Compared to the big East Coast cities, Pittsburgh was carved into its wooded hillsides and river banks pretty recently. But after a couple centuries of heavy industry, the only thing "green" about our reputation was the bankrolls of corporate titans who flourished along filthy rivers, under sooty skies.
Today, though, visitors are surprised by the former Smoky City's rolling, tree-covered hills. And while the air and water quality are far from perfect, Pittsburgh has reconnected to its riverfronts and taken to green buildings in ways few ever dreamed.
A green-loop tour of Pittsburgh starts Downtown and proceeds (naturally) by bicycle. (If you tire, some city buses have bike racks; call Port Authority Transit, at 412-442-2000.) The massive David L. Lawrence Convention Center at 11th Street and Penn Avenue opened in 2003, when it claimed to be the world's first certified-green convention center and then-largest green building. In addition to a cutting-edge design by Rafael Vinoly Architects, the complex features extensive (and cash-saving) use of daylight and natural ventilation, plus on-site processing of wastewater, conserving some 6.4 million gallons a year.
Across town, take the Smithfield Street Bridge over the Monongahela River, then turn onto one of the city's riverfront rails-to-trails paths. Upriver, at South Fourth Street, debark at the Riverwalk complex headquarters of Bike Pittsburgh (412-325-4334 or www.bike-pgh.org) for a copy of the advocacy group's new Pittsburgh Bike Map, with its color-coded route recommendations. Next door, tour the Green Building Alliance (412-431-0709 or www.gbapgh.org), a nonprofit that's helped make Pittsburgh a hot spot for environmentally conscious construction. At least 23 buildings in the area are certified green by the U.S. Green Building Council (currently chaired by Alliance chief Rebecca Flora). Several can be found just upriver, in the pedestrian-friendly South Side.
At 12th and Muriel streets, WYEP-FM's largely day-lit headquarters make the noncommercial broadcaster (412-381-9131) the nation's first green radio station. At 14th and Sarah, in a linked pair of renovated old buildings, Conservation Consultants, Inc., (64 S. 14th St., 412-431-4449) walks its BTU-saving talk with photovoltaic arrays; recycled, sustainable and nontoxic building materials; and highly efficient utility systems. On main drag East Carson Street, the E House boutique (1511 E. Carson St., 412-488-7455) sells clothing, accessories and other products organic, recycled and sustainable. (It even collects expired batteries and cell phones.)
Minutes up the bike trail, the Pittsburgh location of outdoors-gear mecca REI (412 S. 27th St., 412-488-9410) is heavy on green materials and design. It's also part of the SouthSide Works, a mixed-use brownfield development built on the site of a former steel mill. Re-cross the Mon on the nearby Hot Metal Bridge's new bike/pedestrian lane; the Eliza Furnace Trail leads to Schenley Park's Panther Hollow Trail, which traverses the shadow of historic, ambitiously green Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens (412-622-6914). Phipps' snazzy welcome center is half-underground, saving heating/cooling costs; a state-of-the-art fuel cell powers its Tropical Forest Conservatory.
Nearby sits Carnegie Mellon University. The campus' several green roofs, its commitment to wind power and other initiatives recently earned it 10th place on Sierra magazine's list of schools addressing global warming.
From Oakland, travel Forbes Avenue east through Frick Park, the city's largest. The half-wild park's mountain-biking is renowned, and long-abused waterway Nine Mile Run was recently restored to its original alignment and ecological niche. In neighboring Wilkinsburg, Mindy Schwartz cultivates tomato seedlings and more at her compact yet pioneering Garden Dreams Urban Farm & Nursery (810-12 Holland Ave., 412-638-3333).
Nearby lies another green nexus: The East End Food Co-op (7516 Meade St., 412-242-3598), whose organic ethos includes a commitment to local farmers, sits blocks from Construction Junction (214 N. Lexington St., 412-243-5025) a unique outlet for used furnishings and building materials, from filing cabinets to antique mantels. Also on site are advocacy/research group Steel City Biofuels (steelcitybiofuels.org) and Free Ride (412-731-4094), a volunteer co-op that offers bikes to kids, plus repair facilities and expertise to everyone else.
Several blocks west lies the unassuming lair of East End Brewery (6923 Susquehanna St., 412-537-BEER), a small craft-brewer committed to environmentally sustainable practices. (We recommend the Big Hop.) In neighboring East Liberty; you're two miles south of Mildred's Daughters Farm, a 5.5-acre urban farm known for its heirloom tomatoes, group tours (1100 Normahill Drive, email@example.com) and barn built from hay bales.
On streets including Liberty Avenue (which sports its own bike lanes), coast into bustling Lawrenceville. Artemis Environmental Building Materials (3709 Butler St., 877-297-8267) offers sustainable, nontoxic and recycled goods, and consulting.
South lies the Strip District, home to food outlets including the local-and-natural Farmers@Firehouse market (2216 Penn, Saturdays in season). The 16th Street Bridge crosses the Allegheny River to the North Side, where the Pittsburgh Children's Museum's spectacular day-lit lobby introduces a renovated building run entirely with renewable energy (Allegheny Square, 412-322-5058). Just south, near PNC Park, the Roberto Clemente Bridge shelters Kayak Pittsburgh (412-969-9090), which lets paddlers savor a cleaner Allegheny and some sweet urban panoramas. Back Downtown, Six Penn Kitchen (6th and Penn, 412-566-7366) furthers fine dining's green movement with a buy-local ethic and rooftop herb garden.
After all that, you'll be less surprised to learn that although it's the nation's second-cloudiest big city (after Seattle), Pittsburgh has been designated one of 10 U.S. Solar Cities, making it eligible for federal funding to explore powering city services with the sun.