This once grimy city is now a leader in green, clean living.

By Doug Oster


LEED certified convention center in Pittsburgh, PA

For more than a hundred years, Pittsburgh was home to numerous steel mills, and so had a reputation as one of the country's most productive, but polluted, cities. Mills churned out billowing gray smoke and ash that turned an eerie shade of orange as the sun sank below the horizon. One writer called the place "hell with the lid off."

That's what some people still expect to find on a trip to Pittsburgh. But they'd be wrong. Visitors emerging from the Fort Pitt Tunnel today are welcomed by a spectacular view of a city experiencing a vibrantly green renaissance that is the pride and joy of gregarious Pittsburghers.

A walk through the city's Strip District reveals a burgeoning locavore food scene with an emphasis on freshly sourced and prepared ethnic food, an eclectic collection of unique shops, and an equally diverse crowd scene. Every Saturday morning, Farmers@Firehouse, an organic farmers' market, is held in a parking lot right next to a former firehouse. It's a place to stock up on local produce, natural food products, and great conversation, although you might need a translator for the local Pittsburghese. "Hey yinz guys, I have to red up the house before heading dahntahn." Which means: "Hey you guys, I have to clean the house before heading downtown." Pittsburghers call themselves yinzers for using the slang term yinz.

The Phipps Glass HouseThe civic move to sustainability is best seen at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, which is centered on a Victorian glasshouse built in 1893 on 21⁄2 acres. The welcome center, completed in 2005, includes a café that sources organic and local whenever possible. The production greenhouses became the first greenhouses to achieve LEED certification and were certified at the platinum level in 2012. (LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a certification process for green construction.)

Phipps has recently expanded its campus by adding the Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL) to house its research, education, and administration offices. The LEED Silver certified building, located in front of the classic glasshouse, is zero net energy—it actually produces more energy than it uses—and zero net water, too. The CSL was built in concert with the Living Building Challenge, which promotes sustainable construction practices by setting challenges and rewarding winners with global recognition. The combination of innovative building techniques, solar and wind power, and water storage and purification systems makes the new building at Phipps one of the greenest in the world.

Green roofs are popular in Pittsburgh, and the green roof at Hamerschlag Hall at Carnegie Mellon University is a great place to get a close look at a wide variety of tough plants. While on campus, check out the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation on the fifth floor of the Hunt Library. It houses what might be the greatest collection of contemporary botanical art in the world. Pick up a magnifying glass from the front desk to examine the details of these artworks.