintenance. The program will provide the contractor and will take care of the installation.
- Stormwater Credits: incentives offered to property owners, project managers, and developers to include stormwater management strategies, such as permeable surfaces and rain gardens in the design and construction. Winning credits help to keep costs down by reducing the property owner’s monthly stormwater bill.
- Development Incentives: PWD Funding and Zoning Code Bonuses are available for development projects that include stormwater management beyond the requirements of PWDs Stormwater Regulations. Examples of strategies that may apply for the incentives are Green Roofs and Green building standard certification.
- Green Building United manages The Hub, a directory of companies that provide energy efficiency and other sustainability services. Residents can find a service provider by name, location, or project type. Note that any service provider can participate in the list. Yet, staff accreditations can help select the right service provider. As per the disclaimer of the hub, participation in the list of service providers does not constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation, or preference by the City Energy Project, Green Building United, or their partners.
- The Basement Backup Protection Program provides licensed contractors to install the backup valve.
- The city holds a list of licensed contractors that can be filtered by contractor type, name of the company, or license number.
- The Tree Philly program provides a list of certified Arborists approved by Philadelphia Parks & Rec.
In 2019, Philadelphia adopted the "2018 International Building Code" as published by the International Code Council (ICC), with state and local amendments for commercial buildings. The city also adopted the 2015 International residential building code. Both codes include resilience as well as energy efficiency upgrades.
In May 2010, Mayor Nutter, then-Mayor of Pennsylvania, signed legislation requiring new construction in the city to use highly reflective roofing materials that meet or exceed Energy Star cool roof standards. The Cool Roof Law that was passed by the City Council was the first step toward Philadelphia's anticipated adoption of green building standards. The regulation requires new and renovated roofs to be designed as cool roofs.
The Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) developed local Stormwater Regulations in accordance with Philadelphia Code §14-704(3), which consist of four major Post-Construction Stormwater Management Requirements: Water Quality, Channel Protection, Flood Control, and Public Health and Safety Release Rate.
The City continues to work on adopting the most up-to-date codes under the State’s regulations and working on developing policies for building developers to better prepare buildings for floodplains and extreme heat.
Here are ways for homeowners to be educated on the city’s climate risks, strategies, and incentives:
- The Office of Sustainability works in collaboration with local institutions, the school district, and community-based organizations to educate Philadelphians on climate resilience. For example, through the Beat the Heat program, OOS has implemented a gameplay activity with community groups on community-led heat resilience. More information unfolds as this game is further developed to encompass other climate risks and a full curriculum.
- The OOS is featured several times a month in community meetings, webinars, and other presentations that are accessible. All events are listed on the calendar.
- Community members are invited to sign up for the OOS contact list to receive updates through emails and a monthly newsletter.
- The Office of Emergency Management hosts emergency numbers, evacuation centers, and post-event recovery. Residents can access this information via the ReadyPhiladelphia system that can deliver alerts via text or email.
As mentioned in the introduction of this blog, Philadelphia set new resilience goals in 2020, some of them are in motion and some are forthcoming, for the list of initiatives see PHILADELPHIA CLIMATE ACTION PLAYBOOK.
Philadelphia aligns with our definition of “sustainability” as being both green and resilient. The city’s actions aim to both mitigate and adapt to climate change.
Through action, Philly proves that solutions sometimes emerge from communities when they are engaged in climate-resilient projects in a fun and motivational form. The city aggregates its climate mitigation and adaptation actions in a fun and engaging report named: “Climate Action Playbook”.
Of the climate risks that Philly is exposed to, the focus is clearly on the excessive heat and flooding. Other than initiating important projects such as managing stormwater runoff, there is an ongoing effort to educate the residents on how to protect themselves, the community, and the city. This is done by initiating projects and providing resources and incentives. Specifically, there is an extensive effort to manage stormwater runoff to protect Philly’s water. The water department engages residents as well as professionals to help tackle this risk.
Finally, what can residents do to improve the resilience of their homes, communities, and their city?
- Become knowledgeable of the risks that a changing climate exposes in their city and its challenges.
- Plan and prepare to take action during a climate-related event. Know where to seek shelter in case evacuation is needed. Know what steps to take in the event of a flood or a sustained power outage.
- Leverage existing incentives that the city provides to make their home truly sustainable - resilient to local risks and eco-friendly.
- Find licensed and accredited professionals that can build/fix to code and get the best return on investment.