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A green showcase blossoms in North Philadelphia

Nilda Ruiz remembers when the grassy park in her East North Philadelphia neighborhood was a dumping site, filled with old toilet bowls, flat tires, and broken glass.

Nilda Ruiz remembers when the grassy park in her East North Philadelphia neighborhood was a dumping site, filled with old toilet bowls, flat tires, and broken glass.

"It wasn't a safe place to walk," said Ruiz, standing in the park at 9th and Norris Streets yesterday for a press conference on the city's progress in becoming the greenest in the nation. "To look at it now . . ."

Ruiz, born and raised in the neighborhood, serves as head of the community development group Asociacion Puertorriquenos en Marcha (APM). Through her agency's partnerships with the city, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, the Mural Arts Program, and a $1 million sponsorship from the Home Depot Foundation, Ruiz says her neighborhood is on its way to becoming the greenest in the city. "And we welcome any neighborhood that wants to challenge us."

In the shadows of SEPTA's regional rail station, the park, with a welcoming wood fence, is also a storm management project, which allows rain water to be absorbed by plants instead of the sewer system.

Throughout the neighborhood, which sprouts with lush trees and patio flower gardens, are pervious paving and other water management systems. There are two community vegetable gardens. Students at nearby Ferguson Elementary recently helped plant 80 trees around their school.

In two weeks, on Sheridan Street, contractors will start building 13 green, affordable homes that include green vegetable roofs, solar panels, recycled materials, and sun shades. Next spring, construction will begin to convert the barren lot near the train station into a thriving retail space.

"Sustainability and the related issues are for everyone," said director of the mayor's office of sustainability, Katherine Gajewski, "and can improve the quality of life for everyone. That's what it's about."

Ruiz agreed. She said the greening of her once-blighted neighborhood, a transformation that has taken place over the last seven years, has brought developers, businesses, residents, and pride.

"You feel enormously proud," she said, "and this sense of satisfaction that you are making an impact and a difference, that you're making the world a better place than you left it."

The neighborhood's strong greening efforts is why Nutter choose the park to release the first annual progress report for his Greenworks Philadelphia plan.

Nutter unveiled the initiative last year with 15 targets for improving the city's environment, reducing energy use, creating jobs, and enhancing residents' quality of life.

"But it's out in the community where the real work gets done," Nutter told the sweaty crowd, some people chewing over plates of Spanish food, others sipping iced tea, and cradling potted plants from one of the table giveaways. "The results are seen out in the streets."

According to the report, the city is more than half way toward its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent, increasing tree coverage by 30 percent, and managing storm water; and 72 percent of the way there in becoming the greenest city in America by 2015.

It's tied for third with New York City in the total square footage of green roofs.

"In year two, you're going to see more and more of this activity," Nutter continued, and we're going to achieve our goal."