Last updated December 13, 2023
Using nature-based solutions to help people and nature thrive together.
TNC’s urban conservation initiative in Philadelphia promotes solutions to help absorb stormwater, planting trees to help cool cities and reduce air pollution and engaging and inspiring the next generation of environmental stewards to tackle the challenge of making cities more sustainable places to live.
Partnering With Environmental & Community Organizations Advancing Urban Conservation Solutions That Benefit Both Nature & People
TNC is a founding member of the Resilient Communities Stormwater Initiative (RCSI), a collective of environmental and community organizations advancing urban conservation solutions that benefit both nature and people in Philadelphia and beyond. Funded by the William Penn Foundation, RCSI members include The Nature Conservancy, Clean Water Action, Drexel University’s Academy of Natural Sciences, Greenprint Partners, Hinge Collective, and PEER Environmental.
TNC’s work with RCSI is rooted in the intersection between climate, social and environmental justice, with a focus on investing in communities and neighborhoods that have historically been underrepresented and under-resourced. The RCSI advances climate resilience goals using a community-informed and equity-centered approach to conservation projects – from improving the city’s water quality in the Delaware River Watershed to addressing community climate adaptation needs.
To date, the RCSI has worked with community landowners such as Esperanza, the Philadelphia Housing Authority, and a charter school in North Philadelphia to design and develop green stormwater infrastructure projects. Additionally, RCSI has developed a resource guide for residents and community activists to spearhead green projects in their neighborhoods.
Urban Heat Mapping & the Need for Trees
Building the Case for Nature-Based Solutions as Tools to Adapt to Climate Impacts
Cities are hot and climate change means they’re getting hotter. In an average year, heat kills more people in the U.S. than any other type of extreme weather. In Philadelphia, there have been more deaths from heat than from all other natural disasters combined. Cities are also hotter than suburban and rural areas due to the Urban Heat Island Effect. Materials that cities are made of, like concrete and blacktop, absorb and hold onto heat, which makes them hotter on average than areas with more trees and vegetation.
Greening and trees are some of the most effective solutions to urban heat, but tree canopy (the layer of leaves and branches that cover the ground from a bird's-eye view) is not spread equally across the city, with some neighborhoods having as little as 3%, and others with more than 45%.
To better understand where trees and greening are needed in Philadelphia, TNC led the analysis of a federally-funded community science study to map the city’s urban heat island. Multiple community groups and 50 individuals from across Philadelphia gathered more than 38,000 temperature and humidity measurements, covering 100 square miles of the city in a single day in July 2022. Temperatures soared as much as 10.5 degrees higher in some areas than others at the same time of day. Findings revealed that areas with more concrete, roads, parking lots, and fewer trees trap heat, making them hotter on average. Tree-dense areas, on the other hand, stayed cooler throughout the day. TNC visualized the high-resolution heat data from the study in an interactive ArcGIS StoryMap titled Citywide Heat Ride to show the hottest, most heat-vulnerable areas of the city with the least amount of tree canopy, or Areas of Need for Trees.
TNC also compared the new, high-resolution heat map with priority areas from the Philly Tree Plan, the city’s strategic plan to grow, protect, and care for Philadelphia's tree canopy. The comparison allows communities and city officials to make more informed decisions about where to plant and care for trees, as well as advocate for trees where they are needed most. The analysis shows how the Philly Tree Plan would be transformational in equitably addressing extreme heat, public health, and quality of life for Philadelphia neighborhoods. TNC served on the Philly Tree Plan Steering Committee and is one of the partners assisting with the joint implementation of the plan.
Green City, Clean Waters
Green Stormwater Infrastructure Solutions Unlock the Power of Nature to Help Mitigate Urban Conservation Challenges
Stormwater is the fastest-growing source of freshwater pollution in the world. In a historic urban area like Philadelphia, the city has expanded and developed over hundreds of years on top of an old water system that is susceptible to stormwater overflow, flooding and pollution. Green stormwater infrastructure solutions — rain gardens, underground storage tanks, green roofs, and downspout planters — unlock the power of nature to help mitigate these urban conservation challenges.
Philadelphia’s Green City, Clean Waters program, is the country’s most comprehensive use of nature-based solutions to meet federal stormwater management regulations. TNC supports this initiative by collaborating with private community-based landowners and partners to accelerate nature-based solutions across the city – from Esperanza in Hunting Park to Holmesburg Baptist Church in the city’s Northeast section.
Esperanza Green Stormwater Retrofit
In 2023, construction crews completed a green stormwater project at Esperanza, a faith-based nonprofit organization located in the Hunting Park neighborhood of North Philadelphia. Founded in 1987, Esperanza strengthens and serves predominantly Hispanic communities.
The new initiative, developed in tandem with TNC and the engineering firm AKRF, will retrofit the existing stormwater management basin at the nonprofit’s headquarters site to increase its capacity to retain and clean runoff during heavy rainfall events. The modifications include redirecting a portion of roof runoff from the Esperanza Academy Charter School building to the existing basin and adding vegetated flow-through areas within existing islands of the parking lot to store and filter runoff. In addition, 24 newly planted trees will increase canopy cover and provide shade in a section of the city that can be up to 22 degrees hotter than other Philadelphia neighborhoods during extreme heat events.
TNC’s urban conservation program is focused on creating greener, healthier, more equitable and resilient urban communities by mainstreaming the use of nature-based solutions like green stormwater infrastructure. TNC seeks to support the voice and vision of local communities to co-develop innovative nature-based conservation solutions with social benefits and strives for more just and inclusive communities where nature positively impacts the health and well-being of all people.
TNC and Esperanza hope that once complete, the project will serve as a proof of concept that will catalyze even more stormwater retrofits in Hunting Park and throughout the city. Private landowner partners like Esperanza stand to benefit greatly from green approaches to stormwater management and will ultimately play a critical role in helping cities achieve healthier waterways. The Esperanza project was largely funded by the Philadelphia Water Department with additional support provided by the William Penn Foundation.
“Esperanza is a powerful voice and a community anchor within Hunting Park and greater North Philadelphia, constantly striving to improve quality of life and opportunities for members of these communities,” says Lyndon DeSalvo, Urban Project Manager for TNC in Pennsylvania and Delaware. “The green stormwater infrastructure project at Esperanza’s headquarters will provide immediate benefits to the organization and the communities it serves by increasing tree canopy to mitigate extreme heat, improving local water quality, and reducing monthly payments on its water bill.”
Quote: Lyndon DeSalvo
Holmesburg Baptist Church and Christian Academy
In 2021 in Northeast Philadelphia, TNC has partnered with the Holmesburg Baptist Church and Christian Academy to implement a series of green stormwater retrofit projects. One of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, Holmesburg has a rich history, and the Holmesburg Baptist Church has been serving the community since 1829.
The retrofit projects completed on the church's property in September 2021 replaced impervious surfaces with green stormwater infrastructure that will capture and clean an estimated 3.5 million gallons of stormwater annually. Filtering and slowing runoff will allow for better infiltration into the earth before it reaches Pennypack Creek and the Delaware River, helping to improve water quality.
These projects were funded by the Philadelphia Water Department through a stormwater management incentive program grant, as well as contributions from the William Penn Foundation and other private donors
The project was recognized in April 2022 with an Excellence in GSI Award by the Sustainable Business Network (SBN) of Greater Philadelphia. SBN’s Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI) Partners honor exemplary projects and the people behind them that bring the environmental, social and economic benefits of green stormwater infrastructure to life in Philadelphia and the region.TNC’s collaboration with the Holmesburg Baptist Church and Christian Academy is a great example of how a global conservation NGO can help bridge gaps at the community level between private landowners and local municipalities.
Planning a Greener, More Equitable Future
Aiming to Prioritize Conservation Initiatives That Foster Equitable Outcomes for Historically Underrepresented & Underserved Communities
For decades, cities across the country have been experimenting with solutions to legacy problems faced by many urban communities in the United States—problems rooted in the nation’s history of racial discrimination in housing and urban planning.
TNC’s urban conservation initiatives are strategically designed to develop new creative partnerships and bring direct and tangible benefits to city landscapes. We aim to prioritize conservation initiatives that foster equitable outcomes for historically underrepresented and underserved communities.
North America Cities Network
TNC is working around North America to demonstrate what nature can do for cities—and what cities can do for nature.
TNC’s North America Cities Network fosters innovation and learning through communication, capacity building and best practices that can be universally shared.