“Water always Wins” Letter Published by Michael Nairn, Professor Urban Studies

The Opinion Letter below, written by Michael P. Nairn, was published October 30, 2012, in Philadelphia Inquirer / Daily News. Water Always Wins Philadelphia Inquirer/Daily News article link.

Water Always Wins

Even as residents of Southwest Philadelphia’s flood-prone Eastwick neighborhood face the consequences of another major storm, city officials are considering a zoning change that would lead to the construction of more than 700 apartments there.

Bordering Darby Creek and Cobbs Creek, Eastwick is located on a floodplain, an inherently unstable and shifting landscape. Moreover, it’s downstream of the Clearview and Folcroft Landfills, which are federally designated Superfund sites. As a result, flood runoff in the area is often toxic.

A May 2012 Inquirer article noted that Darby Creek “is one of the country’s most flood-prone streams, a significant drain on the National Flood Insurance Program, and a national lesson in what can go wrong along a developed waterway.” In 1999, Hurricane Floyd forced the city Fire Department to evacuate 1,000 houses and apartments in the Eastwick section after the Darby and Cobbs Creeks overflowed.

Age-old lesson

So why are we considering another high-density residential development in this floodplain? Have we not learned that filling in wetlands, which provide natural flood protection, is not a good idea? Have we not figured out that these areas are meant to flood, and do flood, despite our best intentions? Have we learned nothing from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, the floods on the upper Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, and flooding on the Delaware River?

The age-old lesson is that water always wins. Eastwick residents’ complaints of constant flooding have gone unaddressed for years, and further building in the area would only put more people in harm’s way.

Nevertheless, the Korman Co. has asked City Council for a zoning change to allow for higher-density residential development on a former tidal wetland. Korman has no intrinsic right to this zoning change; it would be a privilege awarded at Council’s discretion.

The Eastwick Friends and Neighbors Coalition formed in May after neighborhood residents and members of Friends of the Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, which is nearby, learned by accident of Korman’s plan to build on the 35-acre site, which the company has held undeveloped for more than 50 years. The coalition has spent the past five months reaching out to community members not just to discuss the proposed development, but also to understand the community’s needs. At the top of their list of concerns is flooding.

Korman already has the right to develop the property according to its current zoning, which is for single-family homes, and the coalition has not asked that it be deprived of that right. But the company claims there is no market for single-family housing in the area.

Nor should there be a market for homes built on a former tidal wetland, adjacent to a floodplain, and immediately downstream from two Superfund sites. Is Korman trying to put low- and moderate-income renters on land that other buyers wouldn’t touch?

Bottom line

Wetlands such as this one act as sponges that soak up water. Because of development in this and surrounding neighborhoods, there is more water, it’s coming faster, and there are fewer places to store it. If we throw in high-density housing on fill that is structurally questionable and potentially toxic, we increase the chances of disaster.

Furthermore, current environmental trends are not encouraging for this site. Sea levels are rising. One of the more sobering recent revelations about the climate was that the arctic ice cap has shrunk to the smallest size ever recorded, and some experts predict that the Northwest Passage through the Arctic Ocean could be clear as soon as 2016.

As the ice melts and ceases to reflect sunlight back into space, the ocean absorbs even more heat. This positive feedback loop is accelerating the melting of the ice. Trends suggest that storm events like the current one will become more frequent and more severe as a result.

It’s even more unwise to build high-density housing with limited access and egress near “one of the country’s most flood-prone streams … and a national lesson in what can go wrong along a developed waterway” when we know it’s only going to get worse.

Fifty years ago, when Eastwick was the site of a massive urban redevelopment project, it was done with good intentions. Today, however, good planning and common sense indicate – at least to those outside the Korman Co. and the city administration – that it is a bad idea to further develop this area.

To some, the more than 1,000 additional people who would live in harm’s way are abstractions. But when this site floods again, those people will become victims – all for the sake of a developer’s bottom line.

If we have learned anything from recent history, it should be that water always wins.

Michael P. Nairn is a landscape architect and a lecturer in the urban studies program at the University of Pennsylvania. He can be reached at mpnairn@sas.upenn.edu.

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