Despite being located between Pennsylvania’s second and third largest commercial business districts, Uptown has endured decades of population loss and decline. Now city, community and university leaders want to rebuild the once thriving neighborhood and will use the Eco Innovation District process to do so, says Pittsburgh Sustainability Manager Grant Ervin.

“The EcoDistrict planning process is really about first establishing a governance model, creating a forum where all parties can come to common agreement.”

EcoDistricts is a national 501(c)3 organization that helps development leaders think strategically about improving cities from “the neighborhood up.” One of the recommendations to come out of Mayor Peduto’s transition process was to participate in the EcoDistricts program, says Ervin. They evaluated seven sites throughout Pittsburgh and chose to focus on Uptown.

“Uptown has a lot of attractions. It has one of the lower Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) of any neighborhood in the city of Pittsburgh. Its proximity to downtown and Oakland, its accessibility, makes it walkable and transit-rich. Community organizations like Uptown Partners, Start Uptown, Oakland Planning and Development Corporation, Duquesne, Pitt, UMPC Mercy—they gave us capacity we could build on toward a forward-thinking vision.”

Unlike the top-down urban renewal projects of the 1950s and 1960s, reviving Uptown will be an inclusive effort, says Ervin.

“What we’ve done in creating the Eco Innovation District, and undertaking that platform as our planning platform, is put the community plan first. It’s a challenge of coordination: between government agencies, neighborhood leaders, property owners and academic institutions.”

In 2014, after a group of city, university and community leaders participated in a three-day EcoDistricts Incubator program, they formed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the City of Pittsburgh, the Port Authority and the city and county redevelopment authorities. The MOU was essentially a commitment to how the group would move forward, says Ervin. The Uptown Eco Innovation District, through the Department of City Planning, recently released a Request for Qualifications (RFQ), seeking consultants to begin the formal planning process.

“We’re starting to receive a lot of interest from big global players in planning and design; they have their eye on Pittsburgh,” says Ervin. “Folks at the forefront of sustainable development see a blank canvas.”

Asked whether the planning team had heard concerns of people being pushed out of the neighborhood, Ervin says people have voiced support for more development.

“You have a continuum of housing choices becoming available, from high-end to transitional housing. The next phase, a big opportunity, is how to fill in and provide that middle market.”

Ervin says residents are beginning to take ownership of what could happen in Uptown, citing an example of an older woman asking a developer about why his building would not be seeking LEED certification.

“One of things that’s most heartening is to see residents envision what opportunities the future could hold for Uptown.”

Sustainable development, though often touted as being only for the wealthy, is a framework that has the potential to create lasting change, says Ervin.

“With limited resources there’s a responsibility to use [them] to the highest and best use, but it’s not just a feel-good thing. When you start to integrate systems, thinking comprehensively, you can be more cost-effective. Sustainable development is not just good development, it’s good business.”

Margaret J. Krauss is a writer, radio producer, and researcher. If not biking Pittsburgh's streets or swimming its rivers, she is likely geeking out about a really good story.