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A Model of Green Infrastructure

Beginning in 2008, a collaboration of public, private and non-profit partners turned 20 trash-strewn acres of vacant formerly industrial land into a showcase of green infrastructure on the edge of the Fishtown and Norris Square neighborhoods. This collection of facilities is a model for how public investment can strengthen the social and environmental infrastructure of a community.

Diverse players, shared goals

Finding common values and priorities among different community players led to a new capacity to improve the community. Some of the interests that ended up aligning include:

  • Grassroots advocacy to split up the under-performing Kensington High School into smaller schools.
  • Growing concern about the crime and nuisance activity on the vacant industrial properties around the Berks El station.
  • Then School District Superintendent, Paul Vallas, floating a capital bond to construct new school buildings.
  • The Water Department piloting an innovative approach to managing stormwater through above-ground “green infrastructure” instead of more common and expensive “gray infrastructure” like underground piping.
  • Then Mayor Michael Nutter’s interest in creating new public green spaces in underserved communities.

Work Accomplished

Four years and $40 million later, the “Big Green Block” is a two-block cluster of public spaces from Palmer Street to Norris Street in Fishtown. These include:

Kensington Creative & Performing Arts High School
Kensington CAPA High School became the first high school building in the country to achieve LEED Platinum certification. KCAPA boasts geothermal heating, maximized natural lighting, a rooftop garden, and wall insulation made of recycled denim, all of which make for an enhanced, non-toxic learning environment.

Shissler Recreation Center
Shissler Rec Center was previously the only public facility in this area. Green improvements include converting cinder sports fields to grass, improving a spray park, installing a river-themed mosaic mural, and building a new outdoor basketball court with underground storm water retention chambers.

Storm Water Management
The $2 million interconnected green storm water management infrastructure system was the first of its kind in Philadelphia. Pieces of this system include tree trenches, underground basins, and rain gardens made with native plantings. This system captures 11 million gallons of storm water per year, 95% of the area’s runoff.

Stan “The Cutman” Field
Stan “Cutman” Maliszewski was born and raised in Fishtown. He was a Vietnam Vet who proudly served the Philadelphia area as a Philadelphia Firefighter. Stanley was known in the boxing community, was a founder of the We Care Soccer Camp and was always helping out members of the community, especially kids. This turf play space supports sporting activities for youth age 7 and younger.

Palmer Doggie Depot
The Depot is a dog park created by removing paving on an old rail spur at the southern end of the site. Multiple connector paths also increase walkability and pedestrian access points throughout the site, including a walkway from Frankford Avenue to the Berks station and north-south from Norris Street to Palmer Street.

NKCDC and Partners

Project collaborators include the Philadelphia Water Department, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, the Mural Arts Program, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, Philadelphia School District, Norris Square Civic Association, Fishtown AC, Penn Treaty Special Services District, and residents of both Fishtown and Norris Square. 

NKCDC’s primary role included organizing community visioning sessions and leading many of the improvement projects with Mural Arts and Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. 

Today, many years after the last ribbon cutting, NKCDC is focusing on building stewardship for the space. As residential construction, use of the rec center, and Berks station ridership have all skyrocketed, it is more important than ever to understand the multiple benefits the Big Green Block provides. Palmer Doggie Depot has since become its own non-profit organization, and Shissler’s Recreation Advisory Council has grown dramatically. NKCDC is eager to support these and other community-driven initiatives deepen the use, understanding, and preservation of the Big Green Block. We are also a participant in the Water Department’s Soak It Up Adoption program, which provides funding for weekly maintenance of showcase green stormwater infrastructures sites like these all over the city.

For more questions about the Big Green Block or NKCDC’s involvement, contact Andrew Goodman at 215-427-0350 x122 or agoodman@nkcdc.org.