Personal Essay: Our Mayor reflects on the city he loves

Illustration by Corey Brickley

Illustration by Corey Brickley

Greater, Better, More Beautiful

by Michael A. Nutter

I have spent my whole life in Philadelphia. This is my place in the world. As my two terms of mayor come to an end, I think back to the Philadelphia I knew as a child and as a young man in the 1960s and 1970s. There is a lot to miss about those days (the music!)—but the state of our local environment was not one of them. 

Growing up in West Philly, the nature that I knew and explored was Fairmount Park and Cobbs Creek. Later, representing the 4th District in City Council, I became familiar with the rhythms of the Schuylkill River, the challenges posed by aging infrastructure, and urban gardening as a productive use of vacant land. As the sustainability movement took root in my consciousness—and as cities across the country began to take the lead—the notion of connecting environmental health to livability and economic vitality resonated deeply with me. 

My time in office has coincided with a welcome shift in focus back to cities. Increasingly, people are choosing to live in cities, companies are relocating from suburban office parks to downtown areas, and creative ideas for the urban form are popping up everywhere. Even national environmental organizations that have traditionally focused on Big Wilderness and the kind of nature that is over there, have reoriented to acknowledge that it is also right here where most of us live. All evidence suggests this trend will not reverse course any time soon. 

Given this shift, the question is: what kind of city do we want to live in together and what do we need to do to achieve our shared vision?

As I reflect on the past eight years, I feel that my Administration’s commitment to sustainability and the progress we made are among our greatest accomplishments. With Greenworks, we established a plan that extended sustainability goals to every part of government, and beyond. Our partners in the community and in the business sector were, and remain, critical; there is a little something for everyone to connect to when it comes to sustainability. This integrated planning approach built a diverse set of leaders and champions that are driving work forward all across the city; things are happening now that I often don’t hear about until they’re completed—a sign that this way of working is here to stay. Together, we’ve developed a wide and deep community of practice, to which the pages of Grid are a testament. 

In my 23 years in public service, I have been guided by the Athenian Oath, which hangs in my office as a daily reminder to “…transmit this city greater, better and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.” In the last eight years, we have added 157 new acres of open space, greened more than 580 acres to manage stormwater, improved air quality, added 100 miles of bike lanes, 39.8 miles of trails, increased access to healthy affordable food, and planted more than 120,000 new trees. That is the kind of progress that hits close to home for us all.

Greenworks sunsets in 2015 but in no way are we are finished—just the opposite is true. We now have the information and experience with which to build a next generation of work that goes even further and deeper. The reality of climate change is upon us and reducing Philadelphia’s carbon footprint while adapting as a city to our changing environment will be a defining charge of the coming years and decades. But, as the saying goes, great opportunities are often disguised as insoluble problems. 

When I was sworn in as mayor, I pledged to make Philadelphia one of the greenest cities in the United States. I am proud of the progress that we have made and the legacy I hope I will leave. It’s a vision I know Mayor-elect Kenney shares and will advance as the city’s next steward. I know that you share it, too. I can’t wait to see what you all do next for our city.

Mayor Michael Nutter served two terms as mayor of Philadelphia from 2008 through 2015. He is a life-long resident of the city.