Philly is blessed to be an academic and medical powerhouse. What other U.S. city (besides maybe Boston) boasts this many stellar institutions? There are Penn, Drexel, Temple, Jefferson, St. Joseph’s University, University of the Sciences, and La Salle within the city limits and many others in the region.
But when it comes to the climate crisis, the city doesn’t do enough to leverage these exceptional resources in a collaborative way.
Consider this: Each of Philly’s major universities has launched climate plans of its own and is working to adapt its practices and curricula to meet the urgency of climate change.
However, the university climate action plans primarily focus on greening each university’s own facilities and adopting practices to achieve “carbon neutrality.” In framing the issues of the climate crisis around carbon neutrality, universities miss opportunities to connect climate action with immediate social and racial justice concerns of their students and neighbors as well as their broader research, teaching, and service goals.
Additionally, since each university’s climate action plan focuses on an individual campus, the city is missing opportunities to effectively leverage these investments as a collective to support the climate transition and coordinate preparedness and emergency responses across the city.
The climate future for Philadelphia is not pretty. As we saw with Hurricane Ida, flooding and extreme weather can flood and upend the city. This affects universities in many ways. Case in point: Much of Temple University’s Ambler campus was destroyed during Ida and will cost millions to rebuild.
Additionally, the Urban Heat Island effect — which occurs when cities replace natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat — will only get worse with climate change. Most of Philly’s university campuses are surrounded by poor neighborhoods populated by Black and brown Philadelphia where tree cover is limited, making the areas up to 22 degrees hotter than more tree-covered areas. This contributes to air pollution and increased mortality and is also correlated with gun violence.
Fighting climate change isn’t cheap. So what’s in it for universities?
Simply put, there should be no choice. Philadelphia’s universities need Philadelphia to be diverse, green, healthy, racially just, and climate-ready, and Philadelphia needs universities to help get there. It’s a symbiotic relationship: When the city thrives, so too will campuses.
Philadelphia’s universities should also be grappling with a larger philosophical question (their “climate anxious” students and neighbors certainly are): What use are all these amazing universities in Philadelphia if our city is flooded, hot, inequitable, and unlivable in 50 years?
If universities across the city coordinated their multiple resources to address the climate emergency, they could have a major impact. Working together, they could strategically center community-engaged research and teaching to help implement citywide policies to support climate mitigation, preparedness, and emergency efforts.
One way to do this is to create a citywide, university-wide Climate Action Plan centered on using university resources and dollars already dedicated to fight climate change to design and support investments in equitable climate-ready neighborhoods across the city.
The possibilities for projects under a collaborative Climate Action Plan are endless. But here are a few ideas:
Universities could work creatively with community groups, foundations, and the city to create a new, robust, and well-funded Community Land Trust to strategically identify how 40,000 vacant lots can be used to address the affordable housing, green space, and Urban Heat Island crisis.
Using the universities’ access to big data and climate modeling informed by citizen science and community-engaged research, universities could contribute to both climate and emergency preparedness and adaptation. They could meet carbon-neutrality goals by simultaneously working with community partners to plant trees, and weatherize, repair, update energy efficiency, and solarize homes.
Programs led by brilliant thinkers at multiple universities could also build ongoing, citywide, and transformative opportunities in partnership with the School District, by helping to train our young people to be climate leaders and increasing educational equity. Through after-school and summer programming, young students could be connected with applied research that trains them in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) and the critical thinking the humanities provides.
These targeted climate investments would help reduce the Urban Heat Island effect, make communities more resilient, and train students and residents in green careers.
In making these commitments to co-create the climate-ready city with communities using an antiracist lens, universities could support reparative work and build lasting positive relationships of trust.
An important element of this work would be explicitly connecting the goal of addressing climate with the goal of promoting racial justice in the city. Philadelphia’s universities have troubled racial relationships with the predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods around campuses. This was made worse by Temple University’s attempts to build a stadium in North Philadelphia and the ongoing concern about Penn and Drexel supporting gentrification and racialized displacement around their campuses.
To promote real community engagement, universities across the city will need to first acknowledge their impacts and commit to ongoing reparative work. Universities can start in their own backyards, listening to neighborhood concerns, building trust, addressing past injustices, and mobilizing their resources to collectively identify areas of collaboration and climate investment.
Though Philly’s universities often see themselves as competing with one another, now is the perfect time to launch such a collaborative effort. With leadership transitions at major universities — Jason Wingard’s new appointment at Temple University, Amy Gutmann’s departure from the University of Pennsylvania to become an ambassador, Jefferson University president Stephen Klasko’s retirement, and John Fry’s public contemplation about leaving Drexel University — the city is perfectly poised to launch something brand new, big, and impactful.
Imagine the resources and brain power we could apply to creating a more climate-resilient city to support this work? (Particularly if universities paid city property taxes, but that’s a big conversation all on its own.)
The clock is ticking. It’s time for a multi-university commitment to addressing climate and racial justice in the city of Philadelphia.
Christina D. Rosan is an associate professor of geography and urban studies at Temple University.