Sarah Williams


Project Planner, Philadelphia Water Department/Camp Dresser McGee (2000-2001)

Sarah describes her transition from WPLP research assistant to working on the EPA grant that the Philadelphia Water Department got in collaboration with the Mill Creek Coalition and Sulzberger Middle School and reflects on the challenges she encountered coordinating the initial phase of the grant. From an interview in 2002.


I started working for Anne Spirn while I was in landscape architecture school at the University of Pennsylvania. I was her research assistant. Later on I started to manage the web site for her. After that I got more involved in the community group and I would go out to Sulzberger School. I worked with some of the students there teaching them GIS. I made the decision to leave landscape architecture school. The Philadelphia Water Department asked if I would work for them on the project. I wasn't officially working for the Philadelphia Water Department, but I was a consultant under Camp Dresser McGee (CDM). The Water Department needed someone to work as a project manager that had a background in planning. It wasn't easy at the Water Department to get a position like that. So the best way for them to do that was to hire me as a consultant through CDM, who does most of their consulting.

When I got to the Water Department Joanne Dahme wasn't involved in the Mill Creek Project. I always involved her in things to make sure she was updated and knew what was going on with the project because she was interested in it. When I left she got a lot more involved. The Water Department has to have an educational component, because of their requirements through the EPA. Joanne was in charge of doing outreach and education with community groups in the six major watersheds in Philadelphia. Mill Creek isn't an official watershed because it's in the sewer. But she would do anything to help with the project, any educational outreach kinds of things. When I left she became much more responsible for those types of things.

The employees who work in the Office of Watersheds don't have a background in planning or landscape architecture. Most of them are engineers looking to protect our Watersheds. Howard Neukrug-who is the head of the Office of Watersheds-was really interested in Anne's ideas about using vacant lots for water retention or water reclamation. He paired up with her to write a grant on the premise that the Water Department could get the money and Anne could create the design. The Water Department received the grant about the same time that Anne left for MIT. They were worried that without the constant support from Anne they would not be able to fulfill the goals of the grant. They understood the ideas to some extent, but not completely. So that's why they offered me the position. I spent a lot of time with the Water Department trying to get everybody on the same page. It was not easy getting everyone on the same page. The Water Department had a hard time understanding how they should work with this community on a design project. Joanne has a lot of experience with communities so she was familiar with what to do. But other people that I worked with were not familiar with the community work. They were familiar with talking to the community in the sense that they understood it was part of the project task to go talk to the community and tell them that you are doing an engineering project. But trying to explain to the community that this is the Mill Creek, and adding a watershed education component is different.

The grant was an EPA storm water quality control grant that has to do with combined sewers. Basically what you had to do to fulfill the requirements of the EPA was to make sure that water would be detained on the site and that the water would be cleaned before it entered the sewers. Therefore you were helping to clean water in the combined sewer overflow. Usually the projects that get this type of grant are not land-based projects-they'll be some kind of engineering project where they stick a large tank underground and they have a huge filtration system in the tank. The water filters through and then goes into the combined sewer overflow. There's not usually a design or a detention component of it. There isn't usually a component where you were trying to create something that would also be suitable for communities.

Anne had been the Water Department's connection to most of the people in the community. I was part of the West Philadelphia Landscape Project before I was hired by the Water Department. But most of the stuff I had done for Anne up to that point was background things like web stuff. So I didn't have a huge relationship with the community members. They knew who I was and they knew I worked for Anne. But when she left for MIT, all that was left was the Water Department and so I was seen as a city employee, not as Anne's student. The community didn't have the same amount of trust that they would have had if it were Anne. The first meetings that I had with them, they didn't want to talk about the project at all. They saw us as city employees, so they brought up every problem they had in the neighborhood. They weren't interested in working on this grant until we dealt with some of the issues that they had about the neighborhood. It turned out that we couldn't start working right away because we had to start by building a trust relationship. The problems in that neighborhood are crime, drugs, providing a good home, clothes. To them, caring about a water detention basin was not a priority. They said that at the first couple of meetings with me. And it made sense to me too. I could really understand. They said, a couple of times, "We like this project, we think it's a great project, we understand that it's good for the environment, but you're putting all this money in to invest in a park and couldn't you invest in helping our kids have jobs and stuff?" We actually did pay the kids who did work during the summer on the project.

A lot of the problems that community residents had were because they live on the Mill Creek and their houses are falling in or they have water in their basements. I did a lot of research about the conditions of the sewers and I tried to figure out exactly what was going on. I had the Water Department do video tapes of the sewer to show the residents the quality of their sewers. What I found was that the reason that most people in Mill Creek are having problems with the water in their neighborhood is because their roof gutter drains were draining onto their land. The Mill Creek area is a buried floodplain and it is mostly ash fill. Most of Philadelphia is in a similar situation, but the neighborhoods that seem to be affected most are the places where people don't have the funding to make sure that their house is maintained or the water on their property is maintained in the correct way. I set up a meeting with all the different agencies that provide funding for different homeownership projects. There are all these different grants that the city offers for home maintenance and home repair. I set up a symposium where each one of the organizations made a presentation and then had a representative in the back who would help residents fill out the applications. We connected with the Department of Housing to do homeowner workshops in order to teacher people about their roof leader drains and how to fix them. Joanne helped me a lot with this because she's worked for the city for a long time and she has a lot of connections with other city agencies. These projects helped us gain trust and then the community was ready to talk to us more about the project. But we had to do the work much more rapidly at this point because it was a year long project and it took us half a year just to prepare.

One of the experiences where I felt like there was a real turning point in the project was the meeting when we picked out the vacant piece of land with the community. I had targeted a few lots that I thought would be good, based on a number of factors, and then they didn't like them. The spot they chose was really a mess. It had a lot of trash in it and after meeting, they said, it would make us really happy if you would do something with that lot instead of some of these lots that aren't really doing anything to anybody. Some of the lots were larger, and open, they had a little bit of trash on them. But this particular lot is nestled in between two buildings and was full of trash, like people's Christmas trees and junk. And they wanted it cleaned up, that was something that was important to them. So we decided that we would clean it and then we would also create a garden there. Up to that point we didn't have a piece of land to work with. It was great to have them express interest in the project, and they seemed excited. I felt like we were really doing something good because we were cleaning up a vacant lot that they felt was causing problems in the community. I felt like the project was actually doing everything I had hoped it would be doing-it was cleaning up the vacant land, it would help the Water Department with their water problems, it was close to the school so it would provide connections to the children. That was a big memory as a turning point.

There were a lot of unanswered questions like if we take a vacant lot, who owns that vacant lot. The Water Department didn't want to own it, and we didn't have the support yet of the community group, so they couldn't own it. And the city wouldn't approve any resources to build on vacant land that we didn't own or a community group didn't own. Peter Godfrey started to get involved from CDM. He had also worked with the city for a long time and knew a lot of political players and was able to help me deal with a lot of those issues. We found out that the Redevelopment Authority owned the lot. It had been a house that had been torn down and they acquired the vacant land. Most of the vacant land in the city is either owned by the Redevelopment Authority or the tax assessment department. The Redevelopment Authority doesn't like to give us the land, because they might decide they want to redevelop on it some time. The Water Department couldn't buy it because their policy right now is to get rid of land, not to acquire new land. We had to build something, and so they did this five year lease. They're hoping that the community will take it over after the five years. In order to insure the longevity of the lasting influence that this is going to have, someone has to be there maintaining it.



Based on an interview in April 2002 by students in an MIT class on Media Technology, and Youth, and City Design and Development.