How to Save the World, Part 2

Against a backdrop of wildfires, floods and drought, there is cause for optimism. Drexel Dragons from all walks of life are responding to perils the planet faces with creativity, collaboration and even a degree of confidence. From their respective disciplines, they’re converting industrial food waste into plastic, building electric vehicle batteries with domestic materials and helping vulnerable citizens adapt to extreme weather, to name a few. Each project is exciting in its potential and gives us hope for the future, because the No. 1 way to save the world is simply to start somewhere.

Here is an excerpt from the Summer 2022 edition of Drexel Magazine that features Academy Dolan Fellow Alexis Schulman, PhD, with one of 13 ideas for coping with a changing planet.

Empower the Change Agents

Since the early 2000s, numerous U.S. cities have published plans aimed at making their municipalities more sustainable and climate resilient. But city plans aren’t usually the key to advancing sustainability, according to Alexis Schulman, a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences who has been studying the specific factors that put local governments on a path to success.

While citywide plans can affect improvements at the margins, systemic change actually happens through decisions that are much less visible, often made in policy silos and pushed forward by influential individuals and organizations during periods of upheaval, she says.

“What you need are these windows of opportunity precipitated by crises, where change agents can say, ‘Hey there’s a problem here. We all see that. I have the solution,’” she says.

Schulman observed such a scenario at the Philadelphia Water Department in the late ’90s. At the time, the utility was under pressure by the state environmental agency to develop a plan to manage its sewage overflows in compliance with the federal Clean Water Act. Two-thirds of Philadelphia relies on a combined sewer system that collects stormwater and sewage in a single pipe. During rainstorms, this wastewater exceeds the capacity of the sewer system or the treatment plant, and billions of gallons of diluted raw sewage are dumped into local streams and rivers every year.

Typically a city deals with this problem by constructing an underground water storage tunnel — which would have cost Philadelphia an estimated $5 billion to $6 billion.

But a middle manager named Howard Neukrug saw a better way, Schulman says.

“He told his team to start exploring other options from the world of stormwater control — controlling stormwater as it falls through infiltration practices and keeping it out of the sewer system entirely,” she says.

Neukrug had the blessings of the Water Commissioner and the advantage of working in a city where the water utility was a single integrated authority overseeing all sewage, drinking water and stormwater runoff — a rarity among big cities.

Nonetheless, he faced significant internal opposition from water engineers who were used to doing things the “old way”— with tunnels and pipes. He was able to leverage support for his plan from important external actors, including historically adversarial environmental nonprofits and EPA policymakers, who were increasingly supportive of city efforts to use greenscaping practices to control sewage overflows.

After nearly two decades of planning and persuasion, in 2011 Philadelphia’s 25-year plan called Green City Clean Waters was approved — the same year that Neukrug, now recognized as a national authority in the water industry, was named Philadelphia’s Water Commissioner. One decade later, the Philadelphia Water Department is meeting its benchmarks and has installed over 800 projects citywide.

Challenges remain, Schulman says, but the plan has put Philadelphia at the vanguard of investments in green infrastructure.

“It didn’t happen because everyone in the water department was like, ‘We want to be sustainable, this is the right thing to do,’ or because of Philadelphia’s sustainability plan,” says Schulman. “It happened because of a quirk of history that integrated the utility; it happened because of good timing, and it happened especially because of this internal champion who seized this opportunity to make change.” 

By Mike Unger

To read all 13  ideas for how to save the world, here is the full article.

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