Penn State students help rebuild stormwater systems in Philadelphia

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Wilson Lee, a junior in the landscape architecture program, wiped the sweat and dirt from his brow under a hot October sun. Along a busy street in the heart of central Philadelphia, Lee joined a group of other Penn State students, staff and community volunteers to revamp two green infrastructure sites in the city he calls home. “I’ve been around central Philly a lot and have seen places similar to this throughout the city,” Wilson said. “It’s nice to come in and rehabilitate my community with projects and rain gardens like this. Everyone who has walked by has been appreciative of what we’re doing.”

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Lee, his peers and nearly 40 other volunteers participated in the Water Blues, Green Solutions Stormwater Management Project on Saturday, Oct. 5. The initiative was coordinated by Penn State Cooperative Extension, Penn State College of Arts and Architecture and Penn State Public Media.

Organizers from Penn State met with the Philadelphia Water Department in June to discuss possible partnerships, touring the sites that would be eventually revamped in this project.

“I was approached with the idea of doing a year-long research project with the sites on Lancaster Avenue, and I loved it,” said Tommy McCann, urban agriculture coordinator and horticulture educator with Penn State Extension. “I was meeting with WPSU to pitch another idea, actually, and decided instead to run with the Lancaster Avenue project. It took a lot of doing, but has come out wonderful.”

McCann led the students and volunteers in rebuilding two preexisting green infrastructure sites: a rain garden and a stormwater bump-out. These features are intended to capture and absorb stormwater, decreasing polluted runoff while also beautifying the cityscape. Both were drastically overgrown.

“The two sites we worked on weren’t functioning properly. So we fixed them, prettied them up, mulched, planted – the whole shebang. I had a great time and loved seeing students get involved, especially in Philadelphia,” McCann said.

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President of the Landscape Architecture Student Society and aspiring urban designer, Lee was a natural fit for the project. For Jamie Milletary, a senior landscape contracting major, the project provided an opportunity to explore new options in her field.

“I feel inspired. Putting all my classes together and realizing everything I’ve learned is applicable to real life, it feels good,” Milletary said. “Seeing everything come together has been such an experience of self-realization for me. I’ve met wonderful people today and this has me excited for what I want to do after college.”

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Saturday’s community project, funded by Subaru of America, was part of an outreach effort for Penn State Public Media’s documentary Water Blues, Green Solutions, which aims to encourage public education and awareness of green infrastructure. Philadelphia is one of four cities featured in the film as it is using environmentally friendly techniques to tackle the most pressing water challenges in the United States.

To watch a trailer for the documentary, which is scheduled to premiere in 2014, visit http://www.waterblues.org.

Text and Images by Chelsey Scott

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