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Environment & Energy

Conference Focuses on Building Sustainable Communities

About 120 municipal leaders, non-profits and conservationists gathered in downtown Pittsburgh for a forum on creating sustainable communities. While that is a broad term, the conference focused mainly on green infrastructure, healthy communities, and low-cost land management practices.

"Mother Nature does a good job of controlling storm water and things like that. If we pave over all of our green spaces, then we have to pay money to create storm water infrastructure and things like that," said Hannah Hardy, director of recreational infrastructure for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, one of the organizations sponsoring the event.

Building rain gardens was one method of incorporating natural storm water control into urban landscapes that was discussed. Several rain gardens in the Pittsburgh region were highlighted. These are areas with native plants, grasses and trees, like a typical garden. But during a storm or shower, the rain garden soaks up a few inches of water runoff from a roof, driveway, or other paved surface. That water slowly seeps into the ground instead of heading for the nearest storm drain. This, said conference organizers, dramatically decreases flooding in areas where that's been a problem.

Already Working

Previous sustainable community efforts in East Liberty and Cranberry Township were highlighted. The key, said Hardy, is to have strong partnerships between local governments and private companies to make large-scale sustainable communities possible.

"These are communities where people have access to recreational opportunities, they can get to work, they have schools that they are very happy with, walkable communities, these are communities where people can enjoy a high quality of life," she said.

And many organizations are trying to create such communities in previously blighted urban areas through the building of large national chains, like East Liberty's Home Depot and Target stores, community volunteering in urban gardens, and efforts to "green" streets, or alleviate storm water inflow into sanitary sewer systems.

But sometimes, large-scale sustainable community projects can come with a large price tag, which makes some nervous in a shaky economy. But, Hardy said, the economic benefits are many, including increased property values for homeowners, more local jobs, and saved money on storm water infrastructure.