Every year, we kick off the EcoDistricts Incubator application cycle with stories highlighting the progress of past Incubator teams. As we move into the 2017 application period, we’re spotlighting the tremendous work of the small (but mighty) town of Millvale, Pennsylvania.
A group of residents in the Pittsburgh borough of Millvale, PA has spent the past decade implementing urban regeneration projects across this former industrial town. After years of exemplar progress and in need of a more sophisticated planning process, Millvale stakeholders attended the EcoDistricts Incubator in April 2016 in Portland, Oregon. Less than a year later, the district’s transformation stands as an example of what sustainable, community-led planning can look like.
Affectionately called a “rural town in an urban city,” Millvale is a low- to middle-income neighborhood of nearly 4,000 people that sits across the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh. Since the 1970s, the community has suffered from poor air and water quality, flooding and lack of healthy food access. Recently, initiatives to restore the Allegheny riverfront and infrastructure improvements have kicked off the regeneration of the town.
Determined to improve the quality of life for Millvale residents, community leaders worked with design and planning consultant EvolveEA from 2012 to 2013 to develop an Ecodistrict Pivot Plan that addressed the borough’s long-standing energy, flooding and food challenges. By mid-2015, Millvale already had implemented over 70 percent of the initial goals for the community, including the development of the area’s first sustainable library, the creation of a riverfront park and connecting trails and implementation of green infrastructure.
Ready to move forward with more aggressive goals, Millvale published a Pivot 2.0 Plan in early 2016, which dove deep into the process and collaboration needed to implement long-term community goals, such as improving air quality, area mobility and equity. To succeed, the implementation of the Pivot 2.0 Plan needed to incorporate a more formal approach to collaboration across stakeholder groups. Millvale stakeholders recognized that the EcoDistricts Protocol provided this rigor.
In April 2016, a group of representatives from Millvale Community Library, the Borough of Millvale, the social innovation organization New Sun Rising and Millvale Community Development Corporation joined EcoDistricts at the 2016 Incubator in Portland, Oregon. The Incubator took the Millvale team through three days of intensive learning around urban regeneration practices based on the EcoDistricts Protocol. The team focused on the creation of a Declaration of Collaboration — a governance agreement that outlined the team’s vision, roles and responsibilities — and a district Roadmap, which included a set of goals and strategies to meet Millvale’s desired environmental, social and economic outcomes.
Brian Wolovich, a Millvale Incubator team member and Board President of the Millvale Community Library, has been a leading advocate in making Millvale a sustainable, resilient community. He says the tools the team brought back from the Incubator helped the group create more engagement and buy-in with area residents for the big changes taking place in the community.
“The ecodistrict has completely changed the direction of the neighborhood,” says Wolovich. “Now, we have people and businesses moving to Millvale to activate pieces of the Pivot Plan. And these aren’t just people in the development or green building world. These are residents and business owners from across Pittsburgh who are taking notice and want to take part in the positive transformation of our community.”
Since the Incubator, the second phase of that transformation has begun to address issues like energy, mobility and equity. For example, to improve air quality through the use of alternative energy sources, the Millvale Community Center will generate 100 percent of its energy through newly installed photovoltaic (PV) panels by spring 2017. The PV installation will be matched with a pilot program to provide mentorship, green jobs training and compensation to 10 community teens.
Millvale stakeholders also have worked with community members around mobility issues. The borough is working to implement bicycle sharing and safety infrastructure across its main streets, and have engaged wheelchair-bound residents and disability activists to identify sidewalks and streets that present accessibility challenges.
Further, the team is working with neighborhood children to design play spaces on the Riverfront Park and in a vacant lot behind the library. They’re conducting door-to-door community needs assessments, and are holding online meetings, pop-up fairs and block parties to reach neighbors that don’t typically attend planning meetings. They’re working with local businesses and 412 Food Rescue, an organization that salvages food to create an incubator to improve food access in the community. And they’re revitalizing the heart of Millvale’s downtown by renovating a 15-years-vacant building with a coffee shop and office spaces.
“I’m a big believer in working small and staying nimble,” Brian Wolovich says of the borough’s small, progressive changes. True to his river town roots, Wolovich likens Millvale to a kayak, and a larger city like Pittsburgh to a barge. “Millvale’s a small town, so we can pivot and turn and work through uncharted waters nimbly. Cities can move with a fuller force in the long run, but we can act as a scout for what makes community development successful.”
And what the Millvale model demonstrates is that resident-driven change, even in a small town, can drive successful community development, and it can act as a scalable model for sustainable, resilient and equitable neighborhood design across urban centers.
Learn More About the 2017 Incubator — Register for an upcoming informational webinar