Pittsburgh Shakes Off the Rust

City Rebounds with a New Kind of Steel

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Grant Ervin is chief resilience officer for the city of Pittsburgh.

Posted: Wednesday, April 6, 2016 11:15 am

How does a city go from being one of the most polluted places on earth to becoming a shining example of economic resilience and ecological recovery?

Well, for the city of Pittsburgh, it’s been complicated. While the city’s past stands as a testament to the iniquity of unbridled industrial exploitation, the course it has set for the future is decidedly more sustainable.

Once the nation’s eighth largest city with more than 600,000 people, Pittsburgh was a microcosm of America at the turn of the 20th Century, as described by author Stefan Lorant in his 1964 book Pittsburgh, the Story of an American City. Extracting oil, gas, coal, timber and iron ore at a feverish pace, Pittsburgh was an industrial juggernaut, at one time accounting for nearly half of the country’s steel output and half of the world’s crude oil. The first oil well and the first commercial natural gas well in the United States were both located within 100 miles of Pittsburgh, said Grant Ervin, chief resilience officer for the city.

Unfortunately, along with Pittsburgh’s industrial heritage came a legacy of fouled air and water.

“The legend goes that when oil was discovered in northern Pennsylvania they actually would float oil slicks down the river to refineries near town,” Ervin said.

Whether that legend is true or not, historians at the Paleontological Research Institution acknowledge that soon after the first commercial oil well began production in 1859, the oil was transported by small flatboats to refineries in Pittsburgh and “the amount of oil lost to the river due to leaky barrels and boating accidents… has been estimated at more than 50 percent.”

The city’s steel industry reached its peak during World War II, when Pittsburgh area mills operated 24 hours a day to produce 95 million tons of steel for the war effort, according to Lorant’s book. That’s also when the city’s air quality reached its all-time low. It was said that the smog in Pittsburgh was so thick that it was not uncommon for the streetlights to be turned on during the day.

After the war, the environmental toll resulting from decades of unrestrained industry and agriculture was not lost on the people of Pittsburgh, Ervin said. When David Lawrence was elected mayor in 1946, a position he held for four terms, he vowed to clean up the city. Lawrence, a Democrat, famously worked with Republican colleagues to develop one of the first urban renewal plans in America, dubbed the “Renaissance.” Elected governor of Pennsylvania in 1959, Lawrence took his passion for environmental protection to the statehouse and implemented many environmental reforms statewide.

In 1962, nature writer Rachel Carson, a native of Springdale, Penn., just northeast of Pittsburgh, authored Silent Spring, a book that is widely considered to have inspired the modern environmental movement, ultimately resulting in the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the banning of the pesticide DDT, among other reforms.

“So, there’s a long history and ethos of environmental protection here in the city of Pittsburgh that goes back several generations,” Ervin said. “The concepts that (Carson) talked about in Silent Spring were really born here in the city of Pittsburgh and southwestern Pennsylvania.”

The city launched its second major urban renewal project, Renaissance II, in 1977, but when the steel and electronics industries collapsed in the 1980s, Pittsburgh fell on hard times, losing nearly half its population. Where the iconic mills and factories once stood, now were numerous 100-acre brownfields, Ervin said. At the time, it was a trend seen repeatedly throughout the Great Lakes area, which was popularly referred to as America’s “Rust Belt.”

Having no place to go but up, Pittsburgh had to reinvent itself in the 21st Century.

It started by diversifying its economy. Over the past two decades, the city has shifted its economic base from heavy industry to technology, health care, advanced materials, life sciences, homeland security, tourism, education and financial services. According to the Pittsburgh Technology Council, the region’s technology industries, which include Google, Uber, Apple, Intel, IBM and others, have a combined payroll of $20.7 billion, representing nearly 34 percent of the region’s wages.

With 25 public and private four-year colleges and universities, and dozens of other post-secondary schools, Pittsburgh has become a trendy city with a large population of young adults. The median age of a Pittsburgh resident is just under 34 (about seven years younger than the Pennsylvania average), according to City-Data.com.

In 2006, the city of Pittsburgh assembled a Green Government Task Force that developed the community’s first sustainability plan and climate action plan. Its work resulted in hiring the city’s first sustainability coordinator and establishing the Pittsburgh Sustainability Commission. One of the founding members of that commission was Pittsburgh’s current mayor, Bill Peduto, then a city council member. When Peduto was elected mayor in 2014, he named Ervin the city’s first sustainability manager.

“The idea of my position was to focus not only on internal operations, our fleet, our facilities, as well as our employee engagement, but also to cross policy areas that influence land use, transportation, waste systems, water, etc.,” Ervin said.

His title recently changed to chief resilience officer to reflect an expansion of his responsibilities after the city was selected as one of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities in 2015. As part of that project, Ervin is leading the effort to create Pittsburgh’s first resiliency plan, along with developing the city’s third-generation climate action plan.

Ervin attributes much of Pittsburgh’s progress to a strong network of collaborative partners.

“One of the things we’ve been very successful at is pulling together networks of departments, agencies, universities, nonprofits and private-sector partners from across the city… to improve the resiliency and sustainability of the city itself,” Ervin said. “What started out with city departments and authorities has grown to include a host of non-governmental organizations and is now expanding to universities, researchers and other groups.”

Some of the local groups include the following:

• Pittsburgh’s Green Building Alliance, founded in 1993 with start-up funding from The Heinz Endowments, was the first nonprofit organization in the country to focus exclusively on the greening of a region’s commercial building sector. As a result, Pittsburgh has two 2030 districts where 70 percent of its commercial buildings are participating in the 2030 Challenge, with a goal to cut their energy and water consumption in half by the year 2030.

• Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University are founding members of the MetroLab Network, a recently-launched network of more than 20 city-university partnerships focused on sustainability issues.

• The Higher Education Climate Consortium (HECC) has the mission to engage all of the Pittsburgh region’s colleges and universities to align with the Pittsburgh Climate Initiative, the city’s greenhouse gas reduction project.

PennFuture is a local group created by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Heinz Endowments in 1998 to advocate for strong environmental and public health policies.

Sustainable Pittsburgh is a regional sustainability advocacy group funded by a variety of community foundations in the Pittsburgh area.

• The Student Conservation Association (SCA) was founded in 2008 to place sustainability fellows into local governments, nonprofits, businesses and community organizations to provide manpower for sustainability initiatives.

• The ReEnergize Pittsburgh Coalition (RPC) is a collaboration of several local groups dedicated to increasing access to and demand for energy efficiency and healthy homes throughout western Pennsylvania.

• The Clean River Campaign is an education and advocacy program raising awareness of stormwater runoff and combined sewage overflow issues in Allegheny County.

• The Climate & Urban Systems Partnership (CUSP) is a group of science educators, climate scientists, and learning scientists in four Northeast U.S. cities, including Pittsburgh.

“So, that ability to pull together people to collaborate and come to a common, collective set of outcomes to enhance sustainability has resulted in some of the best things that we’ve been able to accomplish,” Ervin said.

The results of Pittsburgh’s makeover have not gone unnoticed. The city has topped a “most livable city” list six times since 2000, including those of Forbes, the Economist and Rand McNally’s Places Rated Almanac. Selection criteria varies, but typically includes such categories as cost of living, transportation, jobs and education. The city is so proud of the designation that it added the phrase to its logo in recent years.

Pittsburgh’s journey toward sustainability is an ongoing process, and no one is suggesting that it has reached its destination. In 2015, it still ranked among the American Lung Association’s list of the 25 U.S. metropolitan areas with the poorest air quality, thanks partly to the region’s continued reliance on coal-fired power plants. And, Ervin said, the city’s aging combined sewer system remains a major challenge.

“We’re really trying to advance the mitigation of combined sewer overflows as part of our consent decree through the Department of Environmental Protection, and that is really driving a lot of green infrastructure conversations within the city,” Ervin said.

He said the primary impacts of climate change in the Pittsburgh area is expected to be stronger and more frequent storms, which will put further strain on a system that is already inadequate. Currently, a shower producing as little as 1/10th of an inch of rain can overload Pittsburgh’s sewer system with excess stormwater and cause combined sewer overflows throughout the city, according to the Clean River Campaign.

Working against the status quo and changing some of Pittsburgh’s legacy systems and infrastructure have challenged Ervin the most.

“We’re in the heart of coal country, in the heart of the Marcellus natural gas region, so these are long-standing historic components of our energy system, and the country’s energy system,” he said. “So in one regard, we’re battling the demons of our past but we also recognize that there’s a key transition to our future that deals with better managing those resources, but also transitioning to cleaner and more renewable fuel.”

“We’re introducing new ideas and new strategies and tactics that are trying to change mindsets that were established in some cases for good reason, given our regional makeup, and things like that don’t happen overnight,” Ervin said.

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