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Grit and Gratification: A Profile of One Man's Successful Career in Green Infrastructure

NatureWORKS initiative team members Mandi Moon and Sara Lamback of Jobs for the Future spoke with Gerald Bright about his role with the Philadelphia Water Department, his background, and his advice for those interested in pursuing careers related to green infrastructure (GI) inspection and maintenance.

Bright is the Group Manager of the Green Stormwater Maintenance Group for the Philadelphia Water Department. Born and raised in Philadelphia, he has been in charge of the program since 2012—a few years after its inception and four years after he first started working at the Philadelphia Water Department Office of Watersheds as an Environmental Scientist. Running the department is no simple task, according to Bright.

What is green stormwater maintenance?

Green stormwater maintenance includes the servicing of both vegetation and systems such as rain gardens and stormwater trenches, as well as more complex pipe or hydraulic structures that reduce stormwater runoff and improve water quality. Proper system maintenance ensures that the economic, social, and environmental benefits of these systems are maximized.”

Activities include:

  • Planning maintenance activities through the development of manuals and protocols
  • Tracking maintenance and collecting data on system performance;
  • Participating in the design and implementation of green stormwater systems
  • Managing contractors who build systems and ensure that they are functioning correctly
  • Training and education of the general public on green stormwater systems

"We're always busy, we're doing a million things at once," he said.

The GI maintenance program that Bright oversees is responsible for the operation, inspection and maintenance of over 500 existing GI systems in the city of Philadelphia, and counting. Bright's group employs eight full-time staff members with diverse responsibilities including field inspections, landscape management, aesthetic maintenance (the removal of litter and debris), subsurface work such as CCTV video inspection, inlet cleaning and pipe flushing and repairs. The staff also collects a myriad of data to analyze the condition and performance of all the existing systems which is used to identify site-specific maintenance and repair tasks.

In addition to his full-time staff, Bright also helps to coordinate the work of crews from the PowerCorps_PHL workforce development program and over 40 contractors. He works closely with the units that design and construct GI systems, as well as several other Philadelphia agencies such as the Philadelphia Streets Department and the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department.. In doing so, he has to “draw on every bit of experience” he has.

“I had a pretty multidisciplinary education,” said Bright, who has a Bachelor’s of Science from Howard University in Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, and Chemistry, as well as a Master’s degree in Environmental Science from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

As far as his own job responsibilities go, Bright takes charge of the logistics of the GI maintenance group’s daily operations—what he calls “moving real people in real time and space.”

“I’ve been able to move from a project-based science where you’re working on one thing at a time to a role in which I can coordinate activities at 500 systems at once, each with its own intricacies and backstories and relationships to the community. I came in with a great understanding of many things, but I’ve learned so much more in the meantime.”

While Bright’s work is highly skilled and intellectual, he emphasized that his commitment to his work also stems from his personal connection to the city. He explained, “We have a lot of [GI] in West Philadelphia where I grew up…. for me it’s almost surreal that the Philadelphia Water Department is one of the national leaders in urban stream restoration, wetland creation, and GI and that I’ve had opportunities to come home and work in the same parks, streams and recreation centers that I visited as a child.” So, while his job is challenging, it appears to be a true labor of love.

Looking towards the future, Bright sees the continuing expansion of Philadelphia’s GI program, which will require a continually growing workforce. “When we get up to 1000 sites, we won’t be able to manage that effort with the same labor force we have.” Which comes as no surprise, since Philadelphia has been a leader in GI with its Green City, Clean Waters initiative (which aims to reduce stormwater pollution), which has reportedly contributed to the growth of private and public GI jobs in Philadelphia.

Consequently, as other cities seek to develop and expand their GI systems and the accompanying maintenance procedures and protocols, they should look to the example of Philadelphia and the impassioned leadership of civil servants like Gerard Bright.

Check out the resources below to learn more about Bright, the expansion of green stormwater infrastructure in Philadelphia, and how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is promoting GI projects nationwide.

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