Paseo Verde. All photos courtesy of APM website
When our Philadelphia Affiliate, Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha, Inc. (APM), set out to build a new housing development three years ago, they didn’t expect to become a globally recognized leader in green building construction. But that’s exactly what happened. A fixture in Philadelphia since 1970, APM was founded by Vietnam War veterans who saw a critical need for social services for the city’s Spanish speakers. Over time, the organization evolved, offering new services to assist with financial access, home building, home buying, mental health, and early childhood education. Today, it is the largest Latino nonprofit in Pennsylvania.
While APM has collected many accolades over the years, it’s their most recent endeavor—the completion of the Paseo Verde development—that has generated global attention. Paseo Verde is a transit-oriented housing development (meaning it encourages the use of public transportation) complete with mixed-income housing, a community center, a medical center, a pharmacy, and the home of APM headquarters. It has also been recognized by the U.S. Green Building Council as the greenest neighborhood development in the United States, receiving a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Neighborhood Development Platinum certification. This is the first certification in the country and only the second worldwide.
“It really has brought a centerpiece to the community that wasn’t there before,” said APM Director of External Affairs Rick Olmos. “It feels like home. The colors are vibrant, it doesn’t look like every other building, and it takes up an entire block.”
The development was built to appear like row houses, with green roofs, as well as grass and trees in various sections of the complex. Although the project was an ambitious undertaking, APM had experience building green units and believed the project would dramatically improve the neighborhood, situated in the Temple University area of Philadelphia.
Indeed, it has. After securing the location and funding from 23 different sources, APM began construction with a partner, Jonathan Rose Companies, who has experience in green building. Paseo Verde finally opened to the public in January of this year with 120 housing units, 56 of which are low-income. Since opening, residents have begun to reap the benefits of living in the greenest building in the country.
“We’re already tracking the anecdotal evidence about lower rates of asthma since people have moved in,” said President and CEO of APM Nilda Ruiz. “Tenants tell us all the time how much lower their electric bills are than before.”
Building green developments is only part of the revitalization that has taken hold in this part of Philadelphia. One of the other major goals for APM is to educate residents and community members about what it means to be committed to green solutions.
“Public education about the importance of healthy neighborhoods and green buildings is ongoing,” said Ruiz. “People associate having a car with wealth, so getting folks to take public transportation takes some time, but I think it’s starting to catch on.”
Ruiz and her staff have arranged for Zipcar (a car sharing program) to house two vehicles on-site. APM also provides education on how to maintain good air quality, and promotes the use of environmentally friendly cleaning products. To encourage walking, they have worked with the Department of Health, the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society to put up markers around the neighborhood so residents, especially seniors, can track how far they have walked. Together with the Horticultural Society, APM is teaching residents how to maintain community gardens, and how to plan small gardens in their own homes. For those interested in making their streets safer, there is a crime and safety group that meets regularly. No decisions about the community are made without the community’s contribution.
“With us, we have gathered the community and we asked them what their vision was,” said Ruiz. “We try to convene people to facilitate discussions around how they can better the neighborhood.”
It’s all part of what Ruiz calls APM’s theory of change: if a child is in a healthy family, he or she will thrive; if a family is in a healthy neighborhood, they will thrive; if a neighborhood has all the amenities it needs, it will thrive in a city.
Paseo Verde is undeniably an asset for the entire city of Philadelphia and should serve as a model for other community-based organizations all over the country that are interested in building healthier, more sustainable communities. As an NCLR Affiliate and member of the Board of Directors, Ruiz understands the power of the network and cites it as a contributing factor to the group’s success.
“I love our combined missions as an Affiliate. I believe this is our time and we need to take advantage of it,” said Ruiz. “The move sometimes is slow, but we’re moving in the right direction. We’re going to have a much better country at the end.”