New solar installations, a completed riverfront park, student-led art installations and a community-spanning environmental justice policy are just some of the projects to be funded by a $2.3 million grant from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation for the Triboro Ecodistrict of Millvale, Etna and Sharpsburg.

The project, in the works since late 2016, is a project of New Sun Rising, Etna Economic Development Corporation, and the Sharpsburg Neighborhood Organization, with support from sustainable architecture and consulting firm evolveEA.

Brittany Reno, executive director of the Sharpsburg Neighborhood Organization, says that it was during those early discussions that all three boroughs recognized that they were facing many of the same issues surrounding equity, sustainability, and the environment.

“Geographically and demographically our communities are very similar,” says Reno, “so it was difficult for each community with about 3500 people each to find funding. So when we looked at how we could make the most impact and do the most good for the most people, combining our efforts and working together seemed like the best way to make a greater impact.”

The funding is split about equally between the three boroughs. Work kicks off this summer with new solar installations at New Sun Rising’s Millvale Moose headquarters, the Garden of Etna, and, pending board approval, the Sharpsburg Community Library.

In Sharpsburg, funding will go toward acquisition and build-out for a home for the Sharpsburg Neighborhood Organization. Reno says the space will ensure their longterm financial viability and envisions the building as a “neighborhood hub for sustainability, technology and opportunity.”

It will include co-working space, green tech programming, a few affordable housing units and possibly even a retail incubation program.

“That will enable us to generate income and give back to the community at the same time,” Reno says, “so we can keep doing more good projects for years to come.”

Solar panels on the Millvale library. Brian Conway photo.

Funding will support free community wi-fi and air quality monitoring in Sharpsburg, provided by Meta Mesh Wireless Communities and DECO Resources, with additional funding coming from Dancing Gnome Craft Brewery and Ketchup City Creative.

In Etna, funding will be used to complete construction on the long-anticipated Etna Riverfront Park and complete the Etna portion of the Three Rivers Heritage Trail for eventual connection with the city of Pittsburgh and north to Aspinwall and beyond.

Additional grant funding will go toward equitable housing repairs, public art projects, student internships in the solar energy field, and micro-funding for other resident-led projects.

The Triboro Ecodistrict has its roots in Millvale’s nationally-recognized Ecodistrict Pivot Plan, which last year earned a National Planning Achievement Award for environmental planning. (The jury chairman for the awards said that Millvale’s model “should serve as a model for other communities around the country and possibly around the world.”)

That grassroots effort, which first began in 2011, serves as the model for community engagement throughout the Triboro Ecodistrict: Etna hosted an inaugural Ecodistrict meeting in March. Sharpsburg began their community vision plan in conjunction with evolveEA some 18 months ago.

“The Triboro EcoDistrict represents a new dream where resident leaders expand the sense of what is possible and work together to create a more inclusive, resilient and brighter today and tomorrow,” wrote New Sun Rising’s EcoDistrict Coordinator, Brian Wolovich.

Robert Tuñón, a volunteer with the Etna Community Organization who works as an architect with Rothschild Doyno Collaborative, calls the ecodistrict model “a powerful way to engage citizens to really take ownership of both the planning process and the implementation.”

“The Ecodistrict is getting both longtime and newer residents engaged in a conversation about environmental protection, community resiliency and social equity,” he says. “There’s this amazing grassroots movement happening across the Triboro.”

Local residents and others interested in learning more about the Triboro Ecodistrict can attend an education session Tuesday, June 5th, 6 to 8:30 pm, at Fugh Hall in Etna, or the Eco Blast kickoff pool party June 23, 5  to 9 pm, at the Etna Pool.

Brian Conway

Brian Conway is a writer and photographer whose articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune and local publications. In his free time, he operates Tripsburgh. Brian lives in the South Side.