stimulated by the pandemic, a renewed call to protect the city’s waterways | Now

The following essay was originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer in conjunction with the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University as part of Rebuilding Philly, a series of commentary articles written by faculty and professionals. of Drexel related to the COVID-19 pandemic and to racial and economic equity. gaps in Philadelphia. It was written by Roland Wall, director of the Patrick Center for Environmental Research at the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University.

The character and culture of Philadelphia has always been linked to water. The rivers that surround the city are our gateway to the world, a source of drinking water and, paradoxically, a place for waste disposal.

By the end of the 18th century, Philadelphia was plagued by repeated outbreaks of yellow fever, while its drinking water was hopelessly contaminated with things like chalk and saltpetre. It will eventually be learned that yellow fever is not caused by dirty water, but in the early 1800s, the feeling of a sick town with unsafe water prompted the local government to develop the first system. public water supply in the country.

All cities are said to be “reconfigured by nature,” and the Fairmount Waterworks pumps, designed in 1812, marked the beginning of a Herculean process that “reconfigured” Philadelphia’s natural waterways. With countless miles of pipes, tunnels and storm sewers, the city’s watersheds have been relentlessly converted for centuries to meet human needs.

Over time, with the introduction of filtration, chlorination, and new pipelines, Philadelphia became what British geographer Matthew Gandy called a “bacteriological city”.

The result was clean, healthy water delivered daily to one of America’s greatest cities, arguably one of the engineering triumphs of the turn of the 20th century. However, the Bacteriological City was a two-edged sword. Drinking water masked the need to protect the health of the environment.

The disgusting water conditions in the Schuylkill and Delaware were legendary in the mid-20th century. It wasn’t until the growing environmental awareness of the 1970s and the passage of the Clean Water Act that the conditions of Philadelphia’s streams and rivers began to be seen as critical to the overall health of the city.

We are now at another inflection point in how the city relates to its urban waters – and this pivotal moment, as with yellow fever in centuries past, is also defined by a public health crisis. The hydrological system is subject to constraints that are both more subtle and more lasting than discharges of sewage and industrial wastes. The lesson of history is that we cannot ignore any part of this system.

Some of the new stressors are specific to Philly. The products of urban runoff and the legacy of combined sewer outlets leave many city waterways weathered. Abandoned industrial sites continue to endanger groundwater, and some communities are plagued by aging plumbing or recurring flooding.

Beyond our local water stresses, there are global forces that endanger the resilience of water in Philadelphia. Climate change is making our cities hotter and wetter, our storms more violent, our rivers more overflowing. Intertwined with climate crises, we have crises of equity and racial justice, as we know that environmental risks disproportionately affect black and brown communities. Where water resilience is threatened, it will inevitably be the most vulnerable – the poor and people of color – who will suffer the most.

Pioneer environmentalist Aldo Leopold urged us to “think like a mountain”, to see ourselves as part of a bigger whole. For Philadelphia, I urge that we “think of it as a watershed,” to move from a bacteriological city to an “ecological city,” taking into account the complex human and natural links that connect the larger water system. . As the 21st century moves forward, we would do well to remember that it is the entire system that brings our city to life, and that it can never be taken for granted.

About Edward Fries

Check Also

Johnson families clean up after homes flood

JOHNSON, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) – Some homes in Johnson are no longer habitable after floodwaters seeped …