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Pittsburgh’s Move From Steel to Sustainability

"Have you been to Pittsburgh before?” a number of locals asked during a green-themed press trip to Pennsylvania’s second most-populous city in May. “Because it’s a completely different city than it was years ago.”

It wasn’t long before everyone in our group of 20-odd journalists was nodding emphatically in agreement. Our first night, as we enjoyed a cocktail on a rooftop garden of Three PNC Plaza — a LEED Gold–certified, mixed-use high-rise — we learned how the city has morphed from a smoggy, sooty steel capital into a diversified, forward- thinking destination that President Obama chose to host the G-20 Summit in 2009 and that National Geographic Traveler called one of the top 20 places to visit in 2012. Not only has Pittsburgh come to personify what an economic reawakening looks like, with a cluster of education, technology, and other industries on the rise after its trademark steel factories moved abroad more than half a century ago, the city is also redefining what it means to be truly green. Pretty impressive for a place that used to be called the “Smoky City.”

For the next three days, we visited a plethora of venues, buildings, and neighborhoods, all showcasing Pittsburgh’s overarching theme of green. One of the best examples of this citywide commitment is the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, which just days before had unveiled a brand-new plaque for becoming the first convention center in the United States to earn LEED Platinum certification. The 1.5-million-square- foot facility had already achieved LEED Gold status, and went under the microscope for a two-year case study of its operations and maintenance to earn the Platinum rating. From installing its own sewage-treatment plant to putting in a new roof garden, the riverfront facility has left no detail to unsustainable chance.  General Manager Mark Leahy has even created the g1 (greenfirst) initiative to brand David L. Lawrence’s unique sustainability methods and practices.

Good deeds are more easily done in greater numbers, and the more places we visited the more inspiring examples we found of sustainability done right. The Center for Sustainable Landscapes, currently under construction adjacent to the gorgeous Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, will become one of the world’s first certified “living buildings.” By generating its own energy and water, the structure will set a new standard for self-sufficient sustainability. Nearby, the Consol Energy Center, home to the National Hockey League’s Pittsburgh Penguins, has added another first to the city’s resume – the 18,387-seat arena is the first sports facility to earn LEED Gold certification. Both FedEx and Verizon have used the venue for sales meetings and events.

Another Pittsburgh perk for green- minded groups: It’s easy to get around. The pedestrian-friendly sidewalks are full here, and the “T” – Pittsburgh Light Rail, which turns into a free subway downtown – connects visitors to the rest of the city. A favorite stop is The Strip District, a funky neighborhood full of local charm and been-there- forever eateries. Don’t leave without digging into a stack of hotcakes at Pamela’s Diner and enjoying Primanti Bros.’ fries-topped “Almost Famous” sandwich. Our group certainly didn’t.

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Jennifer N. Dienst

Contributing Editor Jennifer N. Dienst is a freelance writer based in Charleston, South Carolina.