The EcoDistrict next door

Millvale sustainability coordinator, Zaheen Hussain, meets with the Mt. Lebanon tour group outside the Millvale Community Library.

The heat was so sweltering on Thursday, June 29, that it was difficult to imagine shoulder-high floodwaters in downtown Millvale—yet, in a way, flooding is what brought us there. A group of Mt. Lebanon board members and municipal employees, including Municipal Manager Keith McGill, descended on the small North Hills town for a tour led by Zaheen Hussain, Millvale Borough’s sustainability coordinator. 

The tour began at the Millvale Community Library, where Hussain told the story of how and why the town became an Eco-District.

EcoDistricts is a global organization that has established a framework for cities and neighborhoods to achieve a certification recognizing a community’s efforts at establishing sustainability initiatives. Millvale has been working with evolveEA, the environmental architecture firm that partnered with Mt. Lebanon on the Uptown Public Space Improvement study, to create its EcoDistrict Pivot 2.0 Plan to drive the community’s sustainability vision.

The EcoDistricts framework was the solution Millvale adopted after a decades-long trend of industry and population loss, followed by devastating damage from Hurricane Ivan in 2004, which practically destroyed the riverside town. 

Hops grown locally in Millvale’s community garden.

Hussain led the group through downtown Millvale, pointing out the places where floodwaters were higher than the parking meters and showing off the new EcoDistricts initiatives designed to help in the event of a similar disaster in the future.

With grant money and an outpouring of support from the community in the form of volunteers and overwhelming resident participation at sustainability planning meetings, Millvale’s EcoDistricts plan was designed to focus on green infrastructure, food and energy supply, stormwater and more. 

For stormwater management, the community built rain gardens all over town to help absorb errant water. Millvale also is collaborating more actively with its North Hills neighbors in the Girty’s Run watershed to see if they can come up with some lasting solutions to the flooding problem.

Other initiatives include the creation of a community center, equipped with disaster management supplies, and a large community garden to provide locally sourced food, since the closest grocery store is nearly two miles away.

Solar panels were installed on the roof of the community center to help provide residents with access to electricity in the event of another emergency.

Arguably Millvale’s most compelling initiative is the installation of solar panels on many public buildings, not only to save the planet (and money), but also to ensure the town will have access to energy should a disaster occur. Buildings such as the community center and the library have already been solarized, and a plan is in place to acquire funding for the solarization of many of the other public buildings and businesses downtown.

“Millvale’s plan was developed by the community, not for the community, and I think that it is one of the reasons that they have been able to move the plan forward,” says McGill. “Millvale’s energy and water projects could have some applicability here … We should never pass up on an opportunity to learn. When you stop learning, you stop advancing, and no community can afford to do that.” Katie Wagner

Photography by Katie Wagner