City Climate Corner

Etna PA: 1st Certified EcoDistrict in U.S.

Episode Summary

Etna, a small suburb of Pittsburgh, became the country's first certified EcoDistrict in 2019. From a place that saw 25% of its homes flood in 2004, learn how collaboration within and between communities made it possible for Etna to green its infrastructure and undergo a grassroots revival. We interview Borough Manager Mary Ellen Ramage and Megan Tuñón, Executive Director of the Etna Community Organization.

Episode Notes

Etna, a small suburb of Pittsburgh, became the country's first certified EcoDistrict in 2019. From a place that saw 25% of its homes flood in 2004, learn how collaboration within and between communities made it possible for Etna to green its infrastructure and undergo a grassroots revival. We interview Borough Manager Mary Ellen Ramage and Megan Tuñón, Executive Director of the Etna Community Organization.



Episode Transcription


Abby Finis  00:02

Cities produce more than sixty percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Big cities get a lot of attention, but most household emissions in the US actually come from communities outside urban cores, making them critical players in climate mitigation and climate justice. City Climate Corner explores how these small- and mid-sized cities are tackling climate change and moving toward an equitable and sustainable future.  I'm Abby Finis.

Larry Kraft  00:23

And, I'm Larry Kraft. We're co-hosts for City Climate Corner.

Abby Finis  00:30

Hey, Larry. 

Larry Kraft  00:31

Hey, Abby. 

Abby Finis  00:32

I was thinking it's kind of fun that we get to talk to all these different types of cities and learn all about different municipal or local government structures on the show.

Larry Kraft  00:43

That's right. In this episode, we are learning about a borough.

Abby Finis  00:50

What's a borough?

Larry Kraft  00:51

Well, I was born in a borough. 

Abby Finis  00:54

Oh, yeah?!

Larry Kraft  00:54

In New York City. Yeah, I was born in Queens.

Abby Finis  00:58

It makes it sound like you were born in a hole.

Larry Kraft  01:03

Now, some may think that. But, I haven't heard borough in a long time.

Abby Finis  01:10

Today we are speaking with some folks in Etna Borough. Just outside of Pitts Borough: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Larry Kraft  01:18

Wait, did you say Pitts Borough?

Abby Finis  01:20

I did say Pitts Borough. I did a little Wikipedia searching. I think it was originally pronounced Pitts Borough, probably with the English accent, which I'm not going to do. 

Larry Kraft  01:30

Oh, please. 

Abby Finis  01:31

No, no. Spare everybody.

Larry Kraft  01:35

So what's going on in Etna?

Abby Finis  01:36

We were looking into EcoDistricts, and there's a program where you can receive certification on coming up with a plan that focuses on particular elements, which we'll talk about today. But, Etna is the first certified EcoDistrict in the country. We wanted to visit with them and learn about what they're doing.

Larry Kraft  01:58

Wow! A certified EcoDistrict Borough. Can't wait.

Abby Finis  02:03

Yeah, let's do it.

Start of Interview

Larry Kraft  02:09

We are speaking with Mary Ellen Ramage, with the Borough of Etna, Pennsylvania. And, Megan Tuñón, Executive Director of the Etna Community Organization. Welcome you both to City Climate Corner! Can you introduce yourselves?

Mary Ellen Ramage  02:23

Hello! I'm Mary Ellen Ramage, and I'm the Borough Manager in Etna, Pennsylvania, a little town in southwest PA of about 3,400 people.

Megan Tuñón  02:34

Hi, I'm Megan Tuñón. I am the Director of the Aetna Community Organization, also an Etna Borough Council person. And, I've been a resident in Etna, PA for about eight years now.

Larry Kraft  02:46

Great! Alright, I'm going to start with a really high level basic question. Etna is referred to as a borough. What's a borough?

Mary Ellen Ramage  02:55

Well, a borough is a form of government formed under the Pennsylvania state code and there are numerous. There are boroughs, townships, cities, first class city, second class cities, and they're actually determined by the community when they incorporate. The difference between say a borough and a township, is a borough has a mayor. Townships don't have mayors. Cities of the first class the mayors, the Chief Executive Officer. It's a little bit complicated. Pennsylvania's local government structure, we actually have about 23 or 2400 governments all across the state. We're kind of an odd bird. But, we're happy to be a borough.

Larry Kraft  03:40

Abby, I guess today we are Borough Climate Corner. 

Abby Finis  03:43

That's right, yes. 

Larry Kraft  03:45

Can you two also tell us a little bit about Etna as a community, what it's like to live there, and maybe you know a little bit about the community?

Megan Tuñón  03:55

Well, as Mary Ellen mentioned, there's about 3400 residents in Etna Borough. It's a really tight knit community. Etna Borough has been experiencing a lot of really rapid change and growth. But, one of the things that I love about it so much is that there are people who have lived here for their entire lives, for multiple family generations. And, then there are lots of new families that are coming and moving in. There's this really nice spirit of community here where people want to work together, they welcome each other. And, even though we might not always agree on everything, people are very open minded and welcoming towards new people and new perspectives. I think that that's one of the reasons that we have been thriving so much in recent years, it's just because of the sense of community we have here, and how we want to work together to achieve a better future for everyone.

Larry Kraft  04:42

How far are you all away from Pittsburgh?

Megan Tuñón  04:46

About seven miles ,seven miles north.

Etna flooding history

Abby Finis  04:48

Well, we wanted to focus on EcoDistricts today. But, before we get into that, I'd like to hear a little bit more about what led to even exploring EcoDistricts as an option. Mary Ellen, you and I spoke a couple of weeks ago and you gave me some background on impacts that stormwater has had on the city and specifically around an event in 2004. Can you tell us about them?

Megan Tuñón  05:13

Etna, we're at the bottom of a 67 square mile watershed and our whole community is eight tenths of a square mile. That's quite a huge funnel coming down into us. In 2004, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan, we were really devastated. We had four hundred homes flooded, which is twenty-five percent of the community. Two hundred of those homes had first floor flooding, which is the difference between living in a property and not being able to live in a property. And prior to that event, there was a lot of parochialism. People down here, were saying there's a lot of urban sprawl people upstream are saying, you shouldn't be there, you're in the floodplain. This horiffic event hit and including our municipal building, we had seven feet of water in here. And yet, we had one quarter of our community that we had to respond to who were in really bad shape, this is where they lived. 

Mary Ellen Ramage  06:12

It was kind of this pivotal moment in our watershed where our upstream neighbors said we have to help these people. So we came together, and I won't ever forget the day after the flood. I mean, I had no office, I stood in our playground, working off of a picnic table, and I looked down on our main street and I saw City of Pittsburgh garbage trucks picking up trash. I saw numerous communities from upstream here helping. From that moment, the Borough dedicated ourselves. We took a look in the mirror and we said, you know, we keep blaming other people, we need to lead by example. We need to show them that we're taking active steps to do the right thing.  Right after 2004, our entire focus shifted to stormwater and everything that we could do in this tiny, densely populated, in the turn of the century, thirty-three percent of the community was impervious surface already. So you can imagine what happened after that. 

So we said, you know, we got to take some things, to pull back some of this. We formed a committee in the North Hills called the Stormwater Committee, I'm chairperson of that. We began actively pursuing joint ordinances, stormwater ordinances, and one of the big end results for Etna was we received some foundation funding. And, we did a green master plan for our entire community, which is in 2014, and we began actively doing projects through grant funding, and these are stormwater projects.  Right now, we've finished constructing our fourth large project. We remove about three million gallons of water from our combined sewer system. And, it's really made an impact on our local environment. It kind of gave us a different way to look at things, how we wanted to change. 

And as part of that, our neighboring communities, Millvale and Sharpsburg, were part of those conversations on the stormwater committee. And so relationships developed and we realized we all had the same issues. And the same lack of funding, declining population, highway growth really tore our communities apart, you know, we're surrounded - our whole eastern corridor is rail and highway corridor, we have whole sections of the community just completely cut off.  So we start working together on our comprehensive planning process. It's a very expensive process, none of us had updated comprehensive plans. There's a lot of funding if you did this jointly. So we began meeting. And it was really a unique experience, because like I said, it's a very parochial area. The first couple meetings, people were like, oh, no, everything's great. We don't have any problems. And through this relationship building and trust building, by the third meeting, we were saying to each other well, if you think that's bad, let me tell you what we're doing over here. And long story short is we developed a three community comprehensive plan. It's called River Bend - that was adopted in 2015. And we actively worked on stormwater - collectively how we would all focus on this in our communities.  

From that comprehensive plan, the next thing the three communities did together, was apply for grant funding to update our zoning ordinances so that we could accommodate these new ways of looking at our community. And that led to this really tight knit relationship between the three communities, which eventually is what helped form the Triboro EcoDistrict which is where we began our journey and where the Etna Community Organization actually formed out of that Triboro EcoDistrict process. And, I like to say that we've just kept getting pulled tighter and tighter and more people and more people and more people. And it really helped make our community so much stronger. 

People have recognized the environmental work we've done. We won the Governor's Award in 2014, for the Green Master Plan. So people begin to know, this is a place that cares about the environment. This is a place that cares about their people, more and more young families began to move in. And it's just a wonderful mix.  You know, I've lived here my whole life. I've worked for the Borough forty-two years, I've been the manager for thirty. So I've been here to see the decline of the steel mills, the tearing apart with the highway constructions. We lost over four hundred homes, just to highway construction. So we've always been this community that's had to barely keep our head above water. 

But the funny thing is, when we start changing our focus, and focusing really hard on stormwater and the environment, things began to change drastically.  You know, I remember the first time a woman was in here, saying to me, I just moved here from LA. And I kept saying, Excuse me, do you mean maybe Louisiana, like no Los Angeles, she said, I googled Pittsburgh and the surrounding area, and she said Etna came up for their green practices. We've really put a lot of effort into that. And sometimes it's really hard when you've spent so much time treading water. And frankly, we have between the floods, the highway constructions, the loss of steel mill, for many decades, we were just treading water, trying to keep police on the street, public works. And then like I said, this pivotal moment came in 2004, where everybody took a breather and said, Wait a minute, we got to do something about this. And we can't expect other people to do it for us, we need to lead by example. And I think that's what we've done. And we've done it very well.

Abby Finis  12:20

This is a really interesting intersection of social infrastructure and hard infrastructure and green infrastructure. It's all kind of coming together. And, it sounds like it's bringing people together. I want to go back to what you said. You mentioned the green master plan or the stormwater master plan. And, you talked about having a combined stormwater and sewer system, not everywhere has that. But, a lot of cities still do have that. Can you talk about what some of the complications are when on top of impervious surface sending more water in and then affecting people's homes when it overflows?

Megan Tuñón  12:59

Oh, yes. There's been so much development upstream over the decades. And, obviously, we border the river. These communities also have to sewer through us. Sewers that were built in the 1920s, you know, 1900s, for a population that was a lot smaller and everything upstream of us was pretty much rural and farmland. People wanted to move away from the steel mills, from the smoke and the smog. Those areas developed rapidly into the same source systems, and over the decades. When I first became manager, we had areas in our community that literally had basement flooding 20 times a year. Anywhere from inches of water to feet of water. And, with climate change, and the climate as it is, more and more rain events. When those sewers reach capacity, they have to overflow somewhere. They back up into people's basements, they overflow into our streams. The stream in our river here, for the longest time, when I was a young child, my parents said, "Don't go near either one of those." And today, our welcome sign has a heron on it. A blue heron, because we now have heron living in Pine Creek. 

Mary Ellen Ramage  14:13

One of the things I want to say when we did the Green Master Plan, we also tried to adopt policies for individuals to become stakeholders. In 2010, we adopted a downspout disconnect program. We actually adopted an ordinance for people to disconnect their downspouts because trying to educate people that when it's raining that water off your roof, it's actually the water that's coming right up through your basement. We're a very densely urban populated community. We don't want to be flooding people's sandstone foundations. We require PERC tests and people coming out from our public works. If they get the rain barrel, if they're able to have it, they actually get a credit on their sewer environmental surcharge. And, it's really helped educate people in our community to how they can be a part of the solution. People love that. People love being a part of something bigger.  The downspout ordinance is a little over ten years old and the rain barrel program we started about four years ago, where we actually sell them at reduced rates. People at certain income levels can actually get one for free. You look at that as this physical way of making things better. But, what I have learned and have found to be the most wonderful part of all of this is the educational tools. People now tell us when things are going bad somewhere out in the system. I saw this, I saw that.  It's really helped them have a deeper understanding of what's happening right in their own environment, and how they can help make it better. It's my favorite part of all of it.

EcoDistrict background and projects

Larry Kraft  15:57

We've been talking about this term EcoDistrict. We don't have EcoDistricts where I am. I'd like to learn about it. Megan, maybe you can tell us more about what is an EcoDistrict?

Megan Tuñón  16:07

It can get kind of jargony, I'll put it in terms that I would use to describe it. An EcoDistrict is a community, that can be any sized community, a large city or just a neighborhood of a few blocks, where the residents come together on a grassroots level to create a plan for sustainable and equitable development for their own future. That doesn't just mean buildings and parks, it also means what programs do they want to see, what initiatives do they want to enact, that's going to help improve the quality of life that people who live in their own neighborhoods and communities?

Larry Kraft  16:44

Got it, okay. You are the Executive Director of this relatively new community organization. 

Megan Tuñón  16:53


Larry Kraft  16:53

That's, I think, tied in with some of the work of the EcoDistrict. Am I correct?

Megan Tuñón  16:58

Yes, my organization, the Etna Community Organization, which we call ECO, it's very fitting. We were born out of our EcoDistrict planning process here in Etna Borough. We are the backbone organization. And our task is to steward the Etna EcoDistrict plan to enact the projects and the programs that were identified by our community as being their top priority projects for growth and development.

Larry Kraft  17:25

How do you implement some of these projects? Take one and tell us how do you do it?

Megan Tuñón  17:29

We just actually had a grand opening of a parklet that we just finished creating on the site of a building that was flooded out in 2004 during Hurricane Ivan. It stood vacant for many years and the borough demolished the building, and then they acquired the property. Then we partnered with them, with some grant funding, to develop it into a stormwater management site. There's a very large 1000 square foot rain garden on the site. We added some park elements, permeable pavers, site furniture, native plants, and trees, herb garden, and a little library. We just opened that last week. In the case of ECO, everything that we do is really in lockstep with the borough. We work in very, very close collaboration. I mentioned I'm on the Etna Borough Council, Mary Ellen's on the board of ECO. So it's very much a collaborative effort. All hands on deck, the community comes together, they volunteer, they donate, we go after grant funding on our own and also with our partners in the Tri-Borough, depending on the project that we're trying to pursue. So that's, in a nutshell, kind of how it's done.

Larry Kraft  18:40

Mary Ellen, I think you mentioned before, that there is a tight relationship with two other boroughs. Did you mention that there's an EcoDistrict that encompasses all of them? Are those separate? How does that work? 

Mary Ellen Ramage  18:53

Well, we formed, and it's not a nonprofit, it's a tri we call Triboro EcoDistrict, because each of us worked on our own plans. One of the communities that actually gone through the process before us the education and planning and they were the ones that really they came and said you're doing all this work that is EcoDistrict work. Your green masterplans your green streetscapes, you need to go through this formal process. We joined together, and we actually were able to secure quite substantial foundation grant for the three communities, a little over $2 million. Each community had a specific pot of that money for projects that were relevant in their community. And then some of the monies were across the three boroughs, like workforce development projects, solar projects, but Etna chose to use its money to finish our Riverfront Park, which opens this Friday. It's our first connection back to the river and I don't know 150 years or more years, so it's really phenomenal. 

Larry Kraft  20:02


Mary Ellen Ramage  20:02

Yes, it's unbelievable. It's incredible. It was a former industrial site two years ago, there was one sumac tree on it. Today it's got rain gardens and birdhouses, and it's just awesome. But, one of the things we chose was the EcoDistrict planning. It's really brought our three communities together. It's not a nonprofit, but we meet together once a month and we talk about problems. Sometimes we help support each other, things that we've gone through. Right now we have a major focus on opening a library in our community, we lost library service over the years, it's been decades since our children have had access to that. It's not easy to walk here, as I told you, we've been dissected by highways, so we can't even get to neighboring communities safely with our kids. One of the communities already established a library. They're partnering with us on how we do this. Right now, we're actually looking at not only opening a library here in our community, but partnering with them for it to be shared services, shared director, which helps their tiny community, it builds support. It's just been incredible. And as I said, this funding, there were things that we did that we wanted to do separately. It's been a really unique way for communities to interact together in a more formal process.

Larry Kraft  21:29

Cool. Have to note, Abby typed to me that apparently, I've shown my ignorance because apparently we do have some EcoDistricts in the area. But, I didn't know that. I'll call myself out on that. Abby was polite enough to text me on the side.

“Certified” EcoDistrict

Abby Finis  21:47

I added a smiley face. You're the first certified EcoDistrict, right? What does it mean to get certification?

Megan Tuñón  21:59

It's a rigorous process. When you talk about an EcoDistrict being as a community, I'm usually talking about it with like a lowercase d. But when you use a capital D, you talk about the Eco districts organization, which has a protocol that you follow to create a certified EcoDistrict's plan for your community. It's called a roadmap. It's a pretty intense process as a lot of work. And, we were very lucky to receive that funding, because we were able to hire consultants at evolveEA, which is an environmental architecture firm in Pittsburgh. They held monthly educational meetings for our community members, which were all free and open to everybody. They talked about the different issues that we'd be discussing in the plan and getting consensus and feedback from all the residents on how to include it in the plan, in a way that they can understand. They took that information, and they translated it and organized it into the EcoDistricts protocol. That's how we were able to create the plan.

Abby Finis  22:54

How far out does that look?

Megan Tuñón  22:57

So it's tiered, right Mary Ellen? We have like a two year plan and it goes into perpetuity. It would be great to accomplish all the all the projects in there. I think it's something that you can go go back and revisit and revise. We have a lot of private development coming into the community too. That's not in the plan that we completed two years ago. You look at it pretty much in two year intervals and you go back and reevaluate.

Community revitalization

Abby Finis  23:23

Being a smaller community, and built out and dense, there's probably some pros and cons to that. There's a lot of collaboration and sounds like in community building and engagement. And that's really awesome. But, it's also a challenge with the highways going through with already having built out infrastructure. But, you've touched on a couple of major projects of reclaiming some space and turning it into park space and reclaiming some space and an access to the river. Can you tell us a little bit more about what went into those and how you're able to convert that space and what it means to the community to be able to do that? 

Mary Ellen Ramage  24:02

Well, I'll talk about the riverfront. You know, it's funny, I was just working. I'm working on the program for Friday, and I'm doing the history of all of it. And, if you come to the park, one of the things we did in the park, we have Corten signage all the way down the one wall of the park. The pictures are done with little holes in the Corten steel, that make a picture and actually at night they're backlit. It's phenomenal and it shows the history of the property.  Up until, as I said, two years ago, it was the former industrial site. It was a sand and gravel plant part of it. The Borough had its old water treatment plant there that was condemned in 1984 and closed. Prior to that, we had an electrical plant there that generated electricity for the community that closed in the 70s. There were steel mills everywhere. You can look at our town, you can be on a street in our town, that amazes me. There's a giant building that was a steel mill, two doors away as a church. And then the rest of the street is maybe eight or ten pre World War Two brick houses, and they're all on one street. So that's been a huge challenge. 

I remember when we were doing our zoning ordinance trying to figure out how we could deal with that. But this riverfront was something because of the highways that we've just been cut off with, and nobody knows it's there.  I give a lot of credit to our county, they came out with an Allegheny trails initiative in 2011. Trails have been really big in the Pittsburgh area, that going south of us nothing coming into the North. You know, when we saw this initiative, we thought, we have an opportunity here to see something that we could never have seen ourselves. Like I said, when you live inside of something for so long, even the oldest people in our community, that property was nothing but industry, or the death of industry. It was never anything else. So and at the same time, when you're just trying to keep your head above water, literally, financially and live physically above water, and keep police on the street and public works, it's really hard to see something different.  So here was you know, Allegheny County coming in saying this could be a different story here. So that was exactly ten years ago, and eight and a half years ago, we were able to acquire the balance of the property. And I will happily send you pictures I have before and afters that are absolutely incredible. And we had community meetings and people said to us, you know, we want kind of a passive place. We're fortunate because of the steel mills, we have a beautiful swimming pool, playground, all those things that belong to the mills that they gave to the community, as they were leaving. People wanted a place just to sit and relax. So it's all educational, it tells the history of our waterfront, it tells the history of the birds and wildlife that would have been migratory here, prior to all the industry, and how we are welcoming them back and we have the Heron here now. 

Mary Ellen Ramage  27:25

It's been roughly an eight and a half year journey. We actually had to fight the railroad, we have to cross railroad tracks to get it. We're really proud of we took Norfolk Southern Railroad to the PUC, and we won, which is tiny little Etna won, and we're able to cross. If you were here you would see we still have this really crazy challenge because no one can see that area. They get into this mishmash of highway bypasses. And they're like there's a park here? Well there really is. Five hundred feet behind that massive highway wall, there's this beautiful park. So that's one of the things we're working on right now. We did a study on how we can safely get people there. Yeah, we're very, very proud of that project.

Abby Finis  28:12

Megan Do you want to highlight anymore on the building space reclamation project that opened up little park space, and what's included in that?

Megan Tuñón  28:22

That's a good example of placing green infrastructure into, you know, an area where there was blight, and then there was vacant property. And that's happened in a couple of places where buildings had to be taken down due to flooding. And you know, Mary Ellen and the Borough have put rain gardens in and green infrastructure. Another project that we're working on is we're in the process of acquiring one of the landmark buildings in our downtown district, a beautiful old building that has really been disinvested in over the years. I mean, they did that terrible Pittsburgh thing where they took the big windows out and put tiny windows in and put big soffit up over the beautiful wood carvings at the top.  We're trying to acquire that to create the Etna Center for Community which will be a community center and library. And that would be just such an essential thing to bring back to the community. As Mary Ellen mentioned, you know, we used to have Etna schools here, a school district. We used to have Catholic schools here. And those all have been now moved to the larger regional school districts. So we don't have any more schools or educational assets in the community.  We also don't have that third space, that third public space where people can go and gather and where we can host programming. 

So that's really our big picture. Once we have this building reclaimed, and we spruce it back up and make it look like it was back in its heyday and have that space for people to come and receive services and to gather and to really do the kinds of things do the kinds of work that we want to do to make sure that we do have an equitable future here for everyone. All the residents who have been here you know, through all the hard times you residents that want to come we want to have assets here for them, so that they have the opportunities that people in the more advantaged communities around Pittsburgh have. 

Mary Ellen Ramage  30:11

And I think what's critical about that property, you know, our market values are starting to increase dramatically. One of the old steel mill buildings that was ninety percent vacant for decades, was just sold for $2.9 million. It had, I don't know, 50 or 60, broken windows in the backside of it. And it's being transformed into a robotics hub, like a tech’s, flex place where people can come and learn how to make robots, artificial intelligence. And we immediately connected them to our school district and said, "We want you to provide classes for the kids. We want them to be able to come here and learn this." But, those kinds of things are starting to push market values up. You know, I look at DEED transfers, and, you know, my mind is just blown - homes in the flood area are going for $200,000. 

Mary Ellen Ramage  31:06

This piece of property that Megan's talking about is in the heart of our business district. We kind of have a three way or three streets meet together. And it's you know, there's gazeebo, it's right there, it's so beautiful. You can see the architecture from way back, for us to be able to protect a space, a historical space like that in the heart of the community, that is free for all. Everyone can go there and use the services I think, is critical, based on what's happening to our real estate. Having that in the heart of the community sends our message that this is for everyone. You know, we want people to have the ability to learn, to educate, to grow, to commune to eat together. We're very passionate about working on that. We're happy to be partners together on that project. It's been a fun journey so far.

No recent flooding

Larry Kraft  32:00

Sounds like a lot of this process was kicked off by that big flooding that had happened in 2004. And all the floods that had happened before that. Where are you at now? How are things going with flooding in the community?

Mary Ellen Ramage  32:14

Well, I will knock on wood. when I say that, we have not had our stream over top since that event. September 1 in our area was really scary. Our Creek reached 14.6 feet, which we actually have in our protocols that have 14 feet it's going to start to overtop and it hasn't. I think we've done so much work on I told you about the green infrastructure. But we actually got 1.3 million dollars shortly after that big flood event. And we did major flood protection project stream bank restorations, we raised a couple of bridges, we have really put a focus on that. And September 1, our stream did not ever top, we did have some basement backups, because of the combined sewer system. You know, and we continue to work towards that. But we did not have flooding on September 1 this past year so.

Larry Kraft  33:16


Mary Ellen Ramage  33:16

It's unbelievable.

Advice for others

Larry Kraft  33:18

Considering that in that time period from the early 2000s, to now, generally because of climate change, flooding events, generally around the country are getting more frequent. The amount of precipitation that's falling at certain times is getting more so that what you all have accomplished is pretty remarkable. Given that, from this journey you've been on what advice would you give to others?

Megan Tuñón  33:42

Well, my advice would be every single thing I've told you about all these wonderful projects have been through collaborations, through relationship building, through trust building. It's amazing and with with your community besides you, we have such a strong volunteer base in this tiny little community. Everybody's out there working together. Again, like I started out saying it's been so parochial here with all these municipalities and things. And I think we are a perfect example of no throw those walls down and welcome people in. Educating our neighbors upstream about all the stuff that was happening up there. What it really was causing down here was huge. 

Mary Ellen Ramage  34:27

A lot of the work I talked about, people started to say let's lead by example. It got people far more wealthy, financially, the demographics to say look what they're doing there. We got to look at what we're doing to make that better for them. Every single thing I've we've done here, every single one. It's some projects like the park I'm working on now. It's really important to me that you acknowledge and thank everybody. I have a whole page of people I mean, they go from the Audubon Society, giving us the correct verbiage for our signs on the migratory birds. We wanted it to be real. We're going to the top of the food chain on the birds and have them tell us the experts tell us what birds really were here or should be here.  

I think, you know, there's a whole world of wonderful people out there with good ideas, young, old, new, and just being able to be open to listen and to help understand and then help others to understand and educate on what's happening and how you see it and how you need it to be. Bringing them into the fold just changes everything. When we started the Eco district process, one of the things I really, really wanted to do, we actually my Council adopted a resolution saying before the process even started, we are committed to this process. Our elected officials will come in here. And they did! And maybe in the beginning it was because a piece of paper said they're supposed to. But the next thing you know, they were sitting beside people they represented neighbors and really getting to hear firsthand what people needed and wanted and what would make their quality of life a little bit better. So it's more of an open arms thing than what we're used to in government keeping everything to yourself. And so that's what I would say.

Larry Kraft  36:31


Megan Tuñón  36:33

I would really reiterate everything Mary Ellen just said. It's all about collaboration. We learned so much from our organizational partners who started this Eco district process before we did. I mean, our next door neighbor's Millvale had been doing it for a decade before they brought us in and taught us everything that they knew about eco districts. That was so important.  When I started I was a former high school teacher and stay at home mom, you know, I don't have a background in sustainability. I'm just a concerned citizen. And Mary Ellen brought me into the fold and the local Borough Council, and I got involved in the Eco district. So now you know, it's my job. It's what I do every day. And I love it. It's so rewarding. 

And the main reason is because we brought the community together to create this plan together and we listened to what their needs were and what they wanted to see change in their community and how we could make that change equitable for them. And not just for you know, property owners or developers who are coming in from the outside, or people who live outside of the floodplain. We have really just developed this huge coalition of like Mary Ellen said volunteers and people who care about our community. I'm thinking about our Earth Day cleanup a few years before the Eco district started. It was a few dozen people who would show up to clean the streets. And now we have over 300 people who come out every year to help. This year, we cleaned every single street in Etna, we had a sign up sheet so we can prove it. Oh, that part is so rewarding. Working on something together with people who you care about who care about the place where you live.

Abby Finis  37:59

It's a really cool story of small and mighty and the power and in collaboration and what you can get done. So thank you for joining us for our first episode of Borough Climate Corner.

Abby and Larry debrief

Larry Kraft  38:16

Alright, Abby, what were your takeaways?

Abby Finis  38:19

I think the biggest thing for me is that this is a story about collaboration and what can come from working together to work towards solutions versus blaming or finger pointing or tearing each other down maybe and I don't know if it was quite to that extent. But we make a lot more progress when we work together rather than being in conflict with one another. So I thought this was a really cool story, both with Etna coming together with surrounding communities as well as driving more engagement within the community itself.

Larry Kraft  38:53

I noted they were talking about the litter pickup thing they did where they had participation from 100% of the neighborhoods and groups in the community, which is pretty cool.

Abby Finis  39:05

Yeah, it's pretty awesome. And just the projects that they're like, couple weeks apart from ribbon cutting of some new Parkland within their community in that reclamation of space and, and beautifying their community. Going from pretty heavily impervious surface kind of hard surface community to thinking about different ways that they could soften that and grow food and provide spaces for people to enjoy and relax and take part in the community.

Larry Kraft  39:35

It's amazing the creativity coming from this relatively small community thirty-three percent impervious surface, they had twenty-five percent of their homes being flooded. Now granted it's not a large area, but still that's I mean, think about if where you live, one in four being flooded and floods happening twenty times a year. That's kind of mind boggling.

Abby Finis  39:57

Yeah, they're in kind of a tough geographic position being close to the Allegheny River, and downstream from a lot more impervious surface where communities are developing out. Just being mindful of communities that are downstream when you aren't developing, how much can you reduce that stormwater runoff versus how much are you contributing to increase volume and flow by increasing impervious surface. And so just having that more holistic approach to stormwater management, it seems like we're hearing from this story and Duck Hill, where just these relatively small improvements in green infrastructure seem to have really, really big impacts and in the amount of flooding that occurs within these communities.

Larry Kraft  40:45

Stormwater as in many things, doesn't respect city boundaries. 

Abby Finis  40:48


Larry Kraft  40:49

Collaboration on this stuff is super important.

Abby Finis  40:52

It definitely doesn't. I think it's just a really great outcome. And there's obviously more to come and having the nonprofit there who has folks working on implementing some of this and they're able to receive funding that the city otherwise might not be able to receive seems to be a really big advantage in helping to make sure that these projects move forward.

Larry Kraft  41:14

Also, you have Mary Ellen there who's been thirty years as a manager, and just plugging away at this. And then Megan, who's relatively new to it, so this really nice, you know, partnership and working across people who have been involved for a long time and people, you know, read through the recently involved.

Abby Finis  41:32

Yeah, and they're, like, integrated across all different things. You know, they're like, I'm on this board at this thing with Mary Ellen, and I'm on that with Megan. And so it's just, it's a cool community effort.

Larry Kraft  41:43


Abby Finis  41:47

We hope you enjoyed this episode of City Climate Corner. If you like what you're hearing, make sure to subscribe and give us a review. If you're able, become a monthly supporter through Patreon. As always, you can find more information on this topic and resources from each episode's guests on our webpage If you have an idea for the show, send us an email at or find us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Larry Kraft  42:10

City Climate Corner is produced by Abby Finis and me, Larry Kraft. Edited by me. Our Production Assistant is Maggie Morin. Music by ...

Abby Finis  42:18

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard.

Larry Kraft  42:21

Thanks for listening, and we'll see you next time.