Story Ideas

Site Map

Overcoming Fragmentation:
The Pittsburgh Region's Struggle for Smart Use

Davitt B. Woodwell

Vice President
Pennsylvania Environmental Council

Southwestern Pennsylvania is a region defined by its natural infrastructure. The hills, valleys, and rivers, along with the natural resources they contained, have been the lifeblood for the region's human history. After all, this is the region that gave the world Colonel Drake and his oil well, Pittsburgh and its plate glass, the steel for the St. Louis Arch, the Golden Gate Bridge, and World War II. Today, coal and electric power continue to pour from the region as abundantly as advances in biotech and supercomputing.

For the past 200 years or so, the value of the Pittsburgh region's natural infrastructure has been rooted in three things - moving commerce, supporting industry, and providing recreation. Today, Southwestern Pennsylvania continues to face the responsibility of being the source of impressive natural resources such as coal, oil, gas, timber, agricultural, and aggregate materials, as well as the legacy of two centuries of harvesting, mining, and developing those resources to drive an industrial economy.

Consequently, land use in this region means much more than how zoning and development are implemented. It is a constant battle to balance often competing uses: weighing the balance between river dredging for sand and gravel with the ecosystem of the mussels that live in the rivers; longwall coal mining and the surface impacts on homes and streams; and developing greenfields versus reusing older brownfield sites.

As suburban sprawl fuels an outward migration from the city, communities throughout the region continue to utilize more and more undeveloped land per person while already developed areas fight for survival. And, all across the region, we struggle to continue the transformation from a culture and economy tied almost exclusively to manufacturing to one diverse in its offerings that increasingly depends upon technology, healthcare, and knowledge workers. With these new industries, much of the natural infrastructure is now looked at as a quality of life factor rather than as a source of raw materials.

Historically, extractive industries have had the biggest and longest lasting impacts on the environment in this region, a dynamic which continues today. While solutions for legacy problems like abandoned mine drainage and brownfield sites are implemented, albeit slowly, longwall mining, inappropriate forestry practices, river dredging, and other development methods continue to have an impact on the region.

How are we doing as stewards of these abundant resources? Like most areas, we continue to grapple with the question of how to balance the environmental impacts—good and bad—of using those resources. And, like most areas, we continue to have many successes as well as many challenges.

One of the great successes of this region has been in the area of land conservation. Groups like the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the federal government, and other land trusts have acquired hundreds of thousands of acres of land including the 500,000-acre Allegheny National Forest. As times change, priorities change, and rather than simply counting the acres preserved, more attention is now being paid to the biodiversity of the region, as well as developing and encouraging sustainable practices in agriculture and forestry. Land conservation today is much more than simply tying up the ownership; it is inexorably linked with science, sustainability, and stewardship, all of which combine to help advance the region. This is evidenced by the Natural Heritage Inventories completed or underway for most of the counties in the Southwestern Pennsylvania region.

While we can claim some real conservation successes, residential and commercial development continues to consume land at an alarming rate and fashion. A 2004 study by the Brookings Institution titled "Back to Prosperity: A Competitive Agenda for Renewing Pennsylvania" cited the Pittsburgh metropolitan area as "by far the worst sprawling large metropolitan area in the country." This report found that 8.5 acres of land was consumed for each new household in the metropolitan region, meaning that 315 square miles of land was used to support the growth of only 24,000 new households.

This points to one of the great challenges for the Pittsburgh region - fragmentation, not in the ecological sense, but rather the political. In nine counties of Southwestern Pennsylvania alone there are over five hundred individual municipalities - not including county governments, school districts, or independent authorities. Each of these individual governments has the ability to regulate land uses within its borders without regard for its neighbors or the cumulative impacts of its decision-making, or lack thereof. The Brookings Report identified this fragmentation as perhaps the single biggest hindrance to Pennsylvania's future growth and prosperity. In addition, their report showed that the Commonwealth is gaining population in rural areas while it is losing population overall.

So how is planning done here? In terms of our natural infrastructure, we have no planning in the region that successfully integrates local, regional, and ecological issues. Finding such planning at the state or local level isn't any easier. That being said, counties either have or are creating comprehensive plans that now integrate greenways, trails, and recreation where once only transportation and economic development were addressed. In addition, the state is focusing much more attention on the interrelationships of planning decisions and working to coordinate environmental, conservation, transportation, and economic development projects.

The overall question is one of balance. We need water supplies, coal, habitat, and aggregate to remain competitive - we cannot afford to run out of any of them. Therefore, decision-makers need to understand first what we have and then begin to balance potentially competing uses as projects are brought forward.

Southwestern Pennsylvania is an incredible region for many reasons, and those of us who call this area home now have the opportunity to write the next chapter in its proud history. The economic and environmental vitality of the entire Commonwealth depends upon state and local government's collective ability to address this issue and bring about region-wide smart use development policies for the 21st century. That kind of political vision, combined with the natural infrastructure of this region, would be a powerful combination for sustainable growth and the catalyst this region needs to optimize the potential of its natural and human resources.

Davitt Woodwell is the Vice President of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, a statewide organization aimed at improving the quality of life for all Pennsylvanians by enhancing the Commonwealth's natural and built environments by integrating advocacy, education, and implementation of community and regional action projects. He can be reached at