Series Intro: This series, titled Thoughts on a Movement, is intended to explore the philosophical implications and systems changes that are made possible by our society’s shift to sustainable practices. The author hopes to offer thoughts, opinions, and analysis on issues and innovations in the sustainability movement that inspire readers to both connect with and critique sustainable practices.
As Mayor Nutter’s tenure winds down, his administration released a Priorities and Accomplishments Update earlier this year listing the major accomplishments City Hall achieved based on the goals set when Nutter took office. The report cements the mayor’s legacy of leading Philadelphia into the “age of sustainability” in ways that I feel were both expected and unexpected.
Creation of Sustainability-Centered Offices and Agendas
First, let’s focus on the section, “Establish Philadelphia as the Greenest City in America.” The first and foremost policy accomplishment was the creation of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, which was made permanent in 2014.
From that strategic policy move, the administration was able to let sustainability proliferate throughout the city’s various departments. For instance, 125,000 trees were added to the city’s canopy by the Tree Philly program of Parks and Recreation, the Philly Spring Clean-Up was coordinated by the Streets Department, and the Philly Bike Share program managed by the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities.
Nutter was also an outspoken champion for sustainability on a national level through initiatives like the Mayor’s Climate Action Agenda where he created a lists of national urban sustainability targets with the mayors of Los Angeles and Houston.
The administration was also smart to create the Mayor’s Food Policy Advisory Council (of which I’m a member). This appointed body of professionals from throughout the food system was instrumental in helping guide many key policy directives and legislation, including the land bank legislation.
But as a member who was appointed in 2011, and witnessed the great work of the city agencies and appointees on the council, I feel that the administration was too slow to show full involvement. The Mayor did not sit in on a meeting and meet appointees face to face until late 2014. Although the council is full of professionals and citizen advocates who are doing fantastic work in the food system, I feel that a bit more support and participation from the Nutter Administration would have gotten us even closer to the GreenWorks goal of fresh, healthy food within a ten minute walk for all Philadelphians, which in my research was a GreenWorks target that was not met.
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The administration’s track record on waste management is also a bit of a disappointment. We can credit Mayor Nutter with bringing Philly into the age of recycling, but the recycling cans provided to Philadelphians are too small, don’t have lids and crack too easily. This bad investment in a good idea seems to follow the Administration’s emphasis on the social approaches, such as anti-littering campaigns and the spring cleanup, rather than real systems based approaches like mandating and enforcing lids on trash cans and really investing in the battle to stop short dumping in low income areas and our natural lands areas.
Beyond this section, there were additional sections of this progress report that in my opinion, are also imperative actions that will cement the Nutter Administration’s sustainability legacy.
Reduction of Crime
As I have written about in my last article on the connection between community involvement in sustainability and protests against unfair policing tactics, people are disenfranchised from being active in the sustainability of their community when they are victims of misguided policing. But I’ll venture to say that people are also disenfranchised from participating in their communities when they are victims of crime. Mayor Nutter and Commissioner Ramsey have figured out a way to drop murder rates, violent crime rates and theft rates while addressing inequity and sometimes illegality in law enforcement.
In 2014, six narcotics officers were sentenced in a huge corruption sting and Ramsey’s reaction to the Ferguson protests earned him a spot on the President’s Police Task Force for 21st Century Policing. This kind of balance makes people feel safe and accepted in their neighborhoods, and it’s an important first step in the community building necessary to create sustainable systems throughout our city.
As an urban farmer, I get excited about this legislation. But I’m also excited as a homeowner who understands the need for more development in my neighborhood.
I want green space in my neighborhood, but I also want community members who bring energy to maintain the neighborhood and an increased tax base to add to the sustainability of the city to provide the services we need.
Although I think it was a missed opportunity to limit councilmanic prerogative in the final version of the legislation, which the committee of Seventy describes as “near-absolute powers wielded by City Council members over land development projects in their district,” the city can hopefully maintain the transparency of this system that will be a necessary safeguard by spreading power out amongst the Land Bank board members.
Mayor Nutter continued the effectiveness of the smoking ban he championed as a councilman by dropping the rate of smokers 15 percent in adults and 30 percent in youth during his time are Mayor. This leads to more preventative care and less strain on our health care system, thus bolstering the sustainability of that sector.
Also, for environmental sustainability, he banned smoking in parks, thus reducing secondhand smoke and cigarette filter litter on natural lands.
The only critique I have is that this ban should be made more enforceable either by upping the amount of police that “walk the beat” through the neighborhoods and the parks, or increasing the numbers of rangers in Parks and Recreation.
Completion of AVI
This initiative of finally assessing the true value of properties and their tax contribution, will enhance our tax base and bring in in more money for the financial sustainability of our city. As was reported in Plan Philly, the thinking behind this tax was to create a “new tax mix that relies less on mobile tax bases like jobs and businesses, and relies more on revenues from the City’s assets that cannot be moved: its land and buildings.”
I agree with this concept. If we can collect more tax revenue from properties, then we can lower business taxes to spur more amenities in the neighborhoods that make these places more desirable places to live, thus stabilizing the tax base.I hope the next Mayor continues this trend by strengthening tax collection through better data systems and extending programs for low-income individuals like the Homestead exemption to safeguard against gentrification, both of which were started by the Nutter Administration.
I also hope the next Mayor judiciously winds down the many abatements for large corporate property taxes. Unlike small or mid size businesses, these corporations are here to stay and should pay something to the city. I’m no economist, but I have a hunch that Comcast isn’t going to leave those towers just because they have to pay taxes.
Promoting urban transformation through Office of New Urban Mechanics
This new Mayor’s Office is bringing the next ideas of tech that will make our city more efficient and greener. Although I value the simplicity of a sustainable life, I do believe that tech is going to be an imperative part of our future societal sustainability and I give credit to the mayor for ushering in the age of data into city government. City government has missed the proverbial boat plenty of times (post-manufacturing, population declines to name a few), and we should be glad we didn’t miss it this time.
A great example of their strides in data collection are the CityHow and NeighborHow programs that help City Hall and communities develop methods for better information formation and sharing. This office is also investing in better data systems through programs such as FastFwd, which is funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies. This program supports civically minded entrepreneurs to create tech start-ups that improve local government from citizen engagement to public safety. What’s even cooler is that this office is a national pilot that is being tested in Boston, Utah, and Philly, and its impact can guide other cities in taking a data driven approach to better systems in city government.
Ethics and Transparency
As Technical.ly Philly reported, “Michael Nutter’s 2007 mayoral campaign was successful in part because of his work in City Council on ethics reform and his strong rhetoric on transparency. With a final year left on his two-term limit, the Nutter administration has been called one of the most honest and incorruptible mayors in Philadelphia history. The open data movement was revived here at a good time, as a natural partner to Nutter’s campaign package.”
This is important because sustainability can only work by responding to the needs of the system as a whole, not just certain sectors that have the influence or money. Nutter has allowed more people into city government to contribute to and receive the benefits of what can be done as a whole. This may be his greatest legacy.
In all, I believe that the next Mayoral Administration has a lot to live up to, and not just in regards to sustainability.
Of course, I hope that there are more bike lanes, increased energy efficiency, and renewed and increased benchmarks of the Greenworks targets. But I also hope the next Mayor really uses sustainability to reduce poverty and bridge the gaps of inequality. Mayor Nutter has been receiving what I believe is undue criticism of his tenure for not reducing the poverty rate. It’s almost a blessing and curse that Mayor Nutter accomplished so much during the worst economic recession since World War II.
The next mayor is not only going to inherit a better national economy, but a much better city, which he or she should leverage to benefit more Philadelphians. I hope the next Mayor makes smart, sustainable decisions like seeing through the guise of the so-called “energy hub” and focus on clean energy. We can’t trade our air quality and actual ability to innovate into the future for possible refinery and financial industry jobs in the short term.
If the new Mayor needs any inspiration, he or she should read the final page of the report that proudly displays the Athenian Oath, which has become Mayor Nutter’s signature ethos. Sure, some may think it’s hokey, but I think it’s a genuine attempt to bring Philly back to the beacon of enlightenment and progressive and evolving thought that it has been in the past– from the nation’s founding, to the heart of the abolitionist movement. We can be that city again, and we will be that city again if we can have leadership that instills a sense of civic pride through vision, ethics and equity that has the 21st century priority of sustainability.
For our next Mayoral Administration, we don’t need a deal maker who’s going to sell off Philadelphia to the powerful interests who are going to want to do business in the city when times are good and leave when times are bad. We need a leader who will make sustainability of our environment and neighborhoods a key priority.
Image via the Priorities and Accomplishments Update-30-
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