Pittsburgh Ranks in Top 'Green' Cities

Report says it still has a long way to go

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
21 November 2011
By Joe Smydo

Despite chronic flooding and sewage discharges into the rivers, Pittsburgh has received a pat on the back from a national group that tracks cities' use of "green infrastructure" to mitigate water-related problems.

Pittsburgh was one of 14 cities and metropolitan areas touted Wednesday in Rooftops to Rivers II, a new report by the nonprofit National Resources Defense Council on efforts to reduce sewage and stormwater runoff.

While Pittsburgh wasn't rated as highly as most of the other cities in the report, the council said all 14 have taken steps that should be emulated by municipalities across the country and encouraged by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"Each of the cities profiled in Rooftops to Rivers II is a leader in green infrastructure investment," said the report, accessible at www.nrdc.org/rooftops.

Among other initiatives, Pittsburgh was lauded for the greening of vacant lots, tree planting, restrictions on certain development projects and efforts to involve the public in green infrastructure projects.

The compliment may come as a surprise to residents who are well aware of the region's problems with sewage and stormwater problems, including sewage overflows into the rivers.

"We do have some great initiatives going on here ... We just have a long way to go," said John Schombert, executive director of 3 Rivers Wet Weather, a group that helps municipalities with water management.

Nationwide, the council said, 10 trillion gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater pollute waterways and beaches each year. It says green infrastructure -- including green roofs, trees, permeable pavement and rain gardens -- not only help prevent runoff but are less expensive alternatives to pipes and other "gray" infrastructure traditionally used in the proper disposal of sewage and stormwater.

On the council's Emerald City Rating System, Philadelphia was the only city that met all six benchmarks -- long-term green planning, dedicated funding for green infrastructure, incentives for property owners, guidance on green infrastructure, restrictions regarding water retention, and restrictions on impervious surfaces at developments.

Milwaukee; New York City; Portland, Ore.; Syracuse, N.Y.; and Washington, D.C., each met five of the

benchmarks. Aurora, Ill., and Toronto, Canada, met four. Chicago; Kansas City, Mo.; Nashville, Tenn.; and

Seattle met three. And Pittsburgh and Michigan's Rouge River Watershed met one.

Singled out for praise were the Green Up Pittsburgh program, which is Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's initiative to turn vacant lots into green space, and an ordinance, sponsored by Councilman Bill Peduto, that requires developers receiving public subsidies to control stormwater runoff.

"Yet the city has only a limited array of incentive programs or guidance available to the public or developers for incorporating green infrastructure, and does not have a dedicated funding source for green infrastructure," the report said. "Pittsburgh's work to promote green building practices and remove hurdles to green infrastructure [for instance, by changing city codes to allow for downspout disconnections] have fared well. But the city could benefit from a more integrated approach to incorporate green infrastructure in its long-term planning."

The report also notes continuing sewage overflows into the rivers, a problem that the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority, Pittsburgh and dozens of other municipalities are under orders to correct. Pittsburgh's problems have received heightened attention because of repeated flooding and the deaths of four people Aug. 19 in a flash flood.

Joe Smydo: jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.