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Metropolitan Philadelphia,

"Achieving an expanded and improved system of open space is inextricably linked with the advocacy of development that is less consumptive and degrading of limited natural and cultural resources. Sensitive development integrates open space into the fabric of community life, enhances a sense of place and local cultural heritage, provides for energy efficient transportation choices and avoids wasting scarce capital on the duplication of infrastructure."

City of Philadelphia Emblem - GreenSpace Alliance Statement of Purpose


Implementing urban sustainability necessarily covers a broad ranges of goals in program areas such as energy use, air and water quality, pollution prevention, and open space preservation. Philadelphia's sustainability plan covers scores of issues in eight different categories. While preserving open space in urban areas is only one of many issues sustainability, it is an especially important one to Metropolitan Philadelphia. Experts project that by the year 2020, the Philadelphia region will lose 173,000 acres of open space to development--an area more than twice the size of the city of Philadelphia. The loss of open space reduces recreational opportunity, makes the region less attractive to employers and workers, and undermines the region's environment through reduced air and water quality and increased flooding risks. The GreenSpace Alliance (GSA) works with local governments and brings together local and regional leaders interested in the protection of open space in the Philadelphia area. The GSA is sponsoring a series of demonstration projects, building community partnerships, and developing a comprehensive open-space preservation plan. Preserving Open Space through the GreenSpace Alliance

In 1992, the U.S. National Park Service's Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Service published the Delaware Valley Open Space Study, an assessment of open-space resources in southeastern Pennsylvania including recreation, natural areas, agricultural lands, historic and cultural sites. The report identified a disturbing trend: from 1970 to 1990, a time when the population of southeastern Pennsylvania dropped 3.6 percent, over 175,000 acres of additional land were developed. During the same period, older sections of Philadelphia were abandoned, and the population of denser suburban towns also declined dramatically.

Without intervention, prospects for the future were discouraging. Experts predicted that an additional 173,000 acres of now open land--an area more than twice the size of Philadelphia--will be developed by the year 2020. Today, through the use of innovative zoning tools, community partnerships, and outreach efforts, five counties of the Philadelphia metropolitan region, are working effectively to reduce the loss of open land.

Maintaining open space in the region is essential to maintaining and improving its quality of life, by providing recreational opportunity and by linking people to the region's cultural and natural heritage. This, in turn, makes the region more attractive to employers and workers, boosting the area's economic health and competitiveness. Open space is also crucial to preserving the region's natural environment. It enhances air and water quality, provides habitat for wildlife, and mitigates the impacts of floods.

The Park Service concluded its report with several recommendations. Its most ambitious was a call for the creation of a regional planning group responsible for open-space preservation. In 1992, metropolitan Philadelphia founded such an organization with funding from the William Penn Foundation, and christened it the GreenSpace Alliance (GSA). Its role was to convene the major open space stakeholders in the region--including land conservancies, environmental groups, business leaders, planners, county and municipal officials, and state and federal agencies--to develop a plan for the preservation of the region's open space.

The principal goals of the GSA include:

  • Establishing an alliance that functions at the local, county, and regional levels.

  • Establishing an expanded, coherent, well-maintained, and linked regional open-space system consisting of parks and greenways, historic sites, working rural landscapes, natural habitats, stream corridors, woodlands, and wetlands.

  • Promoting compact, environmentally sensitive development that reduces the consumption of energy, land, and other natural resources and supports the viability of existing town centers.

  • Establishing a strong regional constituency, including urban, suburban, and rural populations in support of the above goals and for the purpose of improved coordination and communication across the region.

Current Zoning Promotes Open Space Loss

The Philadelphia metropolitan region comprises five counties--Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia--and 239 municipal governments. Under Pennsylvania law, these townships, boroughs, and cities--not the county governments--are responsible for virtually all aspects of land-use planning.

The Philadelphia area's government bodies are usually run by supervisors or commissioners who are unpaid or part-time or both, with perhaps one paid manager who actually transacts daily business for the government. Generally, government officials in the region have neither time, resources, nor expertise to coordinate development and protect open space.

While the municipalities are legally independent, a state law, the Municipalities Planning Code (MPC), governs development activities. The courts' interpretation of the MPC requires that each municipal body zone for all land uses, ranging from residential to commercial and industrial. In addition, "fair-share" laws require local governments to accommodate a portion of the region's total expected growth in all zone types. Under this system, municipal governments are often hard pressed to accomodate all land uses within their small boundaries. Frequently, they find their zoning decisions open to legal challenge from well-financed developers.

One of the primary problems with the MPC is that it discourages the regional and county-level planning, critical to open-space preservation. At present, county master plans are not binding, and municipalities have little incentive to cooperate. When municipalities such as those of metropolitan Philadelphia act individually on land issues, the results are not always in the best interests of the region as a whole. Not surprisingly, the MPC's requirements contribute to loss of open space.

Rethinking Land Use through Partnerships

Metropolitan Philadelphia forged the GreenSpace Alliance to help unify disjointed development activities and preserve open space. The alliance is working to develop and implement growth-management plans that encourage intermunicipal cooperation and zoning. In particular, the GSA is developing a comprehensive GreenPlan that coordinates actions among municipalities and supports the Metropolitan Planning Organization's Open Space Plan, an existing but less comprehensive regional plan. The GreenPlan will identify priorities and propose a series of actions to slow the loss of open space.

The GSA has also pioneered the use of "jointures," zoning structures that allow municipalities to spread required land uses across their combined territory. The concept has been applied in the North Chester County Federation Project, where participating jurisdictions are concentrating projected growth while preserving agricultural and other environmentally sensitive areas.

Compare land use under the current MPC with land use under a jointure system:

Graphic: 'Jointure' System

Other GSA demonstration projects of interest are equally innovative. The Buckingham Township Project is promoting municipal land-use regulation that increases density in some spaces while protecting open space elsewhere. To accomplish this goal, the township is considering several mechanisms, including the creation of urban-growth boundary lines and transfer of development rights.

The alliance has also partnered with the Delaware County League of Women Voters and the county government to develop the Delaware County Open Space Project. The project formed a leadership group in 1994 to study open-space needs; in June 1995, the group delivered draft strategies and recommendations to the county council. Those recommendations have resulted in a $100 million bond referendum, slated for a ballot vote in April 1996. If passed, the bond referendum will fund a series of open-space acquisitions.

Four full-time employees are responsible for the day-to-day administration of the GSA, choosing projects for implementation and pursuing grants. Since most of the GSA's program's are partnerships, the GSA enjoys access to additional staff from its partner organizations.

A 25-member steering committee meets bi-monthly and provides general guidance to GSA staff. Members are chosen to represent the diverse interests that shape land-use decisions and help to preserve open space: land-trust preservationists, developers, planners, elected city and county officials, and government agencies. While much of the GSA's project selection is staff-driven, staff works closely with steering committee members to involve their organizations in partnership efforts. Full legal and fiduciary responsibility for the alliance, however, rests with the Board of Directors of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council--a private, nonprofit organization created in 1970 to preserve and improve the environment statewide.

Assessing Performance and Replicating Results

The GSA's most significant successes have been incremental: hard-earned through demonstration projects, outreach, community dialogue, and public education. In fact, GSA staff explicitly warn that "efforts to do too much too soon" could torpedo even less ambitious projects.

Metropolitan Philadelphia neighborhoods that stand to benefit from open-space programs are the most vocal proponents of the GSA's proposals. On occasion, however, GSA projects have encountered opposition from the same groups. Because protecting open space often requires communities to accomodate higher-density development elsewhere, those neighborhoods slated for such development often voice NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) opposition.

For example, in the Bucks County demonstration project, efforts to redirect residential development into the Buckingham Township's core village have encountered significant protest from the local civic association. The township has proposed transfers of development rights that would channel higher density development into already built areas and restrict the development of local farmland. Residents of the "receiving" areas are deeply concerned about increased density in their neighborhoods.

Recognizing that the siting of high-density development is often a major stumbling block in the formulation of open-space plans, the GSA recommends that jurisdictions bring together concerned residents, local officials, and developers early in the process to prevent adversarial relationships from forming. Providing affected parties with an early understanding and clear vision of proposed changes is especially helpful in promoting proactive, rather than reactive, citizen response.

Other cities and counties can replicate many aspects of metropolitan Philadelphia's open-space strategy. In fact, several similar initiatives are underway across the country. (See sidebar.) An environmentally savvy local climate will foster partnerships such as the GSA. An important success factor for the GSA is the large numbver of environmental organizations in the Philadelphia area, among them several that share an interest in open-space preservation. These community partners have catalyzed the development and implementation of demonstration projects and provided a much-needed constituency from which the alliance can draw strength.

Localities shoud not, however, overlook partnerships with the federal government, which also have been of great benefit to Philadelphia and are ripe for replicability. Local groups that otherwise may have lacked the funding and staffing necessary to initiate an organization such as the GSA have received initial funding from the federal government. Communities elsewhere in the country can explore studies similar to the National Park Service's Delaware Valley Open Space Study, which recommended the creation of Philadelphia's alliance, and use their reports and recommendations as catalysts for action.

Confluence of the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers in southeastern Pennsylvania

3500 square miles

5 million

Per Capita Income:

Form of Government:
Philadelphia: Council/Mayor
Surrounding Counties: Commission/Manager


Following William Penn's vision of a "Greene Countrie Towne," Philadelphia became the first planned city in the New World. In the more than 300 years since its founding; Greater Philadelphia has grown well beyond its boundaries, often to the detriment of Philadelphia itself, as more affluent residents leave the city for the suburbs. The spread of Greater Philadelphia's population and economic base across many jurisdictions has, in some cases, resulted in fractious relationships. Business and community leaders, however, have come to recognize that the health of Greater Philadelphia depends on cooperation among local officials throughout the region. Forming partnerships among jurisdictions and between public and private entities is central to sustaining the economy and community of Greater Philadelphia.

  The United States is losing over one million acres of farmland per year - two acres every minute. Most of this open-space is lost to urban sprawl as farmland is converted to residential, commercial and industrial uses.

Source: American Farmland Trust

Municipal governments, required by "fair-share" laws to accept a portion of the region's total expected growth of all types, are often hard pressed to accomodate all land uses within their small boundaries and often find their zoning decisions challenged by developers.

Through the use of innovative zoning tools, community partnerships, and outreach efforts, five counties of the Philadelphia metropolitan region, are working effectively to reduce the loss of open land.

Maintaining open space is essential to maintaining and improving quality of life, providing recreational opportunity and linking people to the region's cultural and natural heritage. This, in turn, makes the region more attractive to employers and workers, boosting the area's economic health and competitiveness. Open space is also crucial to preserving the region's natural environment. It enhances air and water quality, provides habitat for wildlife, and mitigates the impacts of floods.

  Benefits of the Greenspace Alliance

The Greenspace Alliance, through its efforts to unify previously disparate planning processes and break down barriers to open-space preservation, is helping to secure sustainable benefits open-space and mitigate the costs of sprawling development. Preserving open space prevents erosion of property values, providing a sustainable property tax base. In addition, preserving open space keeps public service costs lower. It is more expensive to transport school children, provide emergency services, repair roads, and collect garbage where homes are spread out than in more dense, open space preserving areas.

Fiscal Benefits

  • Philadelphia's Pennypack park accounts for $12 million in real estate value of residences located within a half-mile of the park.

  • In one case, proximity to a greenbelt added $5.4 million to a neighborhood's property value, boosting property tax revenues by $500,000 per year.

  • Providing services to houses built in sprawling development can cost from 40 to 400 percent more than those in more compact subdivisions.

  • It has been shown that for every dollar of tax revenue collected from residential land, $1.25 is spent on public services; for each open space tax , 19 cents is spent on services.

    Environmental and Quality of Life Benefits
    Open space provides air and water purification, groundwater recharge, flood control, wildlife habitat, heat dissipation, and a host of other natural services. It offers recreational and educational opportunity, provides natural vistas and connects residents with the areas natural and cultural heritage.

      It's a Fact...

    Open-Space Initiatives in Other Jurisdictions

    At the time the Delaware open-space study was commissioned, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) had already begun to explore questions of growth management. PEC became part of a national coalition of metropolitan growth-management organizations and worked to fund a Philadelphia open-space initiative, dubbed "The GreenSpace Alliance."

    Other members of the coalition of growth-management organizations include:

  • The Greenbelt Alliance; a San Francisco Bay Area organization working to protect the region's open space, with a full- and part-time staff of 10 and an annual budget of $600,000.

  • The Openlands Project; a Chicago-area open-space project with a full- and part-time staff of 17 and an annual budget of $700,000.

  • The Regional Plan Association; a New York City-area entity developing a regional plan, with a full- and part-time staff of 30 and an annual budget of $2.3 million.

  • The 1000 Friends of Oregon; a Portland-based organization working to preserve the region's open space.

      Other Sustainable Programs in Metropolitan Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


    Green City Philadelphia: An Urban Environmental Platform for the Nineties-
    Contains 59 policy recommendations or goals in eight environmental categories. Involves representatives from businesses, government agencies, community and non-profit organizations, and academic institutions in a community-wide process.


    Energy-Efficient Traffic Light Initiative
    Develops and tests red light-emitting diode (LED) traffic signals.


    Clean Cities Program-

    Decreases urban air pollution through participation in the U.S. Department of Energy's Clean Cities Program.


    City Recycling Partnership Program-
    Establishes an efficient community recycling drop-off operation with costs of $20 per ton, compared to trash collection and disposal cost of about $125 per ton. Funds community projects such as tree planting, weatherization, and neighborhood cleanup with revenues from recycling. In 1994, one recylcing partnership saved the city over $24,000 in hauling and tipping fees.

Success stories designed by Mark Nowak

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