Planning for a Sustainable Future

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omething’s gotta give. Globally, we’ve had eight of the top 10 warmest years on record since 1998, resulting in melted glaciers, causing rising sea levels, an increase in extreme weather such as heat waves, droughts and heavy snow and rainfall. We need to act. 

In 2008, Mt. Lebanon signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement, pledging to reduce local greenhouse gas emissions, improve air quality and enhance community livability and sustainability. Two years later, the municipality came up with its first climate action plan. 

“Mt. Lebanon was an early adopter, at least in western Pennsylvania, of a climate action plan,” said Ward 5 Commissioner Andrew Flynn. 

Some of the changes Mt. Lebanon made in connection with the first climate action plan were making municipal buildings more energy efficient, installing lower-energy LED traffic lights and replacing old vehicles with more fuel-efficient models. 

Mt. Lebanon succeeded in cutting its carbon footprint by 12 percent since 2005, but temperatures are still on the rise. We need to do more.

The environmental sustainability board has started the journey toward the next climate action plan. Members of the board have teamed with CONNECT—the Congress of Neighboring Communities, an umbrella organization that encompasses the city of Pittsburgh and neighboring communities—to write a climate action plan for the region. “Right now we’re building the baseline around what the ESB thinks a climate action plan should be,” said Flynn, who is the commission liaison to the board. 

Cars lined up in front of a school, and a man with an umbrella standing next to his car with the door open.
Mt. Lebanon’s no-idling ordinance, passed in 2010, has been a contributing factor in reducing our carbon footprint. Photo by Judy Macoskey

Mt. Lebanon succeeded in cutting its carbon footprint by 12% since 2005, but temperatures are still on the rise. We need to do more.Early in the year, the commission went on a retreat in order to prioritize issues it wanted to work on in 2021. A new climate action plan and the creation of an ecodistrict—a blueprint for integrating ecologically sound practices with sustainable community development—were both hot topics, but were eventually edged out by other projects, including the redesign of the municipal website; beginning work on a parks master plan update and recreation center feasibility study; the Vibrant Uptown streetscape project; forming committees to address several aspects of diversity, equity and inclusion; implementing changes to the municipality’s rules on overnight parking; and restructuring Mt. Lebanon’s volunteer boards and authorities to maximize their usefulness. Both the climate action plan and the Mt. Lebanon Ecodistrict (see EcoDistricts vs. Ecodistrict vs. ecodistrict, below) are on the commission’s agenda for 2022. 

An ecodistrict is not a municipal entity, but rather a collaborative partnership among stakeholders, like the school district, St. Clair Health and the Mt. Lebanon Partnership. 

“It’s about bringing stakeholders to the table,” Flynn said. “It’s about leveraging the capability of the municipality to build what the community is striving for.”

EcoDistricts is a Portland, Oregon-based organization that helps guide cities and neighborhoods in developing sustainable practices that improve the quality of life.   

The official  EcoDistricts  protocol requires participating communities to incorporate three ideas into the plan: equity, resiliency and climate protection. Under this umbrella, communities must address six priority areas: place, prosperity, health and wellbeing, connectivity, living infrastructure, and resource restoration. 

Ecodistrict certification involves three phases. The first phase is planning, followed by coming up with a “roadmap” that outlines key goals and projects, programs and metrics to achieve these goals. Along with the roadmap, a community issues a Declaration of Collaboration, which clearly defines everyone’s roles and responsibilities. Following completion of those steps comes implementation and reporting every two years on the plan’s progress. Typically each phase of the process can take a year or two. 

An ecodistrict is not just about environmental concerns, Flynn says. Incorporating quality of life issues such as equity and mobility make for a more encompassing plan. 

In Sharpsburg, a partnership among PA WalkWorks, the American Heart Association and Giant Eagle resulted in a 1.83-mile walking trail that highlights the borough’s historic building and recreation assets. A Sharpsburg walking club competes with other clubs across the state using PA WalkWorks’s Walker Tracker app. The Sharpsburg Neighborhood Association has contracted with Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh to help low-income homeowners, seniors, veterans and people with disabilities with needed home repair. The Sharpsburg Sustainability & Civic Engagement Center hosts workshops on topics such as how local government works, first-time home buying and stormwater management. 

Solar panels on the roof of a building.
The commission is exploring putting solar panels on the Mt. Lebanon Public Library as part of its roof renovation project. Photo courtesy of EcoDistricts.

In 2017, Mt. Lebanon staff and commissioners visited Millvale to learn more about that community’s ecodistrict. In Millvale, and also in Etna and Sharpsburg, the ecodistricts focused on food, water, energy, air quality, mobility and social equity. Projects included rain gardens to help with stormwater runoff, a community center with disaster management supplies, a community garden for locally sourced food, and a profusion of solar panels. 

People working in a community garden.
Community garden in Millvale

The Launch Millvale program provided start-up incubation services for aspiring food entrepreneurs, helping to establish Tupelo Honey Teas and Sprezzatura Café & Catering as part of the Millvale Food + Energy Hub, a 10,000-square-foot venue in Millvale’s former Moose Lodge. Other Hub tenants are 412 Food Rescue and the Frac Tracker Alliance, which addresses health concerns related to the fracking industry. 

Millvale established a community-specific air quality plan, which features an air quality dashboard that displays real-time air quality data in the window of the Millvale Community Library. 

Both the climate action plan and the formation of an ecodistrict will require a lot of input from the community. It makes sense to dovetail the efforts with the updating of Mt. Lebanon’s Comprehensive Plan, which is scheduled for 2023. 

The comprehensive plan is a state-mandated blueprint for development, required to be issued every 10 years. 

While many communities view the comprehensive plan as one more item on a to-do list, Mt. Lebanon has committed to making full use of the 2013 plan, which identified five goals, with 14 specific objectives. 

Beginning with the 2015-2019 capital improvement program (CIP) budget, which funds big-ticket items such as road and sewer improvements and large vehicles, capital expenditures have been closely tied to the comprehensive plan. 

Flynn believes input from the community is what makes or breaks an ecodistrict, a comprehensive plan and other initiatives. 

“Yes, there are ways local government can impact private property, but taking an approach of influencing, rather that requiring, typically brings more buy-in,” he said. 

“I think we have an exceptionally well run and dedicated staff here,” he added. “Capability is not an issue. It’s not ‘Do we know how?’ It’s ‘How do we do it?’ The ecodistrict is about creating the framework.” 

EcoDistricts vs. Ecodistrict vs. ecodistrict 

You might see varying forms of capitalization when exploring the idea of an ecodistrict in your community. This is intentional, and they each have their own meaning: 

ecodistrict refers to the concept in the field of urban planning that combines sound ecological principles with sustainable practices.  

Ecodistrict refers to a specific community that is developing an ecodistrict. 

EcoDistricts refers to a nonprofit organization based in Portland, Oregon, that formulated and published the official protocol and oversees a certification process.