For more than a hundred years, Pittsburgh was home to numerous steel mills, and so had a reputation as one of the country's most productive, but polluted, cities. Mills churned out billowing gray smoke and ash that turned an eerie shade of orange as the sun sank below the horizon. One writer called the place "hell with the lid off."
That's what some people still expect to find on a trip to Pittsburgh. But they'd be wrong. Visitors emerging from the Fort Pitt Tunnel today are welcomed by a spectacular view of a city experiencing a vibrantly green renaissance that is the pride and joy of gregarious Pittsburghers.
A walk through the city's Strip District reveals a burgeoning locavore food scene with an emphasis on freshly sourced and prepared ethnic food, an eclectic collection of unique shops, and an equally diverse crowd scene. Every Saturday morning, Farmers@Firehouse, an organic farmers' market, is held in a parking lot right next to a former firehouse. It's a place to stock up on local produce, natural food products, and great conversation, although you might need a translator for the local Pittsburghese. "Hey yinz guys, I have to red up the house before heading dahntahn." Which means: "Hey you guys, I have to clean the house before heading downtown." Pittsburghers call themselves yinzers for using the slang term yinz.
The civic move to sustainability is best seen at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, which is centered on a Victorian glasshouse built in 1893 on 21⁄2 acres. The welcome center, completed in 2005, includes a café that sources organic and local whenever possible. The production greenhouses became the first greenhouses to achieve LEED certification and were certified at the platinum level in 2012. (LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a certification process for green construction.)
Phipps has recently expanded its campus by adding the Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL) to house its research, education, and administration offices. The LEED Silver certified building, located in front of the classic glasshouse, is zero net energy—it actually produces more energy than it uses—and zero net water, too. The CSL was built in concert with the Living Building Challenge, which promotes sustainable construction practices by setting challenges and rewarding winners with global recognition. The combination of innovative building techniques, solar and wind power, and water storage and purification systems makes the new building at Phipps one of the greenest in the world.
Green roofs are popular in Pittsburgh, and the green roof at Hamerschlag Hall at Carnegie Mellon University is a great place to get a close look at a wide variety of tough plants. While on campus, check out the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation on the fifth floor of the Hunt Library. It houses what might be the greatest collection of contemporary botanical art in the world. Pick up a magnifying glass from the front desk to examine the details of these artworks.
Downtown, near the newly renovated Market Square, is the LEED Gold certified Fairmont Pittsburgh hotel. The hotel does not recycle air as some large buildings do, and deploys indoor plants to boost air quality. The hotel's fine restaurant is worth a meal: The chef adheres to the nose-to-tail philosophy of food use, going so far as to render beef suet down for making lavender-scented soap used throughout the hotel. This marvel of environmental sanity springs from the green-building philosophy of the hotel's owners, PNC Financial Services Group. PNC's campaign to support eco-sensitive design began with a small suburban branch of the bank, and today PNC is building the world's greenest skyscraper blocks away from the Fairmont, set to open in 2015 as the company's world headquarters. But for now, visitors can check out the huge PNC green wall—the largest in North America—located at 5th Avenue and Wood Street.
American cities have for too long turned their backs to their rivers, but Pittsburgh, with three (the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela), has been rediscovering the value of its waterways and the beautiful bridges that cross them. A good way to see this is from a riverboat (the Gateway Clipper fleet offers a good ride), but for landlubbers, a park named The Point is famous as the place where the three rivers converge. You can cool down in the mist from the large ebullient fountain at its heart.
Summer visitors can ride in Green Gear Pedicabs to explore the city's food scene. Places like Habitat (in the Fairmont) and Six Penn Kitchen are making the most of locally produced food. A short cab ride offers more locavore spots like Legume, Cure, and Salt of the Earth. You could say that Pittsburgh is smoking again—but in a completely different and healthier way.
All Port Authority buses have bike racks, and many run on natural gas or are hybrids. The subway is free from downtown to the ball parks and runs under the river.
East of the city is the borough of Braddock, home to Grow Pittsburgh's Braddock Farms, the borough's only source for fresh produce, which is grown organically. Grow Pittsburgh also runs Edible Schoolyard Pittsburgh, based on Alice Waters' seed-to-table model, and other good-food projects.
Head north to Springdale to see the Rachel Carson Homestead, where the environmental pioneer was born and lived as a child. Docent-led tours are available by appointment.
Follow the Ohio River 20 miles northwest of downtown to find Old Economy Village in Ambridge. The preserved, original historic village was the 19th-century home of the Harmonists, a Christian communal group. Period-accurate buildings are surrounded by spectacular flower, herb, and vegetable gardens. Horticulturist Dean Sylvester grows his plants organically and composts on a large scale. Catch him on the right day, and he might send you home with a ripe heirloom tomato.
Originally published in Organic Gardening Magazine August/September 2013.