Philadelphia’s new director of the Office of Sustainability has an important goal: Make ours the greenest city in the U.S.
by Natalie Hope McDonald
In some ways, she has it easy. As the city’s new director of sustainability, Katherine Gajewski has walked into one of the most progressive posts in the mayor’s office during a time when more people than ever are talking about eco-conscious issues. The 29-year-old former special assistant to the mayor’s chief of staff was appointed to the post this summer as solar-powered trash compactors began dotting Center City streets, while City Hall embarked on a plan to clean up neighborhoods, create jobs and introduce healthy food into low-income communities. After only three days on the job, the admitted “outdoors woman” sat down with Grid to discuss her plans for unrolling Greenworks, a multi-tiered plan to make the city more sustainable in the next six years.
What will you be working on as the new director of sustainability?
I am essentially in charge of overseeing the mayor’s sustainability agenda, and the implementation of the Greenworks sustainability plan. It’s a framework unveiled this year that sets up main target areas ranging from energy conservation [and] open space [to] quality of life goals. We’re also focusing on things like pollution levels and urban agriculture.
What do you anticipate will be the biggest challenge in your role?
We face all the things people are facing across city government because of budget constraints and staffing constraints. We’re trying to figure out how to put together a network of folks that will help get us where we need to go as far as sustainability. At the core, our greatest challenge is also our greatest opportunity: education. We can only be successful by working with people within the community. I look forward to that the most.
What does sustainability really mean to people these days?
Sustainability is a difficult word because it means so much. It’s hard to come up with one single definition. It really comes down to making decisions that look forward and plan for the future. In some neighborhoods, it’s a focus on clean and green streets; people take a lot of pride in that. There’s also a huge move to conserve resources—both natural and energy resources. We’ve already expanded the recycling program and we’re making decisions now that will have implications in the future.
How has the recycling program been expanded?
The mayor made a pledge to bring recycling to Philly city-wide, and to do it weekly and curbside. The Streets Department has rolled out single-stream recycling with the largest participation to date. Every household can recycle at the curb when they put their trash out. We want people to not necessarily spend a lot of time thinking about it, but making it become a way of life. The city also added solar-powered trash compactors. There are currently 500 compactors and 210 recycling units in Center City.
How will you appeal to people about other green issues?
We want to have a presence in neighborhoods working with civic groups, CDCs and other community organizations, and to see what they’re already doing in their communities. We want these groups to be regularly communicating with us, and we want to be a presence in neighborhoods across the city to make our goals relevant.
You also organized the first city-wide cleanup—the largest in the U.S. at the time. Can we expect more of the same?
We’d like to make it an annual event. At first, we focused on removing litter from parks and streets. We also gave out mini-grants to neighborhood groups to fund clean-up projects. They have an interest and they have the volunteer manpower, but they may need a little money to pull it together.
In what ways has the city already gone green?
Recycling is the most obvious thing to look at and see there’s a real change in the last year. More than that, there’s a heightened conversation going on across the city—people are talking about these issues now more than they were a few years ago. People are starting to consider the way they do business and the way they understand their organizations and households. People are recognizing that these are important issues. We’re hearing from people from all walks of life who are coming to us for more information and to pursue programs and projects that are laid out in Greenworks. That interest and willingness to learn will help us succeed.
You’re charged with turning Philadelphia into one of the greenest cities in the country in the next six years. Do you really think that’s possible?
We will become one of the more green cities in the country. It may seem like a daunting task for people because it may feel so different from what they think Philly is. But these are already things Philly values, like open space preservation and neighborhood clean-up. Nothing Greenworks proposes is radical. We didn’t put out a plan we didn’t think was achievable. We put out a plan that would make us work hard and be innovative.
So what would the green Philly of the future be like?
A green city would be a city in which people have good jobs in new industries. It would be an efficient city. An educated city. And it would be a healthier city. We’re thinking about how we’d position Philly to take advantage of new energy markets—a shift toward wind and solar. We’re also asking how Philly could become a location for those new industries with how we can ready a labor force to take on those new jobs. It also means a better understanding of your home and how to save energy and money, and to understand about healthy food choices. It’s about the decision to take public transportation over driving and keeping communities clean.
Will there be a plan for more community gardens and other forms of urban agriculture that may take advantage of vacant spaces that tend to attract illegal dumping and crime?
Definitely. We’re hoping that will be where we make some forward movement this year. You’ll also be seeing us create and convene the Food Policy Council in the next few months.
With so much information available online, do you have any plans to start a new blog about some of these announcements and sustainability issues?
We’re going to have a blog pretty soon. And we already have a Facebook page. We’re starting to increase our email lists; the goal for us is to increase our networks. And on the blog, we’re going to share progress in terms of where we are in advancing Greenworks goals. We’ll let people know what we’re doing and highlight interesting projects in neighborhoods, volunteer opportunities and what kinds of resources are out there. We’re hoping to be a hub of information.
New job aside, what do you like most about Philadelphia?
I love the diversity. And I love its walkability. I’m one of those people who talks to strangers all the time.