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Connecting Our Shared Waters Through Community Engagement

Photo courtesy of Melody Mason.

Urban communities can tend to feel disconnected from their waterways — sometimes by geographic access barriers such as highways and industry, and sometimes by other types of barriers such as economic disparities or lack of information. That’s where the Urban Waters Federal Partnership (UWFP) comes in. By enhancing coordination among federal agencies and the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) and collaborating with community driven efforts, the UWFP helps to equitably advance economic, environmental, and social benefits.

These efforts toward environmental justice are most successful when informed by the lived experiences of the community members most impacted. It’s why this year, The Partnership for the Delaware Estuary (PDE) sponsored 16 community leaders from four federally-designated “urban waters cities” to attend and participate in the 2023 Delaware Estuary Science & Environmental Summit, held earlier this year. This was the first convening of PDE’s inaugural “community cohort,” with much more engagement to come.

These individuals from Camden, Chester, Philadelphia and Wilmington joined over 300 students, water quality professionals, government agencies and watershed nonprofits for a discussion about working to advance environmental justice within their communities via watershed work. Issues ranging from pollution to overdevelopment to stormwater management and beyond were all on the agenda.

A theme that emerged clearly and consistently is that environmental justice is intersectional and that focusing on areas most affected by environmental injustice yields the greatest benefits.

“The Summit encouraged me through Education and also not feeling like I was all alone working in The City of Chester section of the Delaware Estuary,” said Barron Lacy, Executive Director at 9th Street Youth and Community Center in Chester, Pennsylvania.

Another member remarked, “The Summit was a great opportunity to learn about the environmental issues impacting the Delaware Estuary and wide variety of research, innovative projects and community engagement happening across the region. I was surprised to find that the research presentations, trend reports, posters and panel discussions were not only accessible to an audience of scholars AND laypersons, but the topics were interesting too! I appreciate being provided with an orientation to these issues and feel fortunate to have been able to attend the Summit.”

Attending as an Urban Waters Community Cohort member provided a great learning opportunity and time to engage with other members doing similar work. I’ve already been able to partner on a project with one of the other members since meeting at the conference. Thank you for all you are doing,” shared Kerry Wilson of the Delaware Nature Society.

My own work coordinating the UWFP between federal agencies, the DRBC, and communities has shown me that flexibility is key. Meeting community members where they are and shaping programs and plans to support work that may already be happening rather than coming in with external directives often yields the most successful results.

In fact, PDE has started a mini-grant program to supplement the environmental justice work of community members that ranges from tree plantings to climate education to stipends for nature walks. Community members are already doing amazing work with their neighbors and connections, and PDE is here to supplement and expedite that work alongside the UWFP partners.

Environmental justice means engaging communities to meet their needs, and active listening is critical. Bringing the community cohort to the 2023 summit was just the first step. In-person meetings, project funding and deeper engagement is all on the way!

Erica Rossetti is the Urban Waters Program Coordinator at Partnership for the Delaware Estuary.


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