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A Conversation With Lareese Hall

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From her new office overlooking the Point, Lareese Hall wants to change how we see Pittsburgh's three rivers -- and the land they run through, too. Hall recently became the Carnegie Science Center's first manager of environmental education. Her new job description entails everything from launching an environmental film festival (this April) to incorporating more enviro-education and sustainable practices, and creating an environmentally themed "large-scale attraction." Hall, 38, formerly worked for Pittsburgh's Riverlife Task Force. She lives in East Allegheny.

What's this large-scale attraction about?

We have this great -- look out this window! -- we have this great river, this great park system, really interesting things going on on the riverfront. Thinking about river ecology, landscape, and how do we take Science Center ideas, mission, vision and start to develop curriculum and experiences outside of the Science Center proper. Does it mean that we're building something in addition to the Science Center? Are we building a park? It's a really great opportunity to have this very urban science center dealing with ecology and environment.

How do you engage urbanites environmentally?

I don't think that's something that you can prescribe. One of the things that we want to do [is] not just point out all the things that have gone wrong -- like horribly, horribly wrong -- [but] that these are the opportunities that we actually have to make things better.

... [T]here's really no way of avoiding the fact that humans are impacting the environment. If you say to someone, "Stop driving your car," it's just not realistic. But if you say -- it sounds sort of trite, in a way -- "OK, well, think about turning off this light, or changing this light bulb. What does it mean if you start to grow your own food, or buy organic food, or buy local?"

But people are so removed from nature.

That's the thing about science: It's experiments and trial and error. We have an opportunity to have a vegetable garden, and make the salads that we sell in the [Science Center] café. There's a tangible connection: "Oh, the chef is going to get that from there."

I think in urban areas, when you say nature, it's always, "Oh, nature -- we're gonna go to the country, we're gonna go camping!" Urban areas are really rich with wildlife, with different kinds of ecosystems. It's really having people connected to their environment wherever they are. And this is where we are.

How do the rivers help?

One of the great things I've been able to do in my jobs is, I've always been able to look at Pittsburgh from above. I've seen lots of aerial photographs, and it's really affected the way that I've seen the city. I see a connection between where I am right now and downriver a couple miles. Where the Ohio River actually goes. What flows into it and what flows down it.

How did you end up in Pittsburgh?

I give myself challenges: [After leaving architecture school, in Virginia,] I was gonna find a city that was sort of reinventing itself but hadn't figured it out. I had thought about going to Portland, but I felt like it was a little too far along. San Francisco -- not interested in the earthquakes. In Utne Reader, there was a picture of, it must have been the South Side Slopes, and it said that Pittsburgh was the San Francisco of the east. Which I just thought was hilarious, because what does that mean?

Frank Toker has this great book on Pittsburgh architecture [Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait]. I got really excited. I was staying in Oakland in some hotel that you can see Downtown from, and the first night here there's all this noise outside. It was the first night of the arts festival. It went on forever. I just remember thinking, "This place is amazing."

Do you pursue sustainable practices personally?

I walk to work or I take the bus. I've been debating whether to get a car, and I just decided, "No." I've been a big urban gardener for years. I'm renovating an old house and I'm trying to reuse as much material as possible. I have a tankless water heater, which I love.

International Polar Year starts March 1. What's that?

We will be participating with about 50 other science centers around the world, with activities focused on global warming -- "climate change," actually, is what we should be calling it.

Why that term?

I always say "global warming." But maybe ["climate change"] is just a more palatable thing to say, for some people. ... I think sometimes if you say to people, "We're gonna talk about global warming," it's as if you just see the zzzzzhhhhhh [mimes a wall descending across her face]. They're not listening, because it's a definite thing that's moving in that direction. But if you say "climate change," I think it has more give and take -- it implies that it can go up or down.

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