Meet the Candidates: Helen Gym


Gym served as an at-large City Council member from 2016 until 2022, when she resigned to run for mayor. Gym is a former public school teacher who rose to prominence as a community organizer before running for City Council.

On protecting trees and natural spaces

We should think about increasing Philadelphia’s tree canopy through the lenses of public health, racial equity, climate justice and community safety. I believe deeply in the research of Dr. Eugenia South, whose work shows profound mental and physical health benefits to cleaning and greening our neighborhoods. This is why neighborhood greening is a key element of my community safety plan. Dr. South’s large-scale, ongoing, NIH-funded study will provide us with important models to scale up.

There’s growing recognition that lack of tree cover correlates to historic redlining, and threatens to significantly exacerbate inequity caused by climate change. I have strongly advocated for and championed increased funding, including winning nearly $2 million to begin implementation of the tree plan, as well as Neighborhood Preservation Initiative funds for alley tree maintenance, and investment of federal relief funds into vacant lot remediation.

I support strengthening standards for protecting heritage trees, preserving the existing canopy and increasing tree planting requirements for new development, as well as setting fees that will help support maintenance needs. Additionally, I support the creation of an Office of Urban Forestry, which is a recommendation in the tree plan. I also believe we should fund a major workforce program to train Philadelphia public school students for family-sustaining, union, public sector jobs as city arborists to plant and maintain the urban canopy.

There’s growing recognition that lack of tree cover correlates to historic redlining, and threatens to significantly exacerbate inequity caused by climate change.”

Photography by Chris Baker Evens.

We cannot achieve our goals in expanding tree cover without committing to ongoing investment in creating capacity to maintain it; ensuring that residents have access to City assistance to deal with currently overgrown trees and to keep future trees healthy will be critical to building the public support that will ultimately let Philadelphia significantly scale up tree planting in the neighborhoods most in need.

On flooding in Eastwick

Eastwick is similar to other neighborhoods overburdened by impacts of the climate crisis. There’s flooding and heat tied to historic discrimination like redlining, displacement through “urban renewal” and concentrated pollution. Authorities knew about these issues but allowed people to be harmed over decades, and we need to learn from this history so we no longer continue to repeat it.

I had Eastwick in mind when introducing the Community Health Act, to advance environmental justice by ensuring the City has to consider cumulative impacts of industrial activity that can harm health. There’s a need to ensure the solutions we pursue tangibly benefit residents in these communities (including repairing past harm), and are truly led and shaped by them.

I intend to aggressively pursue new federal funding through the Inflation Reduction Act and infrastructure bill to both increase flood resilience and protect current communities, and to pursue relocation when embraced and needed by residents under threat. This is also an opportunity to forge new ground by dedicating land to flood-resilient uses that also create models for community-led responses to climate change, for example, dedicating land to community-owned solar. And more broadly, it’s an opportunity to shift how Philadelphia approaches flood resilience and build support for robust action to preserve and restore floodplains. I will push the City to adopt a strong strategy to increase public engagement and understanding of the importance of mitigating flood risk. The recent flooding of 676 should be a wake-up call.

On improving bicycling in Philadelphia

As a bicycle rider myself, I know acutely how both actual safety and perceptions of safety sharply limit who is willing to ride and how frequently. I also know our failures in this area contribute to continued tragic injury and loss of life for bicyclists and pedestrians.

I’ve pushed the City to pursue a Transit Equity Plan, and believe we need a much stronger approach to ensure that we are meeting the needs of all residents across race, language, class and neighborhood. Despite stereotypes about who rides bikes in Philadelphia, I also know that low-income and immigrant residents are very frequent bicycle commuters. Additionally, I believe we need more affirmative policies and programs to encourage approaches to commuting and travel that do not exacerbate climate change and pollution.

The bottom line is that it needs to be an actual priority to approach ‘complete streets’ efforts that ensure the safety of all road and sidewalk users in a holistic, citywide way.”

On Council, I passed the Commuter Benefit Act, to encourage use of public transit, including a bicycle commuter benefit that will activate once restored at the federal level in the tax code. The bottom line is that it needs to be an actual priority to approach “complete streets” efforts that ensure the safety of all road and sidewalk users in a holistic, citywide way. That means pursuing reforms to reduce the time and administrative burden of planning, designing and installing safety improvements including protected bike lanes. As mayor, I will act on this because the status quo is unacceptable.

On sustainable development and the understaffed L&I

L&I vacancies are a public safety crisis, and the department was already under-resourced to meet its diverse responsibilities. We know that failing to address vacancies increases burdens on remaining staff and fuels further loss of critical workers. I successfully championed using federal relief funds to help respond to this L&I staffing crisis, including millions of dollars to increase code enforcement and building inspector salaries and to provide City vehicles for inspectors, both identified as critical needs.

My approach would be to listen to workers and union representatives about their needs, support efforts to holistically review job descriptions, salary levels, and benefits to ensure competitiveness with private job opportunities. I’d invest in creating pipelines for Philadelphia public school students and local colleges and universities to these important positions, create training opportunities to promote lateral transfers and mid-career transitions, remove unnecessary barriers that limit access to positions, and make needed reforms to civil service hiring process to reduce lengthy delays and administrative burdens.

On addressing the city’s backslide on waste management

It’s a critical imperative for local government to make Philadelphia reach its
zero-waste, litter-free goals and support a circular economy within our city. Circular Philadelphia’s 2023 Mayoral Platform is a great blueprint to follow for us to achieve these goals. Illegal dumping in particular dramatically reduces the quality of life in our neighborhoods and adversely impacts community safety.

I support data transparency on City waste and recycling operations. I’ll reestablish the citywide litter index so we can analyze litter conditions in each neighborhood. There are also structural and operational changes I intend to evaluate to make government more responsive to Philadelphia’s litter needs, such as whether we should split the Streets Department into two separate departments, one dedicated solely to sanitation.

It’s also important to acknowledge how sanitation workers were on the frontlines every day during the worst of the pandemic. These City employees are true heroes who are vital partners on the pathway to making our city cleaner. I’ll be a mayor who stands with them by improving working conditions and addressing recruitment challenges.

On using vacant lots to improve the community

Greening and vacant lot remediation is a central part of my community safety plan. I’m a gardener myself who believes that gardening and urban agriculture are critical to community health. Members of the urban gardening community are heroes who create powerful spaces of intergenerational learning, natural beauty and food sovereignty.

I championed and won hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding this budget cycle to begin implementing the City’s forthcoming Urban Agriculture Strategic Plan. I’ve also consistently supported increasing resources for garden and affordable housing land acquisition by the Land Bank. Alongside Councilmember Kendra Brooks and community partners, I co-led a major advocacy effort to protect and preserve threatened community gardens from sheriff sale and to freeze sheriff sales of gardens, and successfully advocated for the City to purchase back liens on community gardens that are owned by US Bank.

I’ve led opposition to misguided plans by other politicians to restart mass tax lien sales, which would have destroyed the potential of the Land Bank to help communities as well as endangered countless more gardens and homes. We need comprehensive review and reform of public land acquisition, disposition and leasing to ensure that we are truly supporting these critical garden and agriculture uses, and to remove the many barriers that currently make this work harder or impossible.

I support creation of an Office of Agriculture to provide technical assistance and resources to new and existing gardens, and to expand food growing at public sites and facilities. I’d ensure strong funding and implementation support across government for Growing at the Root, the long-awaited urban agriculture strategic plan that reflects deep community engagement.


Grid Magazine’s Mayoral Voters Guide is a part of Every Voice, Every Vote, a collaborative project managed by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Lead support is provided by the William Penn Foundation with additional funding from The Lenfest Institute, Peter and Judy Leone, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Harriet and Larry Weiss, and the Wyncote Foundation, among others. To learn more about the project and view a full list of supporters, visit www.everyvoice-everyvote.org. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.

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