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Green Screen

The city holds its own YouTube debate Monday night.


From the October 10, 2007 Philadelphia Weekly

When Christine Knapp and a video crew trawled the streets last week asking random people questions about the environment, she had to watch her words.

"We've learned that it's very much about language," says Knapp, coordinator of the Next Great City, a 2-year-old coalition of 92 organizations that have banded together to promote environmental awareness in the city.

Simply mentioning the idea of being environmentally friendly evoked notions of rainforests, dolphins and the Alaskan wilderness, she says.

So the crew asked, "What about the parks in your neighborhood? What about the air quality?"

Then it started coming together. Conversations soon ranged from trees on city blocks to trash on streets, from the ancient sewer lines to the shoddy mass transit system, from the lack of neighborhood green space to the abundance of decrepit playgrounds.

"At first it doesn't register in their minds," Knapp says. "But all the things you don't think about during the day are related to the environment. The environment is really your life."

The videos the crew made will be used as video questions at the "Visions of a Sustainable Philadelphia" forum to be held Monday evening at 7 at the Academy of Natural Sciences.

In a format similar to the CNN/YouTube citizens' forums for the presidential candidates, Philadelphians were invited to digitally record themselves asking mayoral candidates Michael Nutter and Al Taubenberger questions about green issues in videos that will be acccessible during the event via YouTube.

The problem is that by the deadline for submissions last Friday, only a handful of videos had been submitted. And two of the videos actually addressed homelessness, not the environment.

Fortunately Knapp and her crew had already planned to canvass the city - from Parkside to Carroll Park, from Pennypack Park to Rittenhouse Square - speaking to those who might not be tech savvy or don't have access to technology.

"I was pleasantly surprised to see that people realize how important it is to have a green city," Knapp says. "Some people were big picture, but most were focused on neighborhood issues."

She says one person asked why the sewers kept flooding his basement, and another person asked why the city won't clean the air so her child won't have asthma. Someone else asked about promoting locally grown produce.

"The environment is no longer an esoteric topic," says Blaine Bonham of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, one of the forum's sponsors. "It's certainly propelled by the issue of global warming, but people at all levels are starting to realize we have an impact on the environment."

He points out that Philadelphia hasn't had an open-space plan since William Penn conceived of the green country town with five main squares more than 300 years ago.

Bonham says it's time for the city to reassess one of its greatest natural resources: its land.

"Rather than looking at all our vacant land as a virtual indication of our decline," he says, "let's see it as an attribute."

Bonham wants to see "responsible development" with businesses, housing and lots of green space.

The idea of using new technology to discuss urban sustainability was an acknowledgment of a new generation of civically active people in the city.

"I think Philadelphia has really come alive in the last couple of years," Bonham says. "There's been an influx of people who are technically savvy and interested in the environment."

The Internet has already played a large role in the current mayor's race. Nutter held an interactive webchat last month, similar to what Dwight Evans did several times during the primary run-up. Several candidates launched campaign ads online. And the Web has become a major tool for fundraising.

Nutter posted his sustainability policy on his website in February. It calls for increased funding of Fairmount Park, an improved recycling plan and more street trees.

Taubenberger, who has a degree in agronomy (soil management) from Penn State, doesn't have much on his website yet, but he promises to take action quickly if elected mayor.

"There's going to be a green roof on top of City Hall," he says boisterously. "At least it will be on a portion of City Hall within a few months of taking office."

More than the capacity 500 people have made reservations to attend the forum on Monday, and many more are on a waiting list.

Organizers realize there are a lot more people who are interested in hearing what the candidates have to say about the environment. So the entire event will be webcast, with remote viewing stations set up at various community gathering points around the city.

"Clearly, there's a lot of interest in the environment," Knapp says.