The Big Picture

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As Upstream Suburban Philadelphia (USP) coordinator for the Delaware River Watershed Initiative (DRWI), one of PEC’s responsibilities is to organize watershed tours. These outings are a chance for USP partners to showcase their stormwater management work to William Penn Foundation staff, learn from one another, and get a “big picture” view of the initiative and its cumulative impact — a sense of how each individual project connects with the larger whole.

Our 2019 tour took place on October 29, and included representatives from the William Penn Foundation, USP watershed groups, DRWI watershed-wide service providers, municipalities, elected officials, and universities. A core group of about thirty gathered at Temple University’s Ambler campus for coffee and a brief presentation before boarding the tour bus on a (fittingly) rainy Tuesday morning.

First stop: Delmont Avenue in Lower Merion Township, a “Green Street” project spearheaded by the Township and the Lower Merion Conservancy with support from their Darby-Cobbs Watershed Partners including the Eastern Delaware County Stormwater Collaborative, the Darby Creek Valley Association, and the Pennsylvania Resources Council. The block is one of several that have served as proving grounds for the Darby-Cobbs partners’ Stream Smart program, which connects homeowners with experts who can recommend and help fund green stormwater infrastructure improvements on residential properties.

Thanks to Stream Smart, rain gardens and downspout planters are popping up all over the neighborhood. As residents and township officials testified, the visibility of these features — and their undeniable curb appeal – are attracting the attention of neighbors, many of whom then take an interest in improving their own properties. Ongoing storm drain monitoring being conducted by Temple will assess the installations’ effectiveness in reducing stormwater runoff as more residential projects are installed across the neighborhood.

Delmont Avenue offered a striking illustration of how even relatively modest ground-level interventions can generate awareness and self-perpetuating energy within communities, helping to leverage more ambitious investments in the future. This sort of synergy was evident throughout the tour, which continued with a lunchtime visit to Abington’s Alverthorpe Park. There, the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford (TTF) Watershed Partnership is working with Abington Township on bioswales, rain gardens, and linear bioretention features to contain and safely conduct stormwater overflows into Jenkintown Creek. The resulting improvement in water quality, in turn, is reinforced by similar efforts across the Jenkintown Creek area.

One such project, a short distance downstream in Ethel Jordan Park, was the third stop on our watershed tour. Anchoring a small residential community, the park not only boasts attractive rain garden and bioswale features, but has also opened inroads for the Stream Smart program as it expands across the area. Thanks to the visibility of TTF’s projects and corresponding community outreach, residential GSI is taking off in the Jenkintown Creek watershed too.

Likewise, community engagement is critical to the Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association’s (WVWA) success in Roychester Park and the Abington neighborhood that shares its name, where we made our final stop to learn about the suite of infiltration trench, stormwater berms, rain gardens, and stream side planting projects being initiated at the park this fall. As with Ethel Jordan Park, the Roychester Park neighborhood is also a focus of the Stream Smart House Call campaign; tour participants saw construction underway on rain gardens and a bioswale on two adjacent residential properties.

This kind of progress doesn’t happen all by itself…

This kind of progress doesn’t happen all by itself – it was the result of a significant investment in shoe leather by WVWA. As we toured the neighborhood WVWA’s outreach team explained how, by engaging residents door-to-door, holding public meetings, and convening a focus group, they came to better understand the neighborhood’s needs and wishes with respect to stormwater management. This hard-earned contextual awareness, cultivated through countless individual contacts, enabled WVWA and the township to develop a plan that reflects the neighborhood’s character and addresses its priorities.

Among Roychester Park residents, WVWA’s approach has fostered a broader and deeper understanding of the problem — but also, perhaps more importantly, a sense of ownership over the solutions. Unsurprisingly, this dynamic finds expression, as it did in each of our tour stops, in still more Stream Smart-supported residential GSI projects. Flood-impacted residents in particular understand that, just as proximity to the park lends both aesthetic and market value to their homes, stormwater overflowing the banks of Sandy Run affects public and private property alike.

But the tour also underscored another, more immediate role that municipal parks have to play in stormwater management: the opportunity to deploy infrastructure across broad swaths of publicly owned streamside property in a way that enhances their appearance and value as recreational assets. By focusing on parks, we make municipalities our partners and generate goodwill among their constituents, unlocking more funding opportunities in the process.