Forest Hills Green Municipal building. Photo courtesy of Rob Pfaffmann and Associates.

Last June, Mayor Bill Peduto vowed that Pittsburgh would continue adhering to the Paris Agreement after President Trump justified his withdrawal from the climate treaty by saying “I represent Pittsburgh, not Paris.”

The mayor enjoyed a few days of laudatory national coverage before the news cycle moved on. But outside of the city limits, smaller communities were making their own stands along with him.

In particular, Forest Hills, a borough of 6,000 east of the city, has emerged as a leader on environmental policies in the Pittsburgh metro region over the last several years.

The community’s green initiative has been led by Professor Patricia DeMarco, who was first elected to the Forest Hills Borough Council in 2016.

I chair the Finance Committee, and I was very interested in having the borough become a little more proactive on energy issues,” she says. “We spend a lot of money on energy in our town, as most towns do.”

Before her political career, DeMarco spent 30 years working in environmental policy, including five years as director of the Rachel Carson Institute at Chatham University.

During DeMarco’s tenure, the borough council has made their own pledge to stick to the Paris Agreement, and the community has some of the strictest regulations on hydraulic fracking in western PA. The borough had adopted an outright ban on fracking in 2011, but was forced to change their policy to comply with state law.

Their most ambitious project of all is the newly opened Forest Hills Municipal Center, a green building that combines the local library, police station and government offices into one 1,400-square-foot building.

Like many small communities in the Pittsburgh region, Forest Hills’ previous government and municipal buildings were built nearly a century ago and were falling into disrepair.

Of the former police station, DeMarco says “you could have filmed a 1920s gangster movie there and it would be totally period appropriate. It was not safe or up-to-date.”

The new building is powered by solar panels on the roof, and the climate is controlled by a geothermal air flow system.

Speaking to NEXTpittsburgh, lead architect Rob Pfaffmann noted that it was the first time his firm had ever been asked to design holding cells.

The entire project cost $4.5 million, which DeMarco notes was secured without raising local taxes. Furthermore, the green building will save the community money over time and protect it from the impact of unexpected hikes in energy prices. 

“Communities have no control over energy markets,” DeMarco points out. “There could be a spike in the price at any time.”

While the groundbreaking ceremony was this past May, DeMarco and her staff have been in the building since February. There remains work to be done installing audiovisual equipment in various meeting rooms, but the new building has been running at full capacity with great success since the spring.

According to DeMarco, patronage of the library has gone up 200 percent since the new building opened. The borough is making these and other statistics about usage and costs available online to encourage other small towns to embrace green policy.

“Looking forward, we’re facing serious issues with climate change and global pollution, but these are not technology problems,” DeMarco says. “The technology is in hand and available. We’re facing an ethics problem, and a moral commitment to make a change.” 

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.