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Becky Hammer’s Blog

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Scores Another "Emerald City" Point With New Green Infrastructure Initiatives

Becky Hammer

Posted October 29, 2013 in Curbing Pollution

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When many people think about Pittsburgh, the first thing that comes to mind is the city’s historical association with industry – especially steel.  These days, however, you may be more likely to see a green roof or a rain garden in Pittsburgh than a steel mill.  That’s because this city of three rivers is expanding its efforts to use green infrastructure techniques to reduce water pollution and revitalize its communities.

Today, we’re happy to report that Pittsburgh has achieved an additional point on our “Emerald City” rating system, detailed in NRDC’s most recent update of its report Rooftops to RiversLast updated in 2011, Rooftops to Rivers highlights cities that are using green infrastructure to solve their stormwater pollution and sewer overflow problems.  Today’s update reveals that in just the past two years, cities across the country have made significant progress in implementing their green infrastructure programs.

The phrase “green infrastructure” refers to a suite of techniques that mimic natural processes by capturing rainwater and beneficially managing it by storing it for use, evaporating it back to the atmosphere, or letting it filter into the ground, where it can benefit vegetation and replenish groundwater supplies.  Examples of green infrastructure include green roofs, street trees, increased green space, rain barrels, rain gardens, and permeable pavement. 

Not only does green infrastructure conserve and cleanse rainwater, it also has the added benefits of beautifying neighborhoods, cooling and cleaning the air, reducing asthma and heat-related illnesses, lowering heating and cooling energy costs, boosting economies, and supporting American jobs.

Green roof on Pittsburgh convention center – photo courtesy Penn State University

In Rooftops to Rivers, NRDC has identified six key actions that cities should take to maximize green infrastructure investment and become “Emerald Cities.”  When we last wrote about Pittsburgh in 2011, it had one “Emerald City” point for its stormwater ordinance that establishes stormwater volume reduction standards, including a requirement that developments larger than 10,000 square feet retain the first inch of rainfall on-site.

Since then, Pittsburgh has earned a second “Emerald City” point thanks to its efforts to expand awareness of the value of green infrastructure among citizens, and to provide guidance and assistance for those who want to implement it.  

The most significant of those efforts, RainWays, was launched by 3 Rivers Wet Weather, a nonprofit environmental organization created to address Pittsburgh’s regional wet weather overflow problems.  RainWays is an online tool that helps property owners, planners, and engineers site, cost, and determine the performance of green infrastructure in public and private spaces.

Other important efforts happening in Pittsburgh include:

  • TreeVitalize Pittsburgh—This partnership organization has planted more than 19,000 trees in Allegheny County and will reach its goal of 20,000 in the fall of 2013.  The organization is also completing two large bioswales, totaling 6,000 square feet, through the Millvale TreeVitalize Project.
  • Panther Hollow Watershed Restoration—The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, the city of Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, and the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN) are implementing a comprehensive plan to reduce runoff and restore the Panther Hollow Watershed.  Green infrastructure projects to be installed by spring 2014 include infiltration trenches, level spreaders, retentive grading (methods of landscape grading that slow surface runoff, allow infiltration into soil, and prevent erosion), and “no mow” lawns consisting of native plants.
  • StormWorks 2010—This program supplies runoff mitigation products, such as rain barrels, rain gardens, and trees, as well as consultation, installation, and landscape design services, to communities in Allegheny County.  Pittsburgh’s Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, which works to improve, restore, and protect the Nine Mile Run Watershed, launched this effort in 2010.

These initiatives show that Pittsburgh is well on its way to becoming a green infrastructure leader, helping to clean up its rivers and improve residents’ quality of life.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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