Let’s Talk About Equity in Green Infrastructure, by a Friend of the TTF Watershed

Guest Blog by John Raisch

TTF recently recognized John for his work with an annual Friend of the TTF Watershed Milestones award. You can read more about John here and meet him via video here. After the ceremony, John posted his thoughts about the issue of equity in our watershed on LinkedIn. We are pleased to share this blog with you.

On Thursday evening, October 14, I received an award from the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership (TTF) for the work I’ve done within our watershed – a 2021 Friend of the TTF Watershed Award.

To understand the connection between me and TTF, I want to highlight the WHY behind this acknowledgment.

When I met the TTF team in 2014 at the Arts in the Park festival in Elkins Park, I was impressed with their mission and vision, but reluctant to engage. As a cyclist, I had the impression that environmentalists and dirt cyclists were mostly at odds and didn’t get along. What I quickly realized was in fact the opposite was true.

What I learned from the TTF is that when we can get people down into the woods, down by the creek, to experience nature, people who previously never experienced the watershed will learn to appreciate our water and greenways, and become advocates.

My common ground with the TTF is trails & bikes.

Trails connect people to their waterways. Trails connect neighborhoods, and therefore connect people. Trails introduce people to their local parks and help them understand the importance of their watershed. Trails are tools to introduce young people, and adults, to nature and to give them a trailhead to start their love of nature and blaze their path forward.

And bikes? Well, bikes are just magical, and the TTF agrees!

More recently in my relationship with the TTF, I have come to better understand and appreciate another cause fundamental to their mission – their absolute and unwavering commitment to Tacony Creek Park in Philadelphia’s 7th & 9th districts.

I’ve lived in this specific Philadelphia region of N/NE Philadelphia/Cheltenham/Abington my whole life. I know the nooks-and-crannies of lots of neighborhoods.

Let’s face it — folks that live in the upper sections of our watershed don’t think about going south of Cheltenham Avenue to experience nature, green space, and trails. Heck, I’ll make this even more clear — folks in the headwaters of our watershed AVOID going to Lawncrest, Olney/Oak Lane, Feltonville and Frankford, and other downstream neighborhoods all together.

These are all neighborhoods that surround Tacony Creek Park. These are all neighborhoods I spent time in as a kid — on my bike,  on the soccer field, or at my father’s various textile business locations.

For many of the residents in those neighborhoods, Tacony Creek Park is the only source of nature and green space they have access to, and in some cases, the only source of nature and green space that they have EVER experienced.

On the way down to the TTF office in Frankford for the award ceremony, my wife Glynis and I started by driving down the Tookany Creek Parkway in Cheltenham. There were plenty of trees and green space. The Tookany Creek was visible, flowing, and looked pleasant.

As we crossed into the city, where the Tookany Creek turns into Tacony Creek in the Crescentville neighborhood, we saw most of the same scenes we saw in Cheltenham with the exception of maybe more trash and short-dumping.

In and through Olney and Lawncrest, the neighborhood turned to more compact residences primarily in row homes. Most trees on the streets, unfortunately, disappeared. Park trailheads popped up along the way, many of them riddled with graffiti and trash.

Passing through Juniata Park, the creek becomes Frankford Creek and is the largest Combined Sewage Outfall in the city. At Castor Avenue, the creek becomes channelized and then runs in a pipe and daylights into the Delaware River.

At one point along the route we could smell sewage, something not uncommon when traversing Tacony Creek Park, as the waterway is a combined storm-water and sewage overflow an average of once each week annually, and getting worse due to climate change.

For those of you who live in and around Cheltenham, Abington, and Jenkintown, I want you to imagine that route. (brief pause — reflect on your feelings — go deep here please.)

Now imagine the potential for access to safe, healthy, green-space and trails, connecting Cheltenham residents to the Frankford Greenway and eventually the East Coast Greenway along the Delaware River.

Think also about the fact that it’s part of our watershed. Think about all of the rainwater that falls in our neighborhoods, taking that same route. Think about how bad stormwater flooding is here. Think about the massive amount of runoff pollution that rapidly flows downstream from Cheltenham, Abington, Jenkintown, and surrounding areas, adding to the creek’s impaired condition.

Our actions here in Cheltenham, Abington, and Jenkintown related to stormwater management have massive tangible impacts on not just our community, but literally millions of other people that live below us in our watershed.

TTF’s commitment to Tacony Creek Park in Philadelphia has made me acknowledge one of many massive inequities that exist in our society today — the inequity that exists within our green and open space infrastructure.

What’s perplexing to me is, as a society, we are willing to RE-re-invest in reimagining the Ben Franklin Parkway, FDR Park and other “ritzy” urban green areas while almost completely ignoring other urban green spaces like Tacony Creek Park.

All the time, I hear about new trails in the burbs, yet residents who live along Tacony Creek Park can’t even access the park they live next to because of poor conditions, safety, and lack of amenities that are common elsewhere.

Thank you to TTF for this award, and to my family and friends who support me.

Sources:

TTF Watershed Partnership: 2021 Milestones Watershed Heroes

United States Environmental Protection Agency: What is Green Infrastructure?

Cheltenham Township Environmental Advisory Council 

Independence Youth Cycling

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