Photo by Kate Buckley.

Scott and Brian Wolovich started doing socially-conscious work in 2005 when they organized fundraisers to help those affected by the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ivan. The brothers have since focused on revitalizing Millvale with Brian serving as a borough council member and Scott taking on the role of executive director for the social enterprise incubator, New Sun Rising.

“A lot of our history is from there,” says Brian, who describes how their immigrant ancestors settled around Millvale and Lawrenceville.

They have also been instrumental in the Millvale Ecodistrict Pivot Plan, a strategic, multi-stage project designed to address crucial issues plaguing the borough. By working with residents, as well as community figures such as Christine Mondor of the sustainable design firm evolveEA and Millvale Sustainability Coordinator, Zaheen Hussain, Scott and Brian are using Ecodistrict to improve Millvale’s quality of life through five key issue areas—water, food, energy, mobility, air and equity.

The plan has led to the creation of a food incubator and community garden, the construction of green rainwater infrastructure, and a solar-powered library.

Recently, the Millvale Ecodistrict Pivot Plan—which kicked off in 2012 and is now in its second phase of development—was one of five projects to receive a Planning Excellence Award from the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Planing Association (APA).

Scott and Brian spoke with NEXTpittsburgh about the APA award, and what the Ecodistrict Pivot Plan holds for Millvale and the region as a whole.

Brian (left) and Scott (right) Wolovich with 412 Food Rescue’s Leah Lizarondo (middle).
Brian (left) and Scott (right) Wolovich with 412 Food Rescue’s Leah Lizarondo (middle).

What does it mean to you that the Ecodistrict Plan received recognition from the APA?

Brian: It’s a statewide testament to the work that has been happening here over these years and the process involved. One of the things I love about working with evolveEA is that they get the point of having the community involved during the generative phase, as opposed to creating a plan in isolation and then presenting it to the community for response, which is the typical development planning strategy.

What are the most significant changes you’ve seen since the first phase of the plan took effect?

Brian: The number of residents and regional partners interested in the work is increasing considerably. Our early Ecodistrict meetings had anywhere from 10 to 30 attendees, whereas our most recent public Ecodistrict meeting had upwards of 100 people. We’re moving from trying to get on people’s radars to managing the first sustained series of investments Millvale has seen in a generation. You look at the new businesses coming to Millvale, and the new residents who are interested in the town and are moving here. How do we guide that in a way that’s inclusive and true to the visions that we laid out as we move forward?

Millvale never had a library in its history, and now you have a library where 100 percent of the electricity is generated by solar power. At the library, we’ve got Tupelo Honey Teas, which was one of the programs that successfully completed the incubator and is set to open any day now.

Puppet show at the Millvale Community Library.

Additionally, our work is to secure spaces and places that are going to benefit our residents. We’re helping the Gardens of Millvale secure funding and create a plan to purchase the land they’ve been growing on for the past six years. We’ve read way too many articles about another community garden or organic farmer losing access to land. If you talk to people in Larimer or other East End neighborhoods, they’ll say, I wish I would have grabbed more land and more site control.

Scott: One of the great things I can say is that while the level of investment and regional interest has increased, the character of the neighborhood is still intact. One of the things you hear people in the neighborhood talk about is it’s not about Millvale becoming the next any-place. It’s about Millvale becoming the next Millvale.

Why is sustainability such an essential aspect of revitalizing a community?

Brian: We’re very acutely aware of sustainability around water systems in dealing with flooding issues. It hits home in a more personal way.

The sustainability piece was about environmental health and ecological justice, but it’s also about avoiding cost and being self-sufficient. The solar panels powering our library have obvious environmental benefits. But in a much more practical way that everybody gets behind, it means we keep the library open longer. It means we have more programs for residents because that money isn’t going towards energy costs.

Scott: When I think of sustainability, I think it should grow out of the unique needs, assets and position of a community. It’s not a one-size-fits-all type of thing.

The environmental sustainability work that’s grown out of Millvale was Millvale-specific. It wasn’t trying to retrofit a green movement on a river town community. It was a river town community saying our issues are around water and food, and there’s this plan that can help us address these things, and give the community a great framework to have conversations and build together.

In terms of equity, I understand you’re working with a wheelchair-bound consultant to address some of the ADA compliance issues in Millvale.

Brian: We’re working with a wheelchair-bound gentleman named Bob Norris. He grew up and lives in Millvale and knows every inch of this town. He’ll be able to give us amazing insights over the course of the next year to help develop our mobility strategies.

Air quality has been a big focus for the plan’s second phase. 

Brian: We know air quality is a regional issue and it’s something that is finally starting to be discussed. We’re a generation removed from the people who were saying the sky used to be black and it’s not anymore—as if the sky not being black is an acceptable measure for air quality.

In Millvale specifically, the lung cancer rates are, I believe, more than triple the rates of Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh. We’re located in a valley along Route 28. That’s a piece of it, but there’s also a piece of it that speaks to culture and habits around cigarette-smoking and wood-burning. A lot of people around here have wood-burning stoves.

The air quality group is a combination of people in the neighborhood and experts throughout the region working in this space, whether it’s in a research or advocacy capacity. We’re trying to pull together people to look at Millvale as a case study that’s certainly not unique to the Pittsburgh region.

There’s a toolkit being developed to assist other communities who want to address air quality. It’s something that we’ve actively been working on and will be wrapped up later this fall. It’s going to be an exciting, replicable piece that we hope can be leveraged in other neighborhoods interested in using community planning tools and data to help address this issue.

Scott: It’s one of the newer parts in Millvale’s Ecodistrict Pivot Plan. There are things being considered as far as providing safe spaces for people who are high-risk because of pulmonary or respiratory conditions during times when air particulates are high.

Do you foresee the Ecodistrict Pivot Plan going into new phases over the coming years?

Scott: We have an interest in being a bigger asset for the region. While we’re certainly dedicated to Millvale Ecodistrict, there’s a lot of interest in local food systems and energy. What’s happening around the vacant lots conversation, and blight and equity—these are all tied together, and they’re all things we’ve had a bit of a head start on with this plan. We want to help others who want to deploy sustainability strategies that are community-first. Just continuing to support iterations and phases of the local plan, but also seeing how that work can be extended into other neighborhoods that are looking at similar challenges.

Brian: If you think about timelines, global warming is real and climate change is real. The rate of development in the Pittsburgh area is real. These aren’t debatable things. There is a sense of urgency. The endgame is looking at how this work can leverage larger, regional systems that can help make our world a better place.

Amanda Waltz

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated...