River Town Program

The Pennsylvania Environment Council has launched an asset-based community development initiative, the River Town Program, to assist distressed communities bordering a navigable river to develop an alternative economic engine—outdoor recreation-- to help revitalize these small communities.


The River Town Program, a project of Pennsylvania Environmental Council,  helps communities to recognize the river as an asset around which potential community and economic development can occur, and thus a resource worthy of protection. For PEC, this program serves as a model for implementing collaborative solutions to environmental protection and restoration. Success is built from the work of partners that recognize the inextricable links between the environment, the economy, and quality of life.

Download the 2012 and 2013 River Town reports for more information on specific towns and projects.


The Process

The overall objective of the River Town Program is to provide an efficient, effective, regionally-based resource to help local communities recognize the river as a potential economic and community asset, and thus a resource worthy of protection.

Strategies include:

  • Economic growth based on outdoor recreational services and businesses.
  • Community engagement that connects residents with healthy leisure activities through outdoor recreation.
  • Well-maintained business districts that offer needed goods, services and jobs and demonstrate continuous community reinvestment.
  • Safe, clean, “green,” and well-maintained communities that demonstrate continuous community re-investment.
  • Effective, well-maintained, and well-managed community infrastructure and resources.
  • Economically and socially desirable land uses that support strong, vital, and healthy business growth, stability, expansion, and turnover.
  • Strong healthy communities based on a sound institutional foundation that supports strategic decision-making, informed action, and continuous reinvestment.


Outdoor recreation is a booming segment of the U.S. economy, particularly in waterfront destinations. Recent studies across the country have shown that connecting communities to natural resources can provide opportunities for economic growth, increase the quality of life of local residents, raise property values, and attract new business investment. For more information on the economic potential for outdoor recreation, download our economic benefits fact sheet.

The Communities

Allegheny River Towns

In 2010, PEC worked with six communities along the Allegheny River, located just north of Pittsburgh: Blawnox, O’Hara, Etna, Millvale, Aspinwall, and Sharpsburg. These urban communities share a common industrial past. PEC had existing relationships with each, through their work with community trails and stormwater management. All had involved community leadership that was ready to engage in a more comprehensive approach to sustainable development. While all are located adjacent to the river, access to the river front varies by community. Regional priorities across all towns include:

  • Improving gateway signage and wayfinding
  • Providing pedestrian and bike linkages to riverfront trail
  • Improving streetscapes in the business districts
  • Developing community gardens
  • Building a niche economic development strategy for River Towns

Successfully implemented projects include the purchase of the Aspinwall Marina by a community organization, improved access to the riverfront park in Millvale, streetscape planning in Blawnox, gateway design in Sharpsburg, the attraction of several new business ventures in the communities, and plans for a river conservation overlay in the six River Towns as well as neighboring Shaler Township.

Monongahela River Towns

In the spring of 2011, PEC launched its River Town Program in five communities along the middle- and upper-Monongahela River in Fayette, Greene, and Washington Counties. A sixth community joined the program in 2012. The Mon River Town Program builds on the successes and lessons-learned of the first set of communities. More rural in nature than the Allegheny River Towns, these communities have the potential to draw visitors from the Morgantown and Pittsburgh regions. Historic buildings dating back to the Revolutionary War and remnants of the region’s historic key industries-- glass and clay making, as well as ship building and river navigation—attract the history buff, while canoeing and kayaking opportunities, hiking and biking trails, and a vibrant boating culture will satisfy outdoors lovers.

Examples of Regional Projects:

  • Streetscape beautification, including installation of flower planters, painting buildings, hanging banners, and cleaning windows.
  • Educational workshops on topics such as effective marketing for leasing or selling a building, websites and social media for small businesses, and financing opportunities for new or expanding businesses.
  • Branding and promotion, including design of a River Town logo, creation of gateway signage for each community, production of window clings for vacant buildings to improve street level appearance, and creation of a website.
  • Assessment of existing attitudes towards the river, via a professional survey of residents before River Town activities began. A follow-up survey will help us to gauge how effective the program has been.

The program is initially funded through a grant from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation.  The Student Conservation Association (SCA), a national non-profit providing internships in conservation, has established a River Town Outreach Corps to assist in this program. For more information, including events listings, visit www.monrivertowns.com.

French Creek Towns

French Creek in northwestern PA is recognized by conservation biologists for its significant biodiversity. This waterway also has historic importance, as it was traveled by a 21-year old George Washington carrying a message from the British commander in Pittsburgh to the French army stationed in Fort LeBoeuf, during the French and Indian War. In the summer of 2012, PEC launched a River Town program in three communities along the creek- Venango, Saegertown, and Cambridge Springs- all located in Crawford County. Community needs assessments were completed in early October, the results of which will be used to develop action plans for each town.