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Bright Ideas for a New Year: A few ideas to improve our region in 2012 and beyond

"Once Americans decide they want to do something ... they'll figure out nine different ways to do it."

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In many cases there's no better time for a fresh start than Jan. 1. The calendar resets, the seasons reset and since we're still on a post-holiday high, we're more susceptible to new ideas. Here are six bright ideas that we think could make our city and our region a little better in 2012.

Curbside composting is mandatory in San Francisco.
  • Curbside composting is mandatory in San Francisco.

Mandatory Curbside Composting

The next time you take your trash to the curb, take a look at what you're throwing away. Sure, you're recycling newspaper, plastic and glass -- but most of what's in that can of "garbage" is recyclable, too.

According to the Clean Air Council, Americans send nearly 31,000 tons of food scraps to the landfill annually. While that's the type of material that most of us consider garbage, that waste has value as compost. And recycling it is as important as hauling bottles and cans to the curbside.

So if we can pick up one type of recyclable material at our curbsides, why not pick it all up? The city of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County and other local municipalities should institute mandatory curbside collection of compostable material.

The program is already a success in San Francisco, which made the practice of recycling compostable material -- table scraps, yard clippings and plants -- mandatory. Residents are given three bins, according to Robert Reed, communications director for Recology, the Bay Area company that oversees the city's composting program: black for landfill-bound material, blue for glass and plastic recyclables, and green for the compostable materials.

"We collect more than 600 tons of compostable materials every day," Reed says of the program that began in 1996 and became mandatory citywide in the spring of 2009. "In November we hit a milestone by composting one million tons of material picked up in our curbside collection.

"That material was used to fertilize the vines at local vineyards and is used to help grow fruits and vegetables that support good health. Eighteen years ago, this city didn't have a curbside composting program and today it's our largest recycling program."

Other cities, like Seattle, also have mandatory programs, but they are not as comprehensive. In Seattle, large producers of compostable waste, like restaurants and apartment buildings, are exempt. But in San Francisco, everyone must comply and there are even fines possible -- up to $1,000 for noncompliance.

Reed says making collection of compostables mandatory was a challenge. The program began in 1996 by just collecting waste at San Francisco's Wholesale Produce Market. In 2001, the city's board of supervisors made the program citywide, but voluntary. The response, Reed says, was very positive.

"At that point, a whole lot of people started doing the curbside composting," says Reed. "You could see green bins all over the city. And it was working. We had people asking for three green bins and we'd then take away two black bins that were no longer going to the landfill."

In 2009, the program became mandatory. Once apartment buildings started getting in on the act, the amount of compostable material went up substantially.

"Essentially, the only things we're sending to the landfills are plastic bags and other flimsy types of plastic," says Reed. "Our goal is zero waste."

One knock on curbside collection is that pollution-emitting trucks are used to pick up the materials. But Reed says the pollution prevented by the composting more than offsets what's emitted by the trucks, which in the city of San Francisco run on biodiesel.

Landfill waste and normal recyclables are picked up in two-sided trucks that keep the trash and the recyclables completely separate. A second, smaller truck is used to collect the compostable material.

"Whether it's trash or recyclables, you've got to send around a truck to pick it up anyway," says Reed. "But this way, we're picking it up and we're reusing it.

"We have soil scientists advising us how to make the compost in a way that preserves the nutrients and the carbons to the greatest degree possible. We're putting those things back into the soil where they can do the most good."

So far, Reed says, the composting program has produced enough benefit to "offset all emissions [from all vehicles] crossing the city's Bay Bridge for two years."

Getting an entire city to comply with the program wasn't easy, to say the least, but the benefits have been realized. For a city to undertake such a program might seem a daunting task, but Reed says it's worth it in the long run.

"Here's the thing about Americans," says Reed. "Once they decide they want to do something and that it's important to do something, they'll figure out nine different ways to do it. 

"All it takes is that first step to get started."

-- Charlie Deitch


Jenn Burleton, of TransActive
  • Jenn Burleton, of TransActive

Work With Transgender Kids Before Puberty

There's a common narrative for transgender people.

There are adults who have always felt different, not identifying with the physical gender they were born to. They suppress the feelings. Some get married. Some have children. But the feelings never go away. Then, at some point, "they decide they can't take it anymore," says Jenn Burleton, executive director of the advocacy group TransActive.

"Many describe it as a choice: ‘I had a gun in my mouth and was ready to pull the trigger, or decide to transition,'" she says. "That's a horrible crossroads."

Burleton wants to prevent such critical moments for transgender people and to reach them much earlier than adulthood. Through her Portland-based organization, TransActive, Burleton and her team offer a proactive approach to kids 18 and younger who might be transgender, or who might not conform to male or female social and cultural stereotypes.

Working with trans youth is a growing field. Children's Hospital in Boston, for example, operates the Gender Management Service Clinic to provide care and support for kids with gender dysphoria. But few organizations offer the range of resources of TransActive, whose services include medical referrals and case workers, counselors and advocates. 

Medical referrals, for example, can help kids get on puberty-blockers -- injections that postpone development. Then, if a child decides to transition, they can take cross-sex hormones to start developing as their chosen gender.

Such interventions, Burleton says, can prevent trans kids from going through difficult physical changes in a body that doesn't match how they feel. "Puberty makes it extremely difficult to blend into culture as the gender they choose," she says. "It can create isolation and discrimination."

The idea may seem controversial to some, but for those struggling to deal with gender-identification, programs like this can be a lifesaver.

And trans kids are already at risk: Studies have found that 83 percent of transgender youth think about committing suicide and another 54 percent attempt it.

But when trans kids receive affirmative support before or during puberty, Burleton says the outcomes have been positive, as feelings like hopelessness go away.

"All this really does is create a level playing field so kids can go into adolescence with bodies that match their identities without internal trauma," Burleton says. "The world has ignored and rejected them because of who they are. This changes their overall quality of life."

-- Lauren Daley

Pink Ladies cab company
  • Pink Ladies cab company

Cab Companies for Women, by Women

Women-owned and -operated businesses aren't anything new, but one area especially is showing growth: cab companies.

"Girl cabs," or cab companies run by women for women, children and the elderly, have taken off mostly abroad -- Lebanon, Mexico, South Africa and Germany all have programs. Some function as typical cab companies -- women hail the cabs, which are usually pink, on the street, and the drivers, who are women, pick up only women. Other companies work on an on-call basis.

In the United Kingdom, the Pink Ladies company functions as a members' program, and clients have access to female-driven cab services, as well as car and health insurance, health programs and a "buddy" program to help with chores. Started in 2005, Pink Ladies has grown to more than 17,000 members.

For the transportation services, drivers practice a through-the-door policy, ensuring that their passengers are safely inside the property they are driven to; there's also no cash in the car, making it safer for the drivers. But even if a member doesn't have cash on her to get home, her account can be accessed via telephone. Such services, says Tina Dutton, director of Pink Ladies, offer clients peace of mind.  

"It's not that [the cabs] are safer, it's the perception of being in a taxi on your own that unnerves some people," says Dutton. "We have lots of dads, husbands, sons that prefer their female family member travel with us."

Girl cabs have appeared as an option in cityLAB's "6% place" experiment in Garfield, as a way to revitalize the area. And women's-rights advocates praise the idea as a way to protect women from sexual assault.

"You always have increased safety with numbers," says Heather Arnet, executive director of the Women and Girls Foundation

Arnet believes it could also be a viable business opportunity for Pittsburgh. According to a 2010 study by the Women and Girls Foundation and the Institute for Women's Policy Research, 75 percent of households below the poverty line in Pittsburgh are headed by single mothers. 

Beyond creating jobs, Arnet points out that there is plenty of need for safe transportation options for women.

 "We have a high population of college students in the region who usually don't have cars, and a low-income population," she says. "Transit options are limited. Having girl cabs would be a very safe way to travel."


Build a Boutique Hotel 

Drawn here perhaps by those non-stop rhapsodies to Pittsburgh in The New York Times, visitors to our new-and-improved city still lack a hotel to match our burgeoning food, recreation and arts scenes. There are certainly some fine hotels in town, but let's push the boundaries. For instance, Louisville, Ky. -- a modest second-tier city -- has a successful boutique hotel downtown that doubles as a contemporary art museum, and offers four-star accommodation with plenty of flair and humor.

Imagine an old building here, converted to a hotel that, besides the fancy linens, a swank lounge and free Wi-Fi, also offered guests (and Pittsburghers) a secondary experience. How about a hotel that celebrated Pittsburgh's illustrious, influential and even quirky past, while also informing visitors about the city's current vibrancy? The various museums could loan exhibits, special events could be held in an open area, and rooms would be decorated with vintage photos culled from the Carnegie Library's collection.

Perhaps guests could choose rooms from theme floors, such as "Industrial," "City of Champions," "Artists" or "Rivers"? Imagine a room tastefully decorated but which, through art and knick-knacks, also celebrated the invention of the Ferris Wheel? Or the Homestead Grays? The industrial landscapes of painter John Kane?

The Times is already dying to write about this.

--Al Hoff


Self-Guided Walking Tours/Points of Interest

Cities are great repositories of history, of huge events and the day-to-day, plus everything in between. Pittsburgh's no exception, and what if the city adopted simple techniques employed in other cities, such as erecting eye-catching street signs? 

Washington, D.C.'s Heritage Trails project, for instance, celebrates that city's myriad histories through neighborhood tours -- from well-to-do enclaves near Rock Creek Park to poorer neighborhoods that have cycled through good and bad times and where ordinary people made their marks. 

Signs combine historic photos, history and a map (making them doubly useful just as a directional guide). A visitor can read just one, say, while waiting to cross the street -- or embark on a pre-set tour of a dozen or so signposts. (Some in D.C. have accompanying audio tours that can be downloaded to a smart device for free.)

Obvious neighborhoods for exploring Pittsburgh could include Downtown, Strip District, Oakland and South Side, but every neighborhood is holding historical treasure. The German settlement of the North Side, the hippie days of Shadyside, East Liberty's twists and turns. It's a relatively simple amenity that would serve both residents and visitors alike. Plus, in this city of idiosyncratic roadways, extra street-side maps can never hurt.

--A.H.


Sell the Pirates to the People

Some might argue that Pirates fans, through their pain and suffering of watching the team sputter through 19 straight losing seasons, have already paid their dues for the city's professional-baseball franchise.

And if we can't get compensation through actual wins or championships, then maybe we should get it through team ownership. The team is profitable for its current ownership group. It's made money on the team in recent years and stands to make even more when ticket prices are raised in 2012.

But what have the fans gained besides the realization that this team is not likely to be competitive in its current state? Sure, we flirted with first place for a short time this past summer -- only to suffer a collapse so grandiose that it could be pulled off only by the Pirates.

Public ownership would allow the team to operate with only one goal in mind -- winning. The process has worked in Green Bay for football. The public -- though various public stock options -- owns the Green Bay Packers, but no one shares in the profits. All proceeds go toward running the team, in the form of stadium upkeep and, more importantly, player salaries.  

According to ESPN's Patrick Hruby, in a column written before last year's Super Bowl, between 2007 and 2010, due to rising player salaries, Green Bay's profits fell from more than $34 million to just under $10 million. And guess who in the Green Bay management organization is complaining about that? No one.

 That's because in 2010, the Packers won the Super Bowl, and many say they are poised to do it again in February. All a publicly owned team must do is pay for itself. After that, the money left over is gravy to be poured into attaining the best players possible.

Pirates baseball has been a slave too long to bad ownership and a lack of a salary cap in Major League Baseball. Public ownership would give our team a chance to be competitive. After 19 years, don't we deserve that chance?

--C.D.

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