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At the G-20: Pittsburgh, the former 'Steel City,' has chance to shine

Pittsburgh will show a green, high-tech face to its G-20 guests.

By Ron SchererStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 23, 2009

CLEAN AND GREEN: Boats pass under the 6th Street Bridge near the stadium where pro baseball’s Pirates play.

Ann Hermes/ The Christian Science Monitor

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PITTSBURGH

When leaders from the Group of 20 nations meet here Thursday and Friday, they will find a city that has resurrected itself.

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From the roof of the city's convention center – one of the G-20 venues – the dignitaries will look out on the Allegheny River and perhaps see kayakers on a waterway that used to be a dumping ground for industry. The leaders will enjoy canapés at the Phipps Conservatory, which was founded by a captain of industry but is now a green showplace. And if the visitors are able to walk the streets, they might hear jazz or Mozart – without a smoke-belching stack in sight.

Yes, even though the football team is called the Steelers, city officials want the world to know that steel is no longer Pittsburgh's raison d'être. The city with a sooty past is now exporting its medical technology. In rivers where waste used to abound, bass tournaments are now held.

Even as the United States struggles to exit the recession, the city boasts it has 25,000 unfilled jobs.

"People hear 'Pittsburgh,' and they think an older town; they think a dirty town," says Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who proudly calls himself the youngest mayor of a major US city. "And, of course, that's not the case."

In a statement Sept. 8, President Obama explained why he wanted to hold the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh. "As a city that has transformed itself from the city of steel to a center for high-tech innovation – including green technology, education and training, and research and development – Pittsburgh will provide both a beautiful backdrop and a powerful example for our work."

Mr. Obama knows the city well, having visited it often last year during Pennsylvania's Democratic primary, which he lost to then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. While campaigning in Pittsburgh, Obama got a tour of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, proudly touted by city officials for its LEED Gold certification from the US Green Building Council.

The facility, which will host G-20 meetings, uses natural light to illuminate much of the floor space. It can turn off the ventilation and let in outside air for about 50 days of the year.

Most of the building's components were built within 500 miles of Pittsburgh. Yet another green feature: a rooftop herb and vegetable garden, which is used by chefs preparing food for events in the facility.

"This building was intended to be an example and a catalyst for future green efforts in the region," writes Mary Conturo, executive director of the Sports & Exhibition Authority, which owns the center, in an e-mail.

On Thursday, the visiting dignitaries will dine at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, an elegant greenhouse that melds glass artwork with exotic plant life.

It was built in 1893 by Henry Phipps, one of Andrew Carnegie's business partners. The facility is described by its executive director, Richard Piacentini, as "an excellent example of the old Victorian mind-set that there were no limits to the amount of resources we could use and the amount of pollution we could produce."

But today, this place is more about conservation with a drought-resistant lawn, natural heating and cooling, and the purchase of clean-energy offsets to account for all the power usage.

"We have tried to make the facility more sustainable within the historic nature of the building," Mr. Piacentini says.

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