Some Pittsburgh environmental groups are trying to undo a legacy of neglect by prioritizing projects in underserved communities

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Betty Foster-Pinkley stands in front of a rain garden that Upstream, an environmental nonprofit, installed in her backyard. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

Betty Foster-Pinkley stands in front of a rain garden that UpstreamPgh, an environmental nonprofit, installed in her backyard. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

When Betty Foster-Pinkley’s mom passed away in 2010, she took over responsibility for the family house in the East Hills. 

The house she and her six siblings grew up in is at the very bottom of Dornbush Street. With a slope of 32%, Dornbush is the second steepest street in Pittsburgh and the eighth steepest in the entire country.

During Pittsburgh’s record rainfalls in 2018 and 2019, rainwater flooded Foster-Pinkley’s basement. Her water heater, furnace, air conditioners and some mementos from her children and grandchildren were damaged. She had to pay about $3,000 for replacements and repairs out of her own pocket because it was a natural flood, not a broken pipe that her home insurance would cover. 

The flooding was so bad, she said, it flooded a nearby apartment building and knocked over a wall. The flooding seems worse than when she was a kid, she said. “I remember it flooding, but not as bad as it's been flooding.”

Dornbush Street is twice as long as the country’s steepest street, Canton Avenue in Beechview.

“It’s a white water rapid when it rains there,” said Michael Hiller, the assistant director of UpstreamPgh*, an environmental nonprofit that used to be called The Nine Mile Run Watershed Association. 

The view from the bottom of Dornbush looking up. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki / PublicSource)

The view from the bottom of Dornbush Street in the East Hills. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

Later this summer, UpstreamPgh is planning to start construction on a large rain garden in the empty lots across the street from Foster-Pinkley’s home. The $190,000 project will capture a half million gallons of rain per year and limit the flooding in front of her house. Hiller said UpstreamPgh only has the resources to take on about two of these big projects every year, with the money it gets from grants, donors and its paid work. 

And it wasn’t a coincidence that it chose Dornbush.

Equity mapping

Last summer, UpstreamPgh completed a study of the Nine Mile Run watershed, layering a series of environmental, health and demographic data points to figure out where in the watershed they should prioritize new projects. The Dornbush project is one of the first projects that is being prioritized as a result of that study.

UpstreamPgh’s effort is part of a new trend among local environmental nonprofits and city agencies to map out where the area’s environmental problems intersect with the human needs that environmental solutions could address. 

Two years ago, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy created a plan for a new parks tax that would prioritize spending on major renovations according to who lived in the neighborhood as much as the conditions of the parks. The proposal prioritized major greenspace improvements in communities with high poverty, health problems and violent crime. Although the proposal ran into controversy at Pittsburgh City Council, the city is now collecting the tax money and outgoing Mayor Bill Peduto has endorsed the conservancy’s plan for how to spend it.

The Negley Run Task Force, a group that is promoting large-scale landscaping projects to capture rain in neighborhoods like Larimer and Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar, commissioned its own mapping study this year. The task force has identified tens of millions of dollars in potential projects, though it likely won’t be able to attract the funding to do them all at once. 

John Stephens, who chairs the Negley Run Task Force, said the reason he wanted to identify where the inequity is concentrated is because stormwater projects have multiple benefits, not just removing sewage and preventing flooding. For example, trees can make it cooler for elderly residents in the summer, increase home values and clean the air for kids who have asthma. Without these equity studies, he said, projects could be built where people complain the loudest rather than where there is the most need. 

Michael Hiller and Aaron Birdy, the authors of Upstream's equity study, stand in front of Foster-Pinkley's house and the vacant lots where their new rainwater capture project will be built. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki / PublicSource)

Michael Hiller and Aaron Birdy, the authors of UpstreamPgh's equity study, stand in front of Foster-Pinkley's house, looking out at the vacant lots where they are planning to build a new rainwater capture project. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

Next year, UpstreamPgh plans to spend nearly $600,000 through a state grant to capture rain and install landscaping at two parking lots in Wilkinsburg, another project that will improve one of the micro-neighborhoods they identified as having the greatest need. It will be the group’s largest project since its stream restoration in Frick Park, said Brenda Smith, UpstreamPgh’s executive director.

“A lot of the environmental movement over the years has focused on things that are not the aspects of ecological restoration that matter most to people in low-income communities,” she said. 

When UpstreamPgh goes into communities like Wilkinsburg and East Hills, Smith said, they often focus their conversations on things like the air quality benefit the community will receive, rather than the benefit to the water quality of the stream in Frick Park. 

“For poor people who don’t get to go to the park very often, it’s not at the top of their agenda,” she said. “But if their kids have asthma, having good air quality is.”

To help promote more mapping, Penn State’s Sustainability Institute offered a class in May titled, “Hidden Burdens: Using mapping to address PA’s environmental justice,” that was attended by Pittsburgh nonprofits.

Natural disasters that are likely to get worse with climate change, such as flooding, exacerbate existing inequalities, said Carolyn Kousky, the executive director of the Wharton Risk Center at the University of Pennsylvania. That’s because low-income families often don’t have the savings, credit or insurance to help them weather storm damage. Even when there is federal disaster aid, it provides only a tiny portion of the payouts that insurance typically does, she said.

Aaron Birdy, who did data work for the equity study when he was an intern at UpstreamPgh, talks with Betty Foster-Pinkley about the rain garden that was installed in her backyard. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

The location of the city’s stormwater projects could be one of the most competitive areas of investment in the coming decades as the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority [ALCOSAN] and the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority [PWSA] spend hundreds of millions of dollars to address stormwater challenges. Nine Mile Run is just one of several watersheds with more rainwater problems than there are currently resources to address.

ALCOSAN looks at how it can best remove sewage overflows from the rivers, not at how its projects will specifically help nearby residents. But the new stormwater plan PWSA is developing will look at the broader impact. 

Tony Igwe, who PWSA hired in February to manage its growing list of stormwater projects, said the authority is looking into using equity and environmental justice measures to help identify places that could benefit most from things like improved air quality or more shade in the summer. In April, PWSA proposed implementing a stormwater fee that would provide about $6 or $7 million per year for projects like this. It would cost the average residential customer about $6 per month starting next year. 

Igwe said this could increase to as much as $24 million each year to help address rainwater challenges but the yearly rate increases will have to be approved by the Pennsylvania Utilities Commission. Although the state Rep. Ed Gainey, Pittsburgh’s presumptive mayor-elect, has opposed these increases, Igwe said he thinks they’re inevitable.

“I don’t know that you can avoid having a plan and putting together projects to start helping people,” he said.

Dornbush need

By some measures, Foster-Pinkley’s neighborhood is doing OK. The hillsides nearby are green, and it remains much cooler there in the summer than in many flatter treeless parts of Homewood or Wilkinsburg. Although there is some pollution from cars on Frankstown Avenue, overall the air there is pretty clean, according to the UpstreamPgh study last summer.

“So that was something we weren’t necessarily expecting to see, that these lower-income areas were going to be scoring well in any of the categories, but they did,” Hiller said.

Michael Hiller and Aaron Birdy, of UpstreamPgh, walk down Dornbush Street in April. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

But by other measures, the neighborhood has fallen behind. It was among the worst areas in the watershed for obesity, childhood asthma and the percentage of people without health insurance. And it also scored low for “social vulnerability,” a public health measure that combines income, race, age and housing status. When all the factors were added up, Dornbush’s census tract had the highest need of all 29 census tracts within the Nine Mile Run watershed, according to UpstreamPgh’s “equity index.”

UpstreamPgh also looked for places where there were vacant lots, school or city-owned parks with nearby flooding or sewage overflow problems. Then they found the areas where these environmental challenges overlapped with human ones. It then identified 10 small areas, typically only a few blocks long, where they have begun to look for projects.

The census tract that includes Dornbush showed the highest need according to Upstream's "equity index," one of three measures it used to prioritize project locations. (Screenshot)

The census tract that includes Dornbush Street showed the highest need according to UpstreamPgh's equity index, one of three measures it used to prioritize project locations in the Nine Mile Run watershed. (Screenshot)

During a neighborhood canvas last year, UpstreamPgh’s director of community outreach offered Foster-Pinkley a free rain barrel and learned about the flooding issues at her house. In October, the nonprofit built a rain garden in her backyard to help funnel water away from her basement. Foster-Pinkley asked if the new project across the street could include some green space where her five grandchildren could go and play because the rain garden now covers her backyard. UpstreamPgh added green space.

Follow-up conservations with neighbors are a critical part of UpstreamPgh’s plans for improving these areas. It’s a way to give communities some control over the nonprofit’s roughly $1 million annual budget, Hiller said.  

“It’s easy to say that $1 million is our organization’s money, but really it’s intended to provide benefits for the watershed we serve and the people who live in it,” he said. “It is basically a way of giving the power — money is power — you give that power to the community: ‘Here is the money; tell us how you want to see it spent.’”

Diverging voices

Foster-Pinkley was happy about the new landscaping that will be installed across the street from the front of her house but said her biggest flooding problem comes from Frankstown Avenue, behind her house.

The flooding happens in an alleyway at the bottom of a valley where a stream likely used to be. Hiller acknowledged that the flooding behind Foster-Pinkley’s house matters more to her than the flooding issues in front of the house that UpstreamPgh’s new project is addressing. Even after UpstreamPgh has narrowed its focus to just a few blocks, there are more projects needed than they can do right away. 

And, in some cases, the work may highlight other issues. Jessie Smith Foster and her husband are giving UpstreamPgh permission to do landscaping on an empty parcel of land across the street for UpstreamPgh’s project. Foster is Foster-Pinkley’s sister-in-law and raised children in the neighborhood. She is worried that once the Dornbush corner is rejuvenated with beautiful flowers, some of the adjacent empty lots will further stand out as eyesores, with abandoned cars, trucks and RVs. 

Michael Miller, the assistant director of Upstream, talks to a local resident who lives at the bottom of Dornbush about its new project and the neighbor offered his landscaping services. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki / PublicSource)Michael Miller, the assistant director of Upstream, talks to a local resident who lives at the bottom of Dornbush about its new project and the neighbor offered his landscaping services. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki / PublicSource)

Michael Hiller, the assistant director of Upstream, talks to a local resident who lives at the bottom of Dornbush Street about its new project. The neighbor offered his landscaping services. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

Alex Ball, who grew up in the neighborhood and owns rental property and 12 storage garages there, was recruited by UpstreamPgh to become a “Climate Justice Leader.” Hiller said the mapping exercise helped them look at where to focus, and the Climate Justice program is an attempt to work with residents to figure out what kinds of projects to build there. 

As part of the program, Ball said he has been learning about how climate change will impact the neighborhood. Two years ago, a flood wreaked havoc on a property he owns a couple blocks away, and he hopes that a future UpstreamPgh project may help address that problem. Ball said he is working to help UpstreamPgh connect with local residents. 

“I’ve been there, I was raised there and was from there, so a lot of the neighbors that are there, I’ve known them for a long time,” he said. “It’s always easier for an insider to get people involved than for an outsider to get people involved.”

6/7/2021: The article originally indicated the steepness of Dornbush by the degree of slope rather than the percentage of the slope.

*UpstreamPgh receives funding from the Heinz Endowments, which also supports PublicSource. 

Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at oliver@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison

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