The Pittsburgh Region's Struggle for Smart Use
Davitt B. Woodwell
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
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
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 impactsgood and badof 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
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.
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 [email protected].