Philadelphia released its citywide plan to tackle climate change in mid-January, but with a glaring absence: it doesn’t address the massive waste of materials and energy caused by building demolition.
If the City wants to take climate action seriously, it should adopt a demolition review period along with deconstruction requirements. Changing our approach to buildings up for demolition will stem the loss of cultural heritage and reduce environmental waste while moving the city closer to its sustainability goals.
Philadelphia’s current trajectory is unsustainable, both culturally and environmentally. We need policies that recognize the value of our cultural heritage and the embodied energy it contains. Implementing demolition review and deconstruction requirements would encourage adaptive reuse, reduce carbon emissions associated with demolition and construction, and encourage the salvage and reuse of valuable building materials, moving us closer to a circular economy.
In Philadelphia older buildings are often demolished simply to build similar new construction in their place, an outcome exacerbated by misguided incentives like the Tax Abatement and the lack of protection for historic buildings citywide. This unnecessary demolition is more than a preservation issue—it creates public safety hazards, like lead exposure, can compromise the structural stability of neighboring properties, and contributes to environmental waste and pollution.
Demolition review is a straightforward procedure that triggers a review period after a demolition permit is granted, allowing city agencies to determine whether the property in question merits historic designation or to recommend alternatives to total demolition. There are many ways to implement and enforce demolition reviews and many cities have adopted them, including Chicago, Dallas, Nashville, Denver, Santa Monica, and several municipalities in Massachusetts. Review periods range from 7 to 180 days. Some are linked to National Register listing or eligibility, while others are simply triggered by building age.
Recent cases, like the rowhouse at 1513 Christian, covered by Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron, illustrate the need for demo review. There is also the pending loss of two commercial properties: at 140 S. 11th Street the former Palamida’s Costume Shop, run by a well-known costumer and important to Philly’s LGBTQ history, and at 1105 Walnut Street the Augustin House and Catering Establishment, an antebellum-era African-American catering business. All can, and likely will be, demolished.
There is no question the three occupied, fully functional, structurally sound buildings mentioned above might qualify for historic designation. A review might also increase the possibility for a compromise, such as an overbuild (building atop the old structure) or façadectomy (preserving the building’s facade after demolishing the rest).
Demolition review does not guarantee a building will be saved, but it can lead to safer and more sustainable practices, particularly when paired with aligned policies like deconstruction ordinances. When demolition is unavoidable, deconstruction can reduce the risk of harm to neighboring properties--critical for rowhouses, which don’t really function as independent structures, but rather are part of a larger, comprehensive structure--and require material salvage and recycling.
Salvage and recycling are critical because building materials contain significant amounts of “embodied carbon” or “embodied energy,” which refer to the amount of carbon emissions produced during their extraction, refinement, fabrication, and transportation. Existing buildings represent a massive, underappreciated store of embodied energy, often of materials that simply could not or would not be economically possible to produce today. Demolition itself requires immense amounts of energy, and new building materials also represent significant amounts of embodied carbon. The bottom line is, demolishing existing buildings simply to reconstruct another of a similar size is terribly unsustainable.
Other cities are addressing this issue. In addition to its demo review ordinance, Chicago has a program that has diverted 85% of Construction & Development (C&D) debris hitting landfills annually. Baltimore recycles building materials through their “Waste to Wealth’' deconstruction initiative, working with local salvage companies who handle the deconstruction and resale of material. Connecticut goes even further by providing state-wide models for Demolition Review and Deconstruction Ordinances, encouraging municipalities to adopt their own. Connecticut also has a building materials recovery program with a goal to divert 60% of construction waste by 2024.
Philadelphia’s Climate Action Playbook does not even mention adaptive reuse or C&D material salvage, when they should be key components of the plan. While the Department of Licenses and Inspections requires contractors to maintain waste receipts for C&D disposal, the policy is aimed at encouraging proper procedure rather than advancing sustainability measures like materials recycling or waste tracking. With FEMA naming Philadelphia one of the most environmentally high risk cities in the United States, the need to enact simple yet proactive resiliency measures on major industries, like construction and development, is imperative.
The Mayor and City Council should coordinate efforts between L&I, the Office of Sustainability, and the Department of Planning and Development (including the Historical Commission) so our agencies are empowered to enact meaningful, future-oriented policies, like demolition review and deconstruction ordinances. That’s how we’ll address the interrelated issues of public safety, climate change, and cultural heritage.
Starr Herr-Cardillo has a Master’s in Historic Preservation and writes about preservation-related issues for PlanPhilly and Hidden City. Dana Fedeli is a Citizens Planning Institute grad and community advocate whose work has been covered by PlanPhilly, Hidden City, The Inquirer and more.