By Allison M. Heinrichs, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Sep. 20–If it wasn’t for an enduring image as the “Smoky City” — so dubbed by muckraking journalist Upton Sinclair — Pittsburgh might never have become a center for environmental innovation.
“I think there was a recognition, even in the pre-World War II period, that the city wasn’t livable,” said Anne Madarasz, director of the museum division at the Senator John Heinz History Center. “It wasn’t attractive and, were the steel industry to decline — and there were some indications it might, even then — we needed to invest in the city to attract people to live here and businesses to locate here.”
In the first half of the 20th century, Pittsburgh’s burgeoning iron, steel and related industries pumped so much soot into the air that streetlights would burn in the middle of the day and businessmen would have to change their white shirts at lunch because the pollution had made them dirty. More ominously, the city led the nation in pneumonia death rates, with 172 people dying of pneumonia for every 100,000 deaths in 1932, according to mortality records. Today, pneumonia is responsible for less than 23 of every 100,000 deaths, which is slightly below the national average.
Urban renewal projects, led by Mayor David L. Lawrence and financier Richard King Mellon, began transforming the city after World War II. In 1957, the Allegheny County Health Department’s air quality program was created to regulate air pollution.
“That actually predates the Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Protection,” said Jim Thompson, the county’s air quality program manager. “In fact, control techniques and standards developed here in Allegheny County have actually become models nationwide.
“But, having said that, we still have much more work to do.”
Some environmentalists point to air pollution in the Monongahela Valley, the once-proud steel manufacturing center. The American Lung Association ranked Pittsburgh as the nation’s sootiest city based on readings from pollution monitors in the Mon Valley.
Coal mining and a reliance on coal-fired power plants have negative environmental consequences. And urban sprawl, despite a declining population, brings with it longer commute times, increased stormwater run-off and habitat loss. Such environmental problems make Pittsburgh’s green branding ironic, said Eric Beckman, co-director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation.
“It’s a region of paradoxes,” Beckman said. “For every really cool thing that’s happening, you see something else that’s pretty uncool.”
Still, Pittsburgh is making a name for itself, especially in “green” building and the repurposing of former industrial areas called brownfields.
“A lot of these countries (coming to the G-20) are trying to figure out how they remake themselves. What do they do with their old industrial sites?” said Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato. “If you want to see the future of what an old industrial site could look like, we have it right here.”
Sixteen years ago, the Green Building Alliance was created in Pittsburgh at the same time that the U.S. Green Building Council was founded. Both organizations assist in creating buildings that operate more efficiently and have less environmental impact. Western Pennsylvania now boasts 221 green buildings.
To be considered green, a building needs to use less water and energy than its counterparts. Proximity to public transportation, recycling, low construction waste and use of sustainable, local materials all increase a building’s green credibility, said Holly Childs, executive director of the alliance.
Architectural firm Astorino built PNC Firstside Center, one of Downtown’s first green buildings, in 2000. Since that success, their mission is to push green practices in every building they design.
“I don’t have to fight for it as much anymore,” said Catherine Sheane, Astorino’s sustainability manager. “When I first started, I was constantly making pitches to clients who weren’t requesting sustainability components. Now they want it, now they ask me how to make their building green.”
David L. Lawrence Convention Center: The first and largest convention center in the world to earn the U.S. Green Building Council’s Gold Rating for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), Pittsburgh’s meeting venue plays host to the G-20 Summit. The convention center uses less than two-thirds the electricity of ordinary buildings its size and buys one gallon of water for every five gallons it uses. This is accomplished by such things as making use of daylight pouring through well-positioned windows, recycling water in an on-site treatment plant and cooling and heating through architecture instead of fans. www.pittsburghcc.com/cc/
Green U.: Pittsburgh’s universities are all getting in on the “green” trend. Point Park University, Downtown, recently opened its new dance complex, which earned the U.S. Green Building Council’s Gold LEED rating. Duquesne University in Uptown has been recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency for the past two years for purchasing energy obtained from renewable resources, such as solar, wind and geothermal. The University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, both in Oakland, have each created buildings that have obtained LEED status and both have established educational and research programs centered on environmental stewardship, green design and sustainability.
Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens: Pittsburgh’s garden grew greener over the past decade as officials decided to work sustainability into renovation plans. A U.S. Green Building Council Silver LEED rated welcome center, computer-controlled climate, energy efficient glass, innovative roof-venting systems and an underground passive cooling system combine to make Phipps one of the most energy-efficient conservatories worldwide. A new building is planned to house a “center for sustainable landscapes” that will generate all its own energy and capture and treat all the water it uses. phipps.conservatory.org/
TreeVitalize Pittsburgh: Within five years, Western Pennsylvania’s streets and parks will get 20,000 trees greener as this tree-planting initiative strives to improve the region’s quality of life and environment. Managed through the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, the program relies on a mix of private and public funding, as well as numerous volunteers to plant and care for the trees. So far 3,300 trees have been planted. www.paconserve.org/216/treevitalize
Green roofs: From ground-level, buildings in Pittsburgh look like, well, buildings. But from the sky looking down, many appear more like gardens. “Green” roofs are sprouting throughout the city — atop university lecture halls, grocery stores, hospitals, homes, museums and the zoo, among others. Created by spreading a layer of dirt on a roof capable of supporting the weight and then planting drought-resistant plants, green roofs reduce storm water run-off, moderate heating and cooling, and filter pollution.
The Edible Schoolyard: Now in its third year in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, this Grow Pittsburgh initiative seeks to improve students’ eating habits and enhance their academic performance by getting them involved in growing permanent vegetable gardens on school grounds. Planting starts in the spring before students leave for summer vacation. When they return in the fall, vegetables are harvested and the season culminates with a school-wide cooking demonstration. www.growpittsburgh.org
SouthSide Works: When the LTV Steel mill went idle in the mid-1980s, it left a large industrial complex rusting along the Monongahela River. Pittsburgh developer R. Damian Soffer stepped in to transform the brownfield a decade later, turning it into an open-air retail mecca that incorporates office and living space. The complex holds the U.S. Green Building Council’s Silver LEED rating. www.southsideworks.com/
Green building requirements: City-owned buildings and projects using Tax Increment Financing, or TIF, must be built to the U.S. Green Building Council’s Silver LEED rating standards. The ordinance applies to all properties with total costs more than $2 million or more than 10,000 square feet. Three years ago, the city passed another measure to encourage green building that permits builders who seek the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification to be awarded a 20 percent increase in floor area or height beyond zoning rules. www.city.pittsburgh.pa.us/
Green Building Alliance: This 16-year-old nonprofit agency guides the growth of Pittsburgh’s environmentally lower impact, higher efficiency buildings. Western Pennsylvania has 59 certified green buildings and 162 projects pursuing the designation. Because a principal tenant of green building is obtaining materials from local businesses in order to cut pollution from transportation, the alliance works to develop and attract companies to supply the green building industry. www.gbapgh.org
Three Rivers Arts Festival: Downtown’s outdoor celebration of all things artsy and crafty — not to mention fried festival food — has the makings of a mess. But in the past few years, the arts festival has cleaned up its act. In addition to the standard recycling bins for aluminum, paper and plastic, the festival has successfully incorporated compost bins. The cutlery, cups, straws and napkins used at the festival are all made of biodegradable cornstarch. And visitors are encouraged to use public transportation, carpool, bike and walk to the festival. The goal is to someday soon throw a zero-waste arts celebration. www.artsfestival.net/
Sustainability managers: Lindsay Baxter and Jeaneen Zappa are pushing Pittsburgh and Allegheny County to become examples of the “green” image being touted throughout Western Pennsylvania. Baxter is Pittsburgh’s sustainability manager and Zappa is Allegheny County’s. Both hired within the last year, the women are overseeing energy audits of municipal buildings, examining purchases to be sure they have low environmental impacts and encouraging city and county workers to adopt principles that save energy and resources. If they’re successful, their work should save the city and county money wasted on inefficient heating, lighting and wasted materials.
Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh: Opened earlier this year, Children’s is among the nation’s most environmentally low-impact, indoor healthy and digitally advanced hospitals. It has two buildings up for LEED certification; easy-access to public transportation; carpeting, paint and furniture that off-gas far less chemicals than typical counterparts; roof-top gardens; high-quality air filters, and water recycling. It is a paperless hospital, meaning that patient charts, prescriptions and doctors’ orders are all kept and transmitted electronically. www.chp.edu
Consol Energy Center: Pittsburgh’s new home for its Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins is aiming to be the National Hockey League’s most environmentally friendly venue. Slated to open in the fall of 2010, the Pens’ new arena will seek the U.S. Green Building Council’s Gold LEED rating. The arena will seat 18,087 hockey fans and feature an HD Jumbotron. Appropriately, city and NHL officials announced the green building goal on Earth Day. penguins.nhl.com/arena/index.htm
RiverQuest: With the motto: “Tell me, I’ll forget; Show me, I might remember; Involve me, I’ll understand,” this nonprofit organization takes schoolchildren and adults on boating field trips on the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers to teach about the importance waterways play in nature. Its newest vessel, Explorer, was built to U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED standards. It can run on biofuel, is constructed with recycled and sustainable products and has energy-efficient lighting, heating and cooling systems. www.riverquest.org/
Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh: When this North Side museum’s board decided to connect an old post office and the Buhl Planetarium to make one large museum, it went for a method that kept the best of the old and brought in the best of the new. By reusing old doors, marble, aluminum and copper, designers cut down on waste and preserved character. Bringing in sunlight with large windows cuts lighting costs and buying electricity created from renewable resources cuts environmental impact. Recycled art and proximity to public transportation round out the features that earned this building the U.S. Green Building Council’s Gold LEED rating. www.pittsburghkids.org/
U.S. Steel Clairton Plant: In late 2007, the largest coke-making factory in the United States — and one of the major reasons the Monongahela Valley south of Pittsburgh has consistently poor air quality — announced that it would pump more than $1 billion into making its process of baking coal into coke more efficient and, in turn, less polluting. Based on technology used in Germany, the coke works would have fewer places where pollution can escape and use excess coke oven gas to create electricity. The company has put its plans on hold while it waits for the economy to improve. www.ussteel.com
Cranberry: Just across the northern border into Butler County, this growing Pittsburgh suburb of 27,200 has made sustainability central to its 20-plus-year comprehensive plan. By year’s end, the township plans to replace all of its traffic lights with bulbs that use less energy. It’s timing traffic flow to reduce idling and the pollution it causes, building neighborhoods that promote walking, preserving farmland, irrigating golf courses with treated effluent from the waste treatment plant and promoting recycling above state standards. www.cranberrytownship.org
Conservation Consultants Inc: For nearly a decade, the solar-powered phones were ringing, the energy-efficient furnace was heating and the rooftop garden was producing vegetables at this 11,000-square-foot South Side building. Finally, in 2005, it became Western Pennsylvania’s first renovated building to receive the U.S. Green Building Council’s Gold LEED Rating. The former soap factory is a hub for local environmental endeavors. www.ccicenter.org/
Three bonus notable environmental innovations in Pittsburgh:
Senator John Heinz History Center: An affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, the History Center is Pennsylvania’s largest history museum — and among its greenest. In 2004, the Strip District museum opened its expansion and became a U.S. Green Building Council Silver LEED rated building. It is energy-efficient, used local and recycled building materials, has bike racks and shower facilities to encourage employees to bike to work, and has temperature and humidity controls to maximize gain from electricity use.
Global Links: This Pittsburgh not-for-profit has turned recycling into a way to not only divert medical supplies from landfills, but provide care to impoverished countries. Founded by three local women 20 years ago, Global Links convinces Western Pennsylvania hospitals to donate surplus and gently used medical supplies and devices, rather than throwing them out. The supplies are cleaned and sent to nine countries where they can be used in saving lives. In 2008 alone, Global Links redirected 200 tons of medical equipment that would have been landfilled. www.globallinks.org
Gtech Strategies: Turning Pittsburgh’s urban wastelands into environmentally friendly economic, educational and job-training opportunities is the goal of this nonprofit enterprise. Started two years ago, Gtech Strategies plants sunflowers on brownfields throughout city neighborhoods as part of its “Vacant Land Reclamation” model. The seeds are packaged and sold at Whole Foods Markets, while the plant material is harvested for biofuel. In June, President Obama invited Gtech’s leaders to the White House for an event to announce the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation. www.gtechstrategies.com
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