Environmental science hosts first talk of series

The environmental science and studies department hosted the first soup lunch and talk of the academic year on Friday, Feb. 10, as part of the Environmental Science Speaker Series.

Students and faculty met with Vivien Li, president and CEO of Riverlife, a nonprofit organization operating in the Pittsburgh area along the city’s three major rivers — the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio.

Li presented “Waterfronts for Everyone: Transforming Pittsburgh’s Riverfronts,” which discussed the historical, ecological, economic and social components of riverfront development projects, highlighting the interdisciplinary nature of environmental science.

Rich Bowden, environmental science professor and coordinator of the speaker series said that rivers have often served a variety of roles in major cities beyond Pittsburgh.

“In a large sense, historically, cities have viewed rivers in a very utilitarian way — they were modes of transportation. We viewed them as a source of water and a place to dump our waste,” Bowden said. “But it’s changed. Now people are re-evaluating how rivers should be viewed.”

According to the mission statement and website, Riverlife strives to “reclaim, restore, and promote Pittsburgh’s riverfronts as the environmental, recreational, cultural and economic hub” for the community.

Riverlife’s approach utilizes what Li calls “unlikely allies” to address riverfront development and ecosystem restoration. These allies, according to Li, include city officials and policymakers at all stations of the political spectrum, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, riverfront casinos as well as the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pirates organizations.

Abrianna Sadler, ’17, said she appreciated Riverlife’s capacity for engaging and connecting with several groups to achieve a higher level of riverfront sustainability.

“Having a collaboration of different types of groups will make the product so much better. You get more creative,” Sadler said.

The efforts of Riverlife to transform and improve the historically industrial riverfronts are mostly concentrated on land, according to Li.

But Pittsburgh rivers themselves remain under a federal mandate to meet federal water quality standards by 2026, Li said.

Li said water quality is just one issue of sustainability for riverfronts. She said as water quality improves, riverfront property values tend to increase, which means that affordability and accessibility for residential riverfront property will decrease for many community members.

“That’s the one downside of getting an environment clean — gentrification follows,” Li said.

While residential properties are subject to more explicit influence of gentrification, Riverlife’s recreational development is committed to long-term accessibility.

The Three Rivers Park system, a growing vision of Riverlife, is designed to be a recreational outlet for every community member and visitor, Li said.

For the Strip District specifically, Li described Riverlife’s vision for a less isolated riverfront, one that features “perpendicular connections” between the river and inland communities.

Physical access will provide more opportunities for people to enjoy water quality improvements and recreational infrastructure, according to Li, and Riverlife has connected communities to rivers in other ways already. Riverlife held an art competition in 2015 to “activate” the community, according to Li. The competition’s chosen artist outlined a mural underneath the Fort Duquesne Bridge, to which volunteers added paint.

“It was a good way to engage different generations, and it really brought the community together,” Li said.

Li said another project involved the 2016 senior class of the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School, a public school for grades six through 12. The students created signs featuring original visual art and poetry that were displayed on scaffolding.

The 2015 mural and the 2016 signs were a part of Riverlife’s “to be determined” project. The project functions as a temporary outdoor gallery for local art in a highly-trafficked area under the Fort Duquesne Bridge, according to Riverlife’s website.

As Riverlife continues to connect people to rivers through art, it also connects people to rivers through education.

Several rain gardens, among other elements along the riverfront areas, feature informational signs that explain their environmental significance.

“We want people to know that there have been efforts to think about what can be done in terms of environmental sustainability,” Li said.

Li said the signs provide an opportunity for the general public to learn, but they also set a precedent for prospective developers.

“Every time you get something that’s environmentally sensitive, sustainable, you use it as a teaching opportunity for future developers as well,” Li said.

Li emphasized the importance of fostering environmental stewardship in young people so that new generations of developers, policymakers, artists and scientists will want to work for better riverfronts and access and take pride in local progress.

“It’s really becoming where people want to be. Where people want to live, work, and play,” she said. “We’re building for the 21st century.”

Upcoming speakers

Fridays at 12:25 p.m. in Carr 238

With soup lunch at 12:15 p.m.

Feb. 24: Annie Socci, Foundation for Sustainable Forests

“Tree Huggers with Chainsaws: The Role of Working Forests in Forest Protection”

March 3: Amanda DelVecchia, National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Scholar

“Understanding Baseline Ecosystem Function in a Changing Climate: Case Studies from Two Montane Aquatic Ecosystems”

March 10: Elizabeth Dooley, Beginning Farmer Center and International Farm Transition Network

“Climate Change and Agriculture: Transforming Global Policy into Local Action”