Close your eyes and think of your favorite body of water—the bluest ocean, a city river, a woodland stream. Watch as your body begins to relax and unwind.

Humans have intuitively known for centuries that water is the best drug out there for our mental health, from our early days on the shores of the Tigris and Euphrates to the astronomical price of oceanfront property today. Our bodies are a floating mass, 78 percent of which is water. It makes sense that our kinship with water should be grounded in science.

Dr. Wallace “J.” Nichols is doing just this with a book he has written on the science of water and why everyone should take it more seriously. A marine biologist with watery blue eyes who lives on the “slowcoast” of California, Nichols calls this effect “Blue Mind,” a term he coined to describe the benefits of water on our health. He was in Pittsburgh this past month as part of the Inspire Speaker Series where he facilitated discussions on the ways Pittsburgh can tap the blue resources in our backyard.

As Nichols describes it, Blue Mind is the interplay of water on our brain chemistry, part of an emerging field of study called “neuroconservation.” Studies show, for example, that the colors blue and green exert a calming, euphoric and energizing effect that correlate neurologically to the effects of dopamine on the brain.

Considering our good fortune in being both close to water and a large health care community, Pittsburgh is in a win-win situation, says Nichols.

“The question is how can cities like Pittsburgh use this knowledge to build better cities and communities,” he says. “Maybe in addition to writing a prescription for patients, doctors in the Pittsburgh health system should be suggesting they go down and walk along the water.”

How do we take full advantage of our rivers?
How do we take full advantage of our rivers? Photo by Tracy Certo.

In moving the conversation forward, Inspire Speakers series organizers invited a group of leaders together who work on the frontlines of water development and infrastructure. Here are several suggestions they had for promoting the region’s blue state of mind:

Make the broader vision of a Three Rivers Park a reality.

“Pittsburgh is one of the most amazing examples in the history of the world of a place that separated itself from (its own) water,” said Lisa Schroeder, CEO of Riverlife, an organization that has worked tirelessly to turn the health of the region’s rivers around.

Riverlife’s broad vision has taken shape through the Three Rivers Park, a master plan for an interconnected, 13-mile greenway along the city’s shoreline from the West End Bridge on the Ohio River, the 31st Street Bridge on the Allegheny River and the Hot Metal Bridge on the Monongahela River.

Parts of the plan have come to fruition, like the North Shore Riverfront Park and Trail and the Allegheny Landing. Future projects are still to come, including Almono, the former steel mill site along the shore of Hazelwood.

“The river is the most phenomenal public resource we have,” said Addy Smith-Reiman, of Riverlife. “It’s a public space in the public realm. It’s more than just a fluid asset, it’s a solidifier for bringing communities together.”

Develop a regional watershed plan that drives decision-making.

“The region desperately needs a regional water policy,” says Mike Schiller of the Green Building Alliance (GBA), the group behind Inspire Speakers. “There is currently no single big water policy to drive decision making.”

Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority green infrastructure manager, Katherine Camp, agreed. An integrated watershed plan should be developed that brings together affected municipalities to address the overall concerns. “There should be one strategy for the waterways and tributaries that feed the rivers and another that looks into the healing effects of nature. Both levels need to be addressed.”

Rebrand the rivers as a recreational resource and expand physical access to the rivers.

Just as the region has rebranded itself as an economically vibrant city that is moving beyond its industrial roots, Pittsburgh must promote the health and vitality of its rivers, especially the emerging network of trails and riverfront parks. This would go a long way to dispelling the notion—especially among long time residents—that access to the water is strictly prohibited.

“With a lot of pun intended, it’s interesting to remember you can only lead a horse to water,” says Sean Luther of GBA. “There’s something in the ethos of Pittsburgh that we don’t think, oh, it’s a really nice day. I’m going out to Point State Park. I’m really interested in seeing how we can continue our efforts around access so it becomes a part of our brand statement.”

“People need to get down and touch the water,” adds Schiller. “We need more soft landings like the opportunities offered by kayaking.”

Invest in tools and technology to monitor the health of our rivers and waterways.

The Port of Pittsburgh Commission is looking into building out a water monitoring system for the regular collection of data on water pollution levels along 120 miles of river, starting at The Point and working out in three directions. One of the systems under consideration is robotic airboats. Developed by CMU spinout Platypus, the self-propelled watercrafts collect scientific data at a fraction of what it would cost to conduct the tests manually.

“We need to be constantly monitoring the condition of our rivers,” says James McCarville of McCarville Consulting and the former executive director of the Port Authority of Pittsburgh.

Our aging sewer systems need a green overhaul.

The City of Pittsburgh’s sewer systems combine sewer and storm water in a single pipe. This is a problem because following heavy rains, the excess water overloads the sewage system, resulting in untreated sewage flowing into our streams and rivers, a process known as combined sewer overflow (CSO).

A project of the Living Waters of Larimer offers an example of how these systems can be redesigned to be greener and healthier. A group of volunteers—including engineers, architects and artists—are working to exert an influence on the way developers have been discharging stormwater in developed areas of the city.

The group is offering Negley Run Was Here tours, a series of walking tours that trace the path and history of Negley Run in the hope that the wetland system may be restored as a network of green projects including swales and rain gardens.

“Sewer overflow problems can be solved,” said Ian Lipsky, a hydrologist and activist with Living Waters of Larimer. “We need to build things that filter water through natural processes, inviting birds and enriching the topsoil, plants and trees. If we do that, it’s good design.”

Deb is an award-winning journalist who loves ancient places and cool technologies. A former daily newspaper reporter and Time-Life Books editor, she writes mostly about Pittsburgh. Her stories have appeared in Fast Company, Ozy and Pittsburgh Magazine.