Tag: sustainability

Realizing a 3 Year Old’s Dream…Aboard a 71C Bus Headed Downtown

Waiting at the bus stop
Nadine Champsi

Nadine Champsi

I am a doctor turned write-at-home-mom who runs the Pittsburgh Mommy Blog and is editor of Kidsburgh. I have two wonderful young children and am happily married. My interests include cooking, green-living, gardening, being in the outdoors, listening to great music, checking out the city's cool art, coming up with creative things to do with my kids, and having as many adventures as I can!
Nadine Champsi

A few months ago my 3-year old daughter did some intense soul-searching and determined that 45 was her go-to age.  According to her, at age 45 all of her wildest dreams will come true.  She will a) wear high heels b) birth twin baby girls c) marry her brother d) send packages at the post office and BEST OF ALL e) ride Pittsburgh’s city buses whenever she wants!

Waiting at the bus stop
Waiting at the bus stop

In anticipation of the big FOUR-FIVE, we regularly stop in at local bus stops and try them out for size.  We sit on the benches.  We watch the differently-colored buses go by and choose our favorites.  We talk to regular bus-goers.

“When I’m 45 I can ride the bus, right?” she asks me at least once a day.

I nod and go with it.  After all, I’m a little intimidated by taking both my kids on the bus by myself.  Plus, we have reliable vehicles and we don’t live in a very bus-friendly area. Nevertheless, much like my daughter, I am a huge fan of the Pittsburgh Port Authority buses.  I used them almost exclusively when I was a student at Pitt and loved them.  I could study, read, people-watch, and sight-see while letting the bus drivers do the work of commuting for me.

Although it’s not very convenient for us to use the bus these days, I really love the IDEA of moving my family, our city, and American culture toward a place where public transportation will be more available and acceptable.  So, I’m starting by promoting its use to my kids.  I have been biding my time until my youngest got a little older (but preferably NOT waiting until my daughter turned 45) to start using the buses again….

Well, the stars aligned this Friday afternoon.  The grey skies cleared up after a week of DISMAL in the city.  My husband magically appeared around 1 pm after a surprisingly short day at work.  My son went down easily for a nap.  And my daughter was ready for an adventure!  So, I decided to invoke my favorite mantra– Carpe Diem –and seize the opportunity to formally introduce my daughter to Port Authority.  Plus, I wanted her to see that she doesn’t have to be 45 years old to start living her dreams… she can do it now!  I packed her up in the car, we drove and parked in Friendship, and we hopped on a 71C bus headed downtown.

Happy Girl!
Happy Girl!

She spent the trip alternating between total serenity and excited giddiness.  For the most part, the gentle vibration of the bus seemed to put her in a meditative mood.  She watched the people get on and off.  She watched the vehicles pass alongside us.  She rested her head on my arm and munched on her snack.  But, every once in a while she would see something really COOL and get pumped; for example, the Cathedral of Learning or the view of the South Side as you leave Oakland or the tall buildings downtown. Then, she wanted to kneel at the window.  She wanted to switch seats to get a better view. And she wanted to talk with me about all she was seeing.  It was so fun to her excitement!  It was so fun to have that time with her…

Looking at the tall buildings out the window
Looking at the tall buildings out the window

Riding the bus was a simple outing.  And yet, it was beautiful for us both.  For her, it was the realization of a dream that originated back with her 15-month old nonverbal self, gesturing wildly out of the car window at passing buses.  For me, it was simply lovely to spend a completely relaxed hour just BEING with her.

Plus, I think she learned a lot!!  She discovered that a bus (and our city) is full of all sorts of people–old, young, handicapped, Caucasian, African-American, businesspeople, students, etc.. She got to see a ton of cool Pittsburgh spots while I could sit right beside her and talk about them with her.  She learned that you can navigate much of the city on a bus instead of having to drive a car everywhere.  And, most importantly–I think–she learned that the journey can be just as much fun as the destination.  And she doesn’t even have to wait until she’s 45….

Pittsburgh’s Beauty off the Beaten Path: Randyland

Their swan song??
Nadine Champsi

Nadine Champsi

I am a doctor turned write-at-home-mom who runs the Pittsburgh Mommy Blog and is editor of Kidsburgh. I have two wonderful young children and am happily married. My interests include cooking, green-living, gardening, being in the outdoors, listening to great music, checking out the city's cool art, coming up with creative things to do with my kids, and having as many adventures as I can!
Nadine Champsi
Welcome to Randyland!
Welcome to Randyland!

In my Pittsburgh’s Beauty off the Beaten Path series I describe a particularly beautiful, but underappreciated, spot in the city. I hope these posts will give you inspiration for future adventures and will remind you that Pittsburgh, for all its industrial buildings and soot-covered past, is a city bursting with beauty.  An Introduction to the series is located here.

Last Sunday my husband wanted to take the kids to the Children’s Museum to check out the new Waterplay and Clifford exhibits with them.  We left early and had some time before the Museum opened, so we decided to explore some of the surrounding Northside neighborhoods.  While driving down central Northside’s Jacksonia Street, we glimpsed what appeared to be a heavenly mirage in an otherwise economically depressed neighborhood–a panoply of bright colors covering the entire facade of a corner home.  We couldn’t resist getting a closer look…and I’m so glad we did!

randyfrontfacade

We found what may be my GREATEST discovery in Pittsburgh yet–Randyland!  Situated on the corner of Arch and Jacksonia streets sits the artistic masterpiece and home of Randy Gilson. Gilson has taken his house, the next house over, and the land in between and turned it into a veritable wonderland of quirky artistic expression.  He has covered the walls with elaborate murals painted in eye-popping hues.  He has collected an impressive array of other people’s “trash” and used it to decorate his home.  And he has greenified an otherwise barren-looking environment by planting throughout.  He calls this magical place Randyland. It’s very difficult for me to describe the experience of exploring Randyland–its eccentricity and artistic audacity defy expression.  And yet, I feel I must give you a taste of our visit…if only to entice you to get out there and take a look at it yourself.

Pittsburgh map
Pittsburgh map

The main facade is located on Arch Street.  It is painted in a bright yellow with trim in shades of blue, purple, orange, pink, and greens.  Adorning the front of the building are giant colorful butterflies, old Coca Cola signs, graffiti reading “PEACE,” “JOY,” and “LOVE” and painted-on windows where black silhouettes of people appear to be deep in conversation.  On the Jacksonia Street side of the home is a painted Pittsburgh map situated alongside a wall full of old street signs.  The map is full of playful details capturing the essence of different Pittsburgh spots.  If I didn’t have kids along with me that morning, I probably could have spent a good 30 minutes exploring the intricacies of this map.  But the best part was still to come…

Randy's backyard
Randy’s backyard

As we continued down Jacksonia Street, we came upon an open gate with a promising sign that said, “Another Day in Paradise.”  We weren’t sure if we should proceed into the yard, but an OPEN sign assured us it was acceptable to trespass.  So we entered into the bizarre parallel universe that is Gilson’s backyard.  Nearly every inch of the surrounding walls are covered in murals.  Fire escapes are decorated with suspended old metal chairs.

Chairs suspended from a fire escape
Chairs suspended from a fire escape

 

 

 

 

 

Old buckets are carefully affixed to the sides of gates. Lines of model dinosaurs appear to be frozen in migration.  They are followed by lines of rats with red eyes.  Statues peek out from corners–some are covered with old rusty chains.  Others have plastic snakes wound around them.  Huge plastic spiders are tucked into pots overflowing with greenery.  Pretend geese are caught in mid-waddle.  A giant alligator statue hangs out on the ground with 80’s style sunglasses perched on its massive jaw.  Frogs, gnomes, pinwheels, mannequins, butterflies, swans, old pots, sunflowers, you-name-it, are crammed into the Space.  And a welcoming pergola sits in the center of the yard with adult and child-sized seating under it.  It’s the perfect place to reflect on Randyland–to ponder what Gilson has done to beautify this old house, buried on this old street, with a bunch of other peoples’ trash.  It’s unbelievable.  It’s overwhelming. It’s beautiful.  And it’s sheer genius.

Kid-sized seating amongst the artwork
Kid-sized seating amongst the artwork

For all its superficial recklessness–close inspection reveals that this place is carefully and lovingly maintained by an eccentric, but inspiring, individual.  So-who is Randy Gilson? According to a 2008 Pop City article,  Randy Gilson grew up in poverty in Homestead.  He moved to the Northside during the 1980’s while pursuing his cooking certification at the Community College of Allegheny County and acquired his property at auction for $11,000 in the 1990’s.  Since then, he has invested over $100,000 in renovations.  He has even expanded his focus to the Northside neighborhood in general.

Riding an alligator
Riding an alligator

 

 

 

 

He has installed streetscapes, vegetable gardens, and public parks throughout the area.  In the opinion of many individuals, Randy Gilson is singlehandedly leading the revitalization of the Northside. According to the same article, Gilson developed his interest in recycling old materials at Christmastime during his poor childhood.  His family never got many gifts at Christmas, so he used to travel around his neighborhood, gathering other peoples’ discarded items and fixing them up to put under his own Christmas tree.

Playing with the dinosaurs
Playing with the dinosaurs

****

My family spent about 45 minutes exploring Randyland.  As you can imagine, my kids were enthralled. They played with the toy animals, tried out the different seating arrangements, and just stared–trying to absorb the scene.  I will certainly bring my kids back to this spot.  In fact, I would even arrange a morning playdate here since hefty chunks of time could be spent wandering through the booty. However, please note:  I do not know Randyland’s hours of operation.  All I can say for sure is that on a beautiful Sunday morning it was open for exploration.

Their swan song??
Their swan song??

For me, Randyland represents exactly what Pittsburgh is becoming–an old city, previously broken and discarded by the steel industry, but now slowly being reborn into a city of incredible potential and beauty through a passion for sustainability of individuals like Randy Gilson.

Trust me: it’s an inspiring place to be.  Thank you, Randy Gilson, for what you do…

My Encounter with Green Mountain Energy Company, What I Learned, and How it Can Help You

Nadine Champsi

Nadine Champsi

I am a doctor turned write-at-home-mom who runs the Pittsburgh Mommy Blog and is editor of Kidsburgh. I have two wonderful young children and am happily married. My interests include cooking, green-living, gardening, being in the outdoors, listening to great music, checking out the city's cool art, coming up with creative things to do with my kids, and having as many adventures as I can!
Nadine Champsi

If you are a Pittsburgher who frequents farmer’s markets, artisan festivals, or green-friendly businesses the chances are that you will have an encounter with the folks from Green Mountain Energy Company sometime soon.  This company debuted in the Pittsburgh electricity supplier market this Spring and has since created quite a buzz among environmentally-conscious individuals in the city. Green Mountain Energy is one of the nation’s oldest and largest providers of power generated exclusively through renewable energy sources like wind and solar.  It already has established markets in Texas, Oregon, New York and even has some famous clients–the Empire State Building and the Super Bowl, to name a few.

During a recent visit to a local Farmer’s Market, I was approached by a representative of Green Mountain.  “Do you want to save money on your electricity bill and help save the environment?” she asked.

“Hell yeah!”  I immediately thought.  However, I was suspicious.  It sounded simply too good to be true.  “What’s the catch?” I asked.

“No catch,” she assured me repeatedly.

Between trying to wrangle my two kids and juggling a bunch of fruits and veggies, I couldn’t give the woman the attention she deserved. I took the information she offered and went home to do some research.  I’m going to share with you what I discovered to prepare you for any future interactions you may have with Green Mountain.  Although, we will probably choose Green Mountain for our electricity supplier, the choice was not as straightforward as it initially appeared.

****

First off, some basics:  A) If you live in the Pittsburgh area, you must have Duquesne Light to even have the option of switching to Green Mountain and B) If you do switch to Green Mountain, you will continue to get your bill from Duquesne Light and you will still call Duquesne Light for power outages.  If you do not have Duquesne Light, fear not–this article is still relevant to you.  Like other Pennsylvanians, you still have a ton of choices for your electricity supplier.  Let me explain how this all works in the simple terms with which I have come to understand them:

There is a giant pool of electricity in the grid for Pittsburgh.  Electric Generation Suppliers (EGS’s) like Green Mountain put the electricity into this pool.  Green Mountain obtains this electricity through clean, renewable energy sources whereas most other suppliers generate electrical power from fossil fuels.  The proportion of electricity that each EGS puts into the grid is determined by the number of customers who choose it.  So if more customers choose “green” EGS’s, more of the electricity in our grid will be supplied by renewable sources.  Where does Duquesne Light fit in?  It is an Electric Distribution Company (EDC), which means it takes electricity from this general pool and brings it to homes and businesses.  Important note: Duquesne Light can not control where the electricity comes from (renewable vs. nonrenewable) that goes to your actual house.  It just takes it from a general pool, which will have a greater proportion of renewable energy-generated electricity if companies like Green Mountain have more customers. EGS’s and EDC’s therefore work together to bring us the electricity that powers our homes.

In my zip code, I have the option of choosing from 36 different EGS’s (you can get information on your own area here).  EGS’s offer products that can vary in a few ways:

  • The energy is supplied in different ways.  There are 5 EGS (including Green Mountain) that use 100% renewable energy sources
  • Pricing.  The cost of electricity is calculated by cents/kilowatt hour and the EGS you use determines the cent/kilowatt hour you pay.  Pricing varies widely and changes frequently, but most of the greener options are more expensive than the traditional ones
  • Pricing can be variable or fixed.  You can opt to join a plan with a fixed rate for a set amount of time or a variable rate.  The variable rate plans may start out cheaper, but are generally riskier since pricing can go up significantly
  • Cancellation fees.  Fixed rate plans often have cancellation fees while variable rates plans usually don’t.

Green Mountain offers five different products for my zip code (you can get more information on your own area here).  They have two tiers of plans, each with variable and fixed cost products.  The cheaper tier uses wind power, while the more expensive one uses solar and wind.  As expected, their variable rate plans (which they call Month-to-Month Flexibility) are cheaper in both tiers, while their fixed rate 12-month plans (with cancellation fees) are a bit more expensive.  Now, compared to other green EGS’s, Green Mountain is generally cheaper.  But compared to electric suppliers that use traditional energy sources, it is definitely possible to find a cheaper rate than Green Mountain offers.  So..contrary to what the Green Mountain representative said, it is not a given that you will save money by joining Green Mountain.  You may end up with a more expensive electricity bill.

Since my husband and I are interested in choosing an environmentally-friendly electricity supplier (despite the slight increase in cost), we will probably choose Green Mountain Energy Company.  Most likely, we will opt for the lower tier fixed rate plan (called Pollution Free Reliable Rate).  It currently has a rate of 7.8 cents/kilowatt hours.  To give you some numerical comparisons, a popular traditional EGS is First Energy Solutions.  According to the PA Power Switch website, First Energy has a fixed rate plan (with a 3 year contract) with a rate of 6.95 cents/kilowatts hours.  If your family uses an average of about 900 kilowatt hours/month, your charges with Green Mountain will be approximately $70, while with First Energy it will be about $62 (note: this does not include other charges that are included in your actual electricity bill).

Here’s another important piece of information that I simply must mention.  During my furious Googling over the past few days, I discovered that NRG Energy acquired Green Mountain Energy Company a few years ago.  NRG is one of the nation’s leading power plant operators with a significant majority of power generation coming from fossil fuels.  So..if you give your money to Green Mountain, you are supporting NRG’s less environmentally-friendly operations.  However, on the other hand, NRG acquired Green Mountain because it is trying to become more green, so that’s actually pretty commendable. Anyway, think it over…

Some final points:

  • We are lucky enough to live in an area where you can choose your energy supplier.  Go to the Pa Power Switch website and educate yourself on your choices.  Whatever your priorities (saving money, being green, investing locally, etc) you can find an electricity supplier to fit these needs. Empower yourself!
  • If you are interested in going green, you have options!  Although Green Mountain has launched an impressive public outreach campaign, it is not the only supplier of clean energy in our area.
  • This experience showed me that it is important to keep a healthy dose of skepticism in your interactions with businesses, even if they are eco-friendly.  Choices are never completely black-and-white, especially in an industry as competitive as energy production.

Anything further to add?  Please comment!  Any questions?  Also feel free to comment.  Alternatively, you can also contact the loquacious Yinzer at the Duquesne Light Customer Service Department named Tim.  He will speak with you at length about electricity, Pittsburgh, technology, How The Times Are Changing, and his dear wife.  Thanks Tim!

My Pinterest Addiction and the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse

Nadine Champsi

Nadine Champsi

I am a doctor turned write-at-home-mom who runs the Pittsburgh Mommy Blog and is editor of Kidsburgh. I have two wonderful young children and am happily married. My interests include cooking, green-living, gardening, being in the outdoors, listening to great music, checking out the city's cool art, coming up with creative things to do with my kids, and having as many adventures as I can!
Nadine Champsi

Dear World,

It is now midnight.  I have been staring at my computer screen for over 4 hours.  My husband and children went to bed hours ago.  My vision has become blurry and I’m pretty sure I will need a new prescription by morning.  Never mind–I think my contacts actually dessicated and fell out of my head since I forgot about blinking.  Now I fear I may have a corneal ulcer.  But I can’t stop myself.  I am intoxicated by the warm, fuzzy feeling of creative potential coursing through my body.  I am a Pinterest addict.

Sincerely,

Pittsburgh Mommy

I only recently discovered Pinterest, but it was definitely the worst good idea I have had in a long time. As if mommying, cooking, gardening, crafting, adventuring, and blogging wasn’t enough–now I have an endlessly scrolling Pinterest homepage to obsess over.  Don’t get me wrong!  I think the free distribution of creative and wonderful ideas is awesome.  Inspiring, in fact!  But, the truth is, I’m actually not that crafty by nature.  I tend to start projects and never finish them.  I’m easily frustrated. And we don’t have a lot of expendable income for me to blow on supplies for brilliant ideas that never quite get realized.

Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse
Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse

For this reason, I was thrilled to recently learn about the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse.  If you are like me and have lots of ideas, little skill, and a small budget–The Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse is definitely the place for you!  This Point Breeze gem is a nonprofit organization that is commendably trying to keep old creative materials out of landfills.  It accepts donations of old craft supplies that are then sold back to the public at very affordable prices.  It has everything that you could imagine for your craft projects–fabric, trim, yarn, paper, wood pieces, stamps, paints, glass, and on and on and on… It is virtually impossible for me to encapsulate in words the crafty goodies that can be unearthed in this place.  Let me just assure you–there are materials for any projects you have in mind, including kid’s crafts.

Beading supplies
Beading supplies

Not only does it have affordable craft supplies, but it also offers classes to help teach you some actual practical skills. Plus, when you end up not actually finishing your projects, you can declutter your house and donate your materials back to the place!

Please note:  If you are an Order Muppet looking for retail craft store organization, your head will explode.  It is a root-around store with some rough attempts at organization. In other words, it is probably NOT the best place to bring your children or your OCD.

Filing drawers full of quirky, small objects
Filing drawers full of quirky, small objects

Anyway, I highly recommend exploring the Center for Creative Reuse (sans little ones!).  It is located in the same building (but around the corner) as Construction Junction at 214 North Lexington Street in Point Breeze.

Fabric selections
Fabric selections

Pittsburgh’s Center for Sustainable Landscapes

Nadine Champsi

Nadine Champsi

I am a doctor turned write-at-home-mom who runs the Pittsburgh Mommy Blog and is editor of Kidsburgh. I have two wonderful young children and am happily married. My interests include cooking, green-living, gardening, being in the outdoors, listening to great music, checking out the city's cool art, coming up with creative things to do with my kids, and having as many adventures as I can!
Nadine Champsi
Welcome to one of the greenest buildings on Earth!
Welcome to one of the greenest buildings on Earth!

This St. Patrick’s Day I did things a little differently.  Instead of slaving over a pot of slowly braising corned beef and cabbage, I made a Thai green curry.  Instead of showing just how far my tolerance has sunk since having kids by getting tipsy on one Irish beer, I stayed dry.  This year I celebrated GREEN in another way–by making the trip to one of the greenest buildings on Earth right here in Pittsburgh!  The newly opened Center for Sustainable Landscapes at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens is finally open to the public!

Let me be quite explicit up front.  I am only a layperson in the field of sustainability.  I did not pursue formal education in this field (unless you count scouring the internet and the public library. :) )  Like many others, I just think the technologies are really interesting and inspiring. That being said, here’s why I think the Center for Sustainable Landscapes at Phipps is conceptually so wonderful:

1) Energy and Resource Independence

The Center for Sustainable Landscapes at Phipps powers itself through the use of state-of-the-art wind turbines and solar panels.  It also heats and cools itself through the use of a geothermal system.

For those of you who may not know what a geothermal system is, here’s my understanding of it: in a geothermal system, air from within the building is constantly funneled down tunnels dug 500 ft into the Earth’s crust where the temperatures are always moderate.  The air from ground level is then heated or cooled through its exposure to crust temperatures and then brought back up to the building.  So the building does not use a traditional air conditioner or furnace system.

In order to maintain these comfortable air temperatures, the building also utilizes state-of-the-art construction materials, insulation, and windows.

Finally, it supplies its own water needs through rainwater harvesting and storage.

2).  Sustainable Landscaping

The landscaping at the Center features all non-invasive, native plants.  There will be a variety of garden spaces to explore, including a green roof, rain gardens, shade gardens, wetland garden, etc… Unfortunately, these areas won’t be ready until warmer weather comes to Pittsburgh.

Area that will be nicely landscaped as the weather warms up
Area that will be nicely landscaped as the weather warms up

3) No-Brainer Features that I Can’t Believe Aren’t More Popular

Finally, the Center for Sustainable Landscapes uses some “technologies” that are brilliant in their sheer obviousness.  For example, it uses “natural ventilation,” or the opening of strategically placed windows to aid with airflow.  It also uses “daylighting,” or allowing lots of natural light to penetrate the interior spaces to minimize the need for artificial lighting.  Genius!

The above are reasons why I think the Center for Sustainable Landscapes is really cool.  And I’m not alone.  The building will likely achieve ILBI Living Building Challenge certification, which is the highest standard for sustainable building practices.  It will also likely exceed LEED® Platinum certification criteria.

But, here’s the kick in the pants.  “Visiting” the Center means walking around an office building.  There is an interactive computer screen where you can learn about the building’s features.  You can also take a docent-led tour if you wish.  You can even talk at length to the perky twenty-something lady that sits at a small desk near the entrance.  But, if you are envisioning a building that is a creative mix between the Swiss Family Robinson and Star Trek (as I was), you will be disappointed.  For now, this is NOT a place to visit with your kids.

The bread on top of my feedback sandwich is this:  I think it will be an exceptionally cool place to visit with children when the weather warms up and the landscaping grows in.  There are some cool water features, comfortable benches, a boardwalk, and tons of gardens that will make it a beautiful place to wander through with young, creative minds very soon :)  Now, come on Spring!

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