Environmental issues do not observe political boundaries. As rivers and valleys tie regions together, they equally bind diverse communities to a shared future. In Pittsburgh, the three river towns of Millvale, Etna, and Sharpsburg are forging their own connections, and the newly launched Triboro EcoDistrict promises to be a model for neighborhoods around the country.
Led by the Etna Economic Development Corporation, Sharpsburg Neighborhood Organization, and New Sun Rising with support from evolveEA, the partnership focuses on building a sustainable future for the more than 10,000 residents of the Allegheny valley. The community-driven strategy addresses food, water, energy, air quality, mobility, with particular emphasis on and equitable development.
“This process has to be led by local residents,” said Brian Wolovich of New Sun Rising and Triboro EcoDistrict Director. “It’s local people committed to their own neighborhoods. Their leadership is as critical as any investment we make.”
Millvale began the process of preparing its own EcoDistrict plan in 2012, and the other two communities joined forces in 2016. The three boroughs were awarded a Henry L. Hillman Foundation grant of $2.3 million to work on the plan.
“We spent 18 months planning this without taking money,” Wolovich said. “We had a chance to listen to people at community meetings, church spaghetti dinners, everywhere.”
Program activities began in June and were focused on topics chosen through an analysis of community surveys, plans, and ongoing conversations.
The first project aims to increase independent energy production for community resilience. A solar panel canopy was built in the Garden of Etna with electric car charging ports, while in Sharpsburg, the community library will receive panels as the focus of clean energy education. Panels in Millvale will power the former Moose lodge building, supporting a series of investments in local start-ups including 412 Food Rescue and catering company Sprezzatura.
Using local companies for both construction and sustainability projects is an important facet of the plan. “Who gets the construction contracts?” Wolovich said. “Companies from out of state or the suburbs? I take issue with that. There are plenty of capable companies right here in Pittsburgh.”
Further tying the developments to community health, a three-year solar fellowship accompanies all the solar installations. The program provides teens from the area with hands-on experience in the installation process and helps prepare them for jobs of the future.
The three communities are next gearing up to tackle affordable housing. While gentrification is often linked to economic growth in nearby neighborhoods, theTriBoro model emphasizes the participation of all residents.
“We are dropping as many anchors as possible so that people who live here can stay here,” explains Wolovich. “The plan will specifically address the anxiety of gentrification through affordable and sustainable housing projects, with a focus on the most vulnerable populations.”
As residents advocate for healthier communities across the nation, Wolovich believes the Triboro model has broad application. By placing people at the center of development, any town can find common ground with their neighbors. Far from a standardized approach, he emphasizes that plans should have as many bends and bridges as the specific challenges they address. After all, what would a community be without its peaks and valleys.