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Philadelphia Leaders Weigh in on Vision for a Swimmable Delaware River (Part 3)

Delaware River at Penn's Landing

Before we know it, the last of winter’s frosty mornings will be behind us and summer will be on the horizon. Last summer, as we know, served up some of the hottest days on record and we can expect another season like it that will leave Philadelphians looking for places to cool off. We envision a future where the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers are clean and safe for on- and in-water recreation and can provide respite during increasingly hot seasons.

Of the Delaware River’s 330 miles, only 27 miles are not designated for full recreational use because of the presence of harmful bacteria from combined sewer overflow (CSO). Those 27 miles of river run through Philadelphia, Chester, and Camden – communities near the waterways where median household incomes range below $40,000 annually.

Just over a year ago, Philadelphia City Council’s Committee on Commerce and Economic Development held a hearing on how the region’s waterways are faring, how the city could be taking advantage of federal infrastructure funding to improve the water quality of the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers for public recreational use, and what we can learn from the experience of other urban waterways. In the final installment of our three-part series (revisit part one and part two), we are having follow-up conversations with the experts who shared their perspectives at the hearing. We previously featured Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society; Nancy Stoner, president, Potomac Riverkeeper Network; and Andy Kricun, senior fellow at the U.S. Water Alliance and former head of Camden County’s water utility. In this blog, we are speaking with Mungu Sanchez, Deputy Political Director and Director of Community Organizing for the Eastern Atlantic States Council of Carpenters, and Lawrence Jones, CEO of Richard Allen Preparatory School in southwest Philadelphia. We discussed the impact that cleaner, swimmable rivers could have on constituents including youth and the city’s workforce.

We should claim these rivers as a point of pride for Philadelphia. Philadelphia was built up because of the rivers. We should acknowledge that and make sure they're open for future generations.

Mungu Sanchez

Deputy Political Director and Director of Community Organizing for the Eastern Atlantic States Council of Carpenters


Why is river restoration, particularly in the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, important for your stakeholders?

First, this is a project we support and are excited to be a part of. The rivers are part of how we’re all connected. I want to start by talking about the importance of how job creation and workforce go hand in hand and intersect with many issues of the urban environment, Chester through Philly to the Northeast. A project like this has the potential to create good jobs for Philadelphians. We fight for our members, ensuring that they have a living household wage and a safe working environment.

Recreation is an important component of this river cleanup goal so that our workers and their communities can live a life they deserve. We would love to help make the river swimmable, because it also makes Philadelphia a more livable place overall. Everyone, no matter where they come from, can enjoy clean rivers. Having that access, and being surrounded by hope and opportunity, allows people to dream, see beauty, and blow off steam. It’s not just about the labor and workforce aspect, but also about creating a sense of wholeness from a fragmented past. We can beautify the river, create jobs, and create hope.

These sorts of projects are wonderful. They can bring people together that may not have an opportunity, reason, or political will to come together like labor unions for jobs, students for learning, elected officials and developers for economic opportunity; all different walks of life are now coming together for a shared purpose.


It’s been a year since City Council invited testimony on Resolution No. 220648, authorizing the Committee on Commerce and Economic Development to hold public hearings to examine what the Philadelphia Water Department is or could be doing to take advantage of new and existing federal water quality infrastructure funding. This federal funding would help to address chronic sewage overflows in overburdened communities and improve the water quality of the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers for public recreational use. What’s happened since then to move the City forward in these efforts?

I am extremely hopeful and encouraged by the interest that the new administration has shown in this project. Mayor Parker has stated that she wants to make this a priority. Her agenda for a safer, greener city shows her commitment to the environment and environmental justice. It’s also extremely encouraging to see plans to bring new partners to the table in this work.


From the construction of new resilient waterfront parks to the surging demand for kayaking lessons and recreational access, your testimony addressed job creation and economic opportunity as an important dimension of clean water, environmental restoration, and climate resilience. What kind of economic development potential are we talking about as part of the City’s water infrastructure and resilience needs? What kind and what quantity of green jobs are being realized?

Opportunities for job training are one example of the potential. We’re excited to have the ability to train the next generation of carpenters for these kinds of green jobs. Our Carpenters Apprenticeship Readiness Program (CARP) matches disadvantaged men and women with these jobs, importantly those who live close to the water. They may not necessarily have knowledge about unions at all or family who were in a union, but they are looking for ways to improve their life. We also make sure there’s a job at the end of the rainbow; we ask our contractors to meet the apprentices, and this is a great opportunity to give people – specifically minorities and women – an opportunity to join our ranks.


What do you think is the potential for this new federal funding for your constituents?

Of course the infrastructure dollars are great and allow us to invest in more projects, but ultimately, our goal is to ensure that the benefits are realized locally: to be able to put local unions and local people to work. It’s been wonderful to see what can be done with federal dollars in terms of projects getting done and growing our ranks. We are giving people an opportunity to have healthcare and benefits. Workers graduate from our program with an associate’s degree, and from there they can pursue careers or advance their education. We are building young minds and communities and careers.

River restoration is inherently local, and while we’re making the city at large a better place to live by cleaning up the waterways, it’s important that the labor to make those improvements is done by locals and for locals.

Projects like this, particularly with the boost of additional federal investment, give people ways that they can afford to stay in major cities. For us, we see ourselves as a tangible part of the promise of America – what that’s supposed to mean to all of us. A place where we can live, play, work, survive, and thrive. This is particularly true in Philadelphia where we have legacy communities, and as the city has rapidly changed, some folks have felt forgotten. As amenities like the rivers and waterfront get cleaner, as residents work to build the projects that improve conditions, those same people need to be guaranteed a wage that ensures they can afford to reap the benefits of that restoration work and not be displaced.

This is also true for new Americans, who can come here to Philadelphia and put their stake in the ground. It’s an old story in this country. By creating good paying jobs, we allow the next generation to realize the American dream. To me, it’s one of the most important things to be able to do that.




Lawrence Jones

CEO, Richard Allen Preparatory School


You are CEO of the Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School in southwest Philadelphia, just blocks away from the Schuylkill River and Bartram’s Garden. You’ve seen firsthand the transformation along the Schuylkill River. From the construction of new resilient waterfront parks to the surging demand for kayaking lessons and recreational access, how would you describe the importance of this kind of outdoor access and why direct, physical connection to the river is so valuable to your students?

I think the question is “why is it appealing to humans?” If we look throughout history, water and rivers equate with life, and people have been drawn to water. And so in this modern era, our kids look at it the same way. Being able to be out on the river, it creates not only opportunities for fun activities, it creates peacefulness. Southwest Philadelphia is a commercialized and industrialized neighborhood, and I think our children just like the simplicity of having access to the grass and water in an environment they don't always see and certainly don't always get an opportunity to experience freely.

A counselor who was here for many years would always say that whenever we went to Bartram’s Garden and the students did water testing or other activities, the best thing to see was when the kids would just play and roll down a hill or run around in the meadow.  Having access to an outdoor classroom can enhance students’ learning, but I also think the more human side of things is important.


Your students have participated in boat-building programs and experienced the river by launching their boats at Bartram’s Garden. Tell us about the impact and purpose of that.

It's really a group project with their peers and with the adults also. Students go from class to class, they learn how to use the tools and they help with building the boats, and then they go into the art room toward the end of the build and they talk to the art teacher and come up with themes. All of the different boats have themes, and when we do boat launches, there’s a lot of discussion about what their themes represent.

It’s also about hands-on learning. There are a 100 different ways that I can tell if a student understands measurement…there's standardized tests, there's teacher-generated tests, verbal tests, there are all of these pedagogical ways for me to determine their understanding, but I think their way is much simpler – “I got in the boat, I’m out in the middle of this river, and it didn’t sink.” That is really impactful.

Then on those Saturdays and Sundays when Bartram’s does free boating programs, they use our student-built boats. So, for our students, that’s another sense of pride and accomplishment and a sense of ownership that extends to the river. So the next time they’re fishing or just watching the water, drinking a soda, that sense of ownership of the river makes it a little bit more difficult to throw that soda can into the river.


Considering the demographics of your students and the disparities young people of color face in the context of outdoor recreation, be it swimming proficiency or representation in the outdoor recreation industry, what do you perceive as the most important barriers to access? How do spaces like Bartram’s and the vision for paddling and swimming on the lower Schuylkill help?

There's this cultural paradigm, this stereotype, that will say African Americans don't engage in swimming. Part of that is based on access. So over generation to generation to generation, if I believe that I don't do things like kayaking, I don't do things like rowing, I don’t do things like swimming, it’s probably because I don’t see anybody like me doing those things. I have to have access to see that those things are possible for me.

We have to be intentional about [resetting] those beliefs, those unwritten rules. Not every community has a Bartram’s Garden that has programming that is specific to the river. And in the education world, there’s the barrier of time, of making time for these types of experiences – for having science class or social studies class along the river. We need to encourage the community, the Black churches, the mosques, and say, hey, you may want to have an outdoor service by the river. I think all of these things can change our perspective.  And, of course, we also have to look at budgets. Budgets are not just guidelines for how we spend and receive money. Budgets are actually prescriptions for what we deem to be important. So if the city is funding and being very intentional and aggressive and creative in their funding of waterways, of safe water, those are ways of making our waterways accessible.

We need all the pieces to work together – community, culture, education, politics, people, businesses – to improve access. And we need the two “I’s” – intentionality and incentives. Incentivize the use of the river for schools and programming, and be intentional about funding that keeps it clean.

We should claim these rivers as a point of pride for Philadelphia. Philadelphia was built up because of the rivers. We should acknowledge that and make sure they’re open for future generations.