Christine Knapp became the director of the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Sustainability as of the first of the year, but she’s had a hand in the city’s green agenda for more than a decade. In a prior position as the director of outreach at PennFuture, a local non-profit focused on making environmental responsibility a central tenet of Philadelphia’s future economy, Knapp helped to develop the Next Great City initiative, which inspired the mayor to create the Office of Sustainability in 2008, and led to the city’s first sustainability plan. Thanks to a ballot initiative in November of 2014 making the office permanent, the Office of Sustainability is no longer under the umbrella of the mayor’s office, but is its own permanent city agency.

We recently spoke with her about her goals as the new director and her thoughts on what Philadelphia has to offer to the sustainability movement. Knapp would also like to extend a warm welcome to AIA convention-goers, who she hopes will get out and experience the cutting edge green architecture of the City of Brotherly Love—as well as Philadelphia’s incredible diverse food culture, which she says goes far beyond the those famous Philly cheesesteaks.

Part 1 An International Sustainability Leader

gb&d: What do you think made you the best candidate to become Philadelphia’s new sustainability director?

Christine Knapp: Most of my career I spent in environmental policy and advocacy work. The piece that is most relevant to where I am now is that in 2007, I organized a coalition called Next Great City that put out a mayoral agenda around environmental quality of life. As part of that, we challenged the candidates for mayor to adopt our platform, but also to commit to creating an office that would implement those recommendations. That was essentially the Office of Sustainability.

gb&d: So you were the natural choice for the job!

Knapp: It feels full circle to have advocated for the creation of this office and then to come in and take over eight years later. It feels like I was working towards this even though that wasn’t actually my intention [laughs]. Beyond that advocacy experience, I’ve also been the deputy chief of staff at the water department here for the last three and half years where I’ve done legislative and government affairs work and helped implement the green stormwater infrastructure plan.

gb&d: What has been top of the agenda for you so far?

Knapp: I think top of the agenda is to update Greenworks, which has been our sustainability framework since 2008. It was intended to be an eight-year plan, so it’s now time for it to be updated. We’re considering how to update it, whether it will be as simple as extending out the timelines and resetting the target goals, or if it will be a little bit deeper of a reformatting where we try to figure out what works best for different audiences that we would like to get engaged. Greenworks has traditionally been a little bit more focused on city government, so we’re trying to consider how we can reach residents and businesses and community groups, and all sorts of different partners to really be more directly engaged with it.

gb&d: Are you a native Philadelphian?

Knapp: I’m not. I grew up on Long Island, but I came to college here and have been here ever since. So it’s home now.

gb&d: What do you think Philadelphia’s strong points are in the sustainability realm?

Knapp: We like to say that Philadelphia has strong bones, a really good structure for sustainability work. We have an incredible parks system, we have these really walkable neighborhoods, we have a good transportation system, we have energy efficient building stock—there are row homes everywhere. We have all these inherent pieces of the city that help Philadelphia to start out on a higher rung of the ladder in terms of sustainability. I think we also have the added benefit of having a lot of academic research institutions here that are a great resource in helping us figure out where we want to go and how to move the needle forward.

gb&d: How would you rate the city’s sustainability efforts or the last eight years since the framework was adopted?

Knapp: I think we are seen as leaders. I’m now part of the Urban Sustainability Director’s Network, which is made up of all of the sustainability directors from around the country. Just seeing the work in that group and where a lot of the other cities are, I feel that we’re definitely seen as being an early adopter and a leader that folks are now looking to in order to figure out how to do this work in their cities. Also, just anecdotally, I had a great experience conveyed to me, which was a friend of mine was in Paris for the climate talks, and when she would tell folks that she was with Philadelphia, people knew that Philadelphia was leading in the sustainability world and on the climate front, and they were happy to see that the new mayor was recommitting to that work. So it was really impressive to know that it’s not just on a national scale, but that internationally folks think that we are doing well. 

PART 2 Philly’s World-Class Green Infrastructure

gb&d: You just left a position with the water department where you are involved with Philadelphia’s renowned green infrastructure plan—for those who don’t already know, what is that about?

Knapp: Philadelphia was the first city in the country to get approval from the EPA to use green infrastructure as the primary means of managing combined sewer overflows. The plan, which is called Green City, Clean Waters, is to manage about 10,000 acres of land with green stormwater management practices. It’s about a $2 billion investment over the next 25 years. It’s definitely the largest green infrastructure project in the country at this time.

gb&d: What has been the progress so far?

Knapp: The EPA set up the agreement so there would be five-year milestones, and the plan is actually hitting its five-year mark this summer. The milestone was to have 750 acres of the project implemented, and I believe that we will well surpass that number.

gb&d: Is any of the green infrastructure visible for visitors to take a look at?

Knapp: Yes, there are bio-swales, tree trenches, rain gardens, and green roofs, as well as things like porous pavement and stormwater retention basins that are invisible to the eye but are working hard when it rains. We generally try to encourage the surface expression of green infrastructure, so we can maximize the triple bottom line benefits. So there is an emphasis on trees and rain gardens and those types of things that have aboveground benefits, versus the infiltration systems that are below ground.

gb&d: Will this plan eliminate the need for the city’s conventional stormwater system?

Knapp: It avoids the need to upgrade the sewer capacity. If we weren’t doing this, we would have to build a tank and tunnel system that would cost about $10 billion, which would only serve the single purpose of managing water during heavy rainstorms. So that was one of the reasons for thinking outside the box and not doing the traditional approach—it is really expensive for only one purpose, where green infrastructure is more cost-effective and adds additional co-benefits.

PART 3 Hope for the Future in the City of Brotherly Love

gb&d: Where is the greatest need for improvement in Philadelphia’s sustainability trajectory?

Knapp: We haven’t had a strong engagement program in this office because we have such a small staff. Early on we had to prioritize what we could get done, and that was really working inside city government. We do all this great work, but even the best work doesn’t mean as much if people don’t know about it. We definitely want to make sure that’s a bigger priority and that more people are aware of what sustainability means in their own lives, whether it’s at home, or in their community, or in their school, or in their business. That’s something that I think is an opportunity for us to expand and do a little bit more with.

Also, we have a high poverty rate in Philadelphia, and that’s been one of the challenges as well.  We’re competing in a space where people are really struggling just to put food on the table and keep their kids safe and get a good education. Sustainability has often been considered a higher tier issue on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But I think it actually needs to be integrated much more closely with those things that people care about in their daily life. So I think we have to challenge ourselves to partner up a little bit better and create some new non-traditional allies.

gb&d: Are low energy prices making it a challenge to motivate people to adopt energy efficiency practices?

Knapp: That is a challenge right now, but fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you’re looking at it, I don’t think that low energy prices are here to stay. Folks who are familiar with the energy world pretty much know that this is a blip, and we’re not exactly sure how long it will be around, but it’s unlikely that it will be this low long-term. People who are making long-term decisions that might impact their energy consumption are smart to consider that energy prices will certainly go up. But for the current moment, it is difficult to get someone to want to invest in energy efficiency retrofits if they have to put up a lot of money up front and have to wait longer to get the full return on that investment, as opposed to if prices are high and they can see in just two years that they would be saving money.

gb&d: Does the city offer incentives for energy efficiency investments?

Knapp: We ran a program called EnergyWorks for a number of years for both residential and for commercial buildings. The residential program has ended, though there is still a small amount of funds for commercial properties that is done through a revolving loan program. So as the money that was loaned out comes back in, it can be loaned out again. But we are considering new strategies to help incentivize folks. At this point, commercial banks really do understand that energy efficiency is a good investment, so there is actually less of a need for the government to step in and provide those products because they are readily available in the private lending sector.

gb&d: What would you like people coming to the AIA conference to know about Philadelphia?

Knapp: I think one of the things a lot of people don’t know if they haven’t been here in a long time is how amazing our food scene is. I think everyone just goes and gets a cheesesteak and thinks that is what Philadelphia has to offer. But in the last decade or so, we really exploded in having so many different types of food. I think it’s partly because of the growth of our immigrant population that there are so many types of cuisine from around the world here. But we also have an unusual liquor control board that enables a lot of our restaurants to be BYOB, so it can be a little cheaper for, say, a young chef to start up their own restaurant, because they don’t have to buy a liquor license, which can be really expensive. So there’s been a lot of ingenuity and younger chefs opening up small, really creative 30-seat restaurants where they can do what they want to do. So I encourage people to get out of the convention center area and try some of the local restaurants that are doing really interesting food. I think they will be pleasantly surprised.

gb&d: Philadelphia is uniquely known as the City of Brotherly Love, to which the tagline “and sisterly affection” has been oft-forgotten. Has there been any talk of creating an equally catchy slogan for the office of sustainability?

Knapp: Not yet… But the former mayor’s tagline for our work was for Philadelphia to be the number one green city in America. And I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t continue to keep that as our goal.


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Connect with Christine Knapp: LinkedIn

Read our On the Spot with Christine here.