Destination of the week: Pittsburgh
Former steel town is reinventing itself with an eye toward nature and green building.
Thu, May 19, 2011 at 06:53 AM
Pittsburgh is one of the Eastern United States' former industrial powerhouses that has been successful in reinventing itself. Previously known for its now-shuttered steel mills, it has become a hub for the tech industry, health care, education and financial services. Somewhat surprisingly, given the fact that the city struggled through a recession after its steel industry began to falter, Pitt is now one of the nicest places to live in the Eastern U.S. Its parks and rivers provide eco-tourism options to people who want to experience the green side of this newly vibrant metropolis. The surrounding areas of Allegheny County also have easily accessible nature-themed attractions.
A model of Rust Belt reinvention, Pittsburgh has become a progressive city with a surprisingly green consciousness. Organizations throughout the metro and the surrounding areas champion initiatives for cleaner air, conservation and better public transportation. And of course, Pitt has become a respectable mainstream tourist destination: It boasts spectator sports (including two recent championship-winning pro franchises), shopping, restaurants and art scenes that have all earned positive buzz from travelers and the media.
The Fairmont Pittsburgh, the city's showcase green hotel, is the first in the area to receive LEED certification. It earned LEED gold level status without sacrificing design — this is one of the city's most eye-catching sleeping spots, both inside and out. LED and CFL lighting, efficient appliances and low-flow sinks and toilets are the extent of most “green hotels” eco-friendly measures. But that is only the first chapter of the story at the Pitt Fairmont. The hotel was constructed using organic and recycled materials. Bedding and carpets were made from organic fibers, and even the woodworking was certified by the Forest Stewardship Council because it was harvested from sustainably grown forests.
For those who want to go even greener, Raccoon Creek State Park outside the city has a campground. Some sites have electrical outlets and wooded sites offer semi-privacy. The campground has showers and garbage and recycling containers.
The idea of organic, sustainable eating has really taken hold in Pittsburgh's dining scene. Dinette Restaurant and Wine Bar is a good example. The seasonally varied menu includes ingredients grown on a rooftop garden above the restaurant. Gourmet pizzas are the stars of the menu. Dinette's chef, Sonja Finn, was twice a semi-finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award and was named one of MNN's 40 chefs under 40.
Cafe Phipps, at the Phipps Conservatory, is another green eating option. Its seasonal menu features local foods and sustainably grown wines. Phipps also has an extensive composting program and on-site water filters. Even if you forget all about the green features, the bright, airy eating space still makes this an incredibly attractive dining choice.
Another spot worth mentioning is Bona Terra, an Italian restaurant that “flies the flag of local-sustainable-organic-fresh.” The chef works extensively with local farmers and food artisans to create an ever-changing menu. The cleverly named Burgh'ers is a gourmet hamburger joint with a twist: It uses fresh, local and organic ingredients. Would-be diners can head to the restaurant’s website for a list of farms that the restaurant works with.
The Eat 'n Park chain does not fit in the same category as the creative and high quality restaurants above, but its location in suburban Pittsburgh is just as green, and has the LEED certification to prove it. A 40-foot wind turbine supplies some of the restaurant’s power, and Earth-friendly landscaping and special perks for hybrid and low-emission cars help this classic car-hop eatery earn credibility amongst environmentally minded patrons.
Geography makes Pittsburgh a difficult city to navigate. The hills and rivers mean that roads are anything but grid-like, and bridges over the rivers can get crowded during rush hour. To truly explore Pitt, a car is the most obvious and convenient means of transportation; however, there are alternatives. The Port Authority runs the public transit system, which relies heavily on buses. There is also a light rail system known locally as the T. Service is free within the downtown area, and other trips cost $2 to $3, depending on distance.
Green Gears Pedi-Cabs offers an emission-free alternative to buses and taxis. The company runs a fleet of pedicabs that are used mainly by people heading downtown or sightseeing. Street cycling is difficult in Pittsburgh because of the narrow streets and sometimes-confusing layout. There is a decent network of bike paths, however. Pittsburgh is also the starting point (or ending point) of the Allegheny Bike Passage, a long, scenic trail that runs between Pittsburgh and Washington.
The Phipps Conservatory is one of the nation's best botanical gardens. It features 17 plant exhibits along with regular shows and events. The gardens, inhabited by plant life from different biomes around the world, is the main attraction, but they are only part of the Phipps story. The conservatory is dedicated to the sustainability movement. Its Center for Sustainable Landscapes, a building that is part of a multi-year expansion project, will be built to exceed LEED Platinum standards. It will be completely self-sufficient, producing all its own energy and collecting all water that would otherwise be wasted. When completed, it will be one of the first net-zero energy and net-zero water-waste buildings in the country. Even without the building and its impending Platinum certification, Phipps has impressive green cred. Its Project Green Heart inspires and educates people on how to make their own gardens, homes and lives more environmentally friendly. A more modest, but more idyllic, garden can be found at Pittsburgh’s Chatham University, where over 30 acres of the 40-acre campus are part of an arboretum.
Bird-lovers will appreciate the National Aviary. Calling itself “America's Bird Zoo,” the aviary has birds from around the world. Because of the many interactive activities and educational opportunities, this is one of the better places in the city to take children. Of course, the showcase venue for animal encounters is the Pittsburgh Zoo, and the adjoining PPG Aquarium. The zoo features several tropical exhibits, including a savannah and rainforest. It also has a nationally recognized children's zoo and a large aquarium. The bear exhibit here is one of the nation’s oldest, having been built just after the Great Depression.
The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy operates four huge parks in and around the city. In addition to these, the conservancy is involved in other initiatives, like the Urban Eco-stewards Training program, which teaches about the area's nature and also offers insights into living a more Earth-friendly life. The parks are easily accessible. Frick Park features 500-plus acres of wooded forests and hills that are crisscrossed with trails. There is also an onsite environmental education center. Highland Park is known for its classic gardens, reservoir and also as the home of the Pittsburgh Zoo. Riverview Park is another popular wooded spot (in North Pittsburgh) that has a host of trails that run along (or up-and-down) the steep slopes that lead down to the riverbed. The final member of Pittsburgh's Big Four is Schenley Park. This park is more of a civic space, with skating and regular events, but there are plenty of trails though wooded areas. The Phipps Conservatory (see above) is also in Schenley. Kayak Pittsburgh allows visitors to take their carbon-free excursion onto the rivers that are such an important part of Pittsburgh’s landscape.
The Pittsburgh region is home to hills, heavily wooded landscapes, and numerous streams and rivers. The town of Ohiopyle, along the Youghiogheny River, and surrounding Ohiopyle State Park are the perfect spot for those who think that a couple hundred acres of urban greenspace isn't enough. There are two major waterfalls that are easily accessible from town and also plenty of hiking and biking trails. A stretch of the Great Allegheny Passage (mentioned above) passes along the river, offering a scenic and relatively flat hike or ride. Other trails, however, have steep uphill sections that are strenuous but lead to amazing views.
Pittsburgh is on the way to becoming a greener place. Some of its institutions, businesses and public venues are championing a more Earth-friendly approach to development and business. That's good news for tourists, who will not be at a loss when they seek out eco-friendly attractions in this reinvigorated city.
Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.