Clean Tech & Energy

How the City of Brotherly Love Goes Green: An Interview with Philadelphia Sustainability Director Christine Knapp

After more than a decade spent working on environmental initiatives, the city of Philadelphia’s director of the office of sustainability Christine Knapp says a lot has changed—including the way that people think about their environment and the words they use to describe it.

“When I first started doing this work, people would think about the environment as places that were far away, but people weren’t really thinking about their own parks or backyards as part of the environment,” she says. “‘Sustainability’ is a new term to help people think about the impact that their environment was having on them, and that they were having on their environment.”

The types of people who participated in such initiatives have changed, too. While old-school “environmentalism” drew a mostly older, wealthier, and white crowd, “sustainability” is more inclusive of those who have been marginalized and who may be most at risk of the effects of climate change, Knapp says.

In Philadelphia, for example, some African-American and Latino neighborhoods are more than 22 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than other neighborhoods due to factors like having fewer trees and being in close proximity to industry and highways. Knapp’s office has been working with one of those neighborhoods to figure out how they experience those high temperatures and what tools and resources they might need.

Backing Philadelphia’s Green Initiatives

The city’s support for this project and other environmental initiatives—like revamping Philadelphia’s city hall to make it more energy efficient—reflects an awareness from both business and government leaders of the importance of sustainability to Philadelphia overall.

“The mayor says a lot that we know that the cities that are going to be successful in the 21st century are those that are taking sustainability seriously,” Knapp says. “They’re cities that are resilient and healthy and have access to green spaces and are walkable.”

Knapp works with city leaders to find ways that they can factor environmental initiatives into projects that are already in progress, for instance layering energy efficiency into recreation centers when they’re renovated. The third person to hold the position of sustainability director for the city, Knapp took on the role, which was established in 2008, about three years ago. She’s building upon a foundation of environmental action created by her predecessors, who made sure that Philadelphia covered all of the sustainability basics, such as a having a robust recycling program.

“Now what we are trying to do is take bigger steps and deeper dives—scaling up the things that we know are successful for a bigger impact,” Knapp says.

That includes updating Philadelphia’s sustainability plan; retrofitting the massive Philadelphia Museum of Art with more efficient heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems; and looking for a renewable energy developer to build a solar or wind farm for the city.

Staying Local and Making a Difference

The ability to work on such significant projects is one of the things that Knapp loves about her job. It’s also part of why she often advises young people in the field not to overlook opportunities working for a municipality.

“People forget that there is value in working for your local government,” she says. “You can really see the direct impact on your own community and there’s good career growth, particularly for women who might face barriers in other corporate jobs. There’s a big focus in the city on diversity and inclusion—and having a workforce that reflects the city of Philadelphia.”

Much of the work Knapp does has a positive impact beyond just sustainability. The $9 million museum retrofit, for example, aims to cut the museum’s utility bills by 20% per year by 2030 and improve the air quality and comfort inside the building.

“There’s a workforce and job creation component, too,” Knapp says. “The work that’s being done there will employ hundreds of people and provide training opportunities for a more diverse workforce.”

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