For sustainable and resilient design enthusiasts, Pittsburgh is an inspiring place to live. Fueled by Mayor Peduto and his team’s very real commitment to advancing Pittsburgh as a sustainable city for the future, there are positive developments all across the city. In the last half of 2017 alone, Next City profiled Pittsburgh’s efforts to foster a clean energy economy, to introduce urban farms that combine housing and healthy eating and encourage bike sharing.
Beyond these recent developments, Pittsburgh regularly welcomes international sustainability events from the G20 World Summit to the Climate Reality Leadership Corps. Our city is part of the Rockefeller 100 Resilient Cities coalition, C40 Cities Network and Local Governments for Sustainability and leadership has vocally expressed Pittsburgh’s commitment to the Paris Agreement regardless of action from the federal government.
Pittsburgh is a city where sustainable ideas and discussion are welcome. Moreover, it’s a city keen on sharing its ideas with the world. We want to develop policies and design solutions that affect change far beyond our city limits.
This positive momentum, global perspective and the unique challenges we face, make Pittsburgh a prime location to solve critical sustainability issues. Here’s a look at three urban sustainability challenges Pittsburgh can focus on in 2018 to catalyze such change.
An Abundance of Water
Pittsburgh is never a city short on water. Located where three significant rivers unite, Pittsburgh has constant access to this natural resource. However, this access can lead to extensive challenges related to flooding and over taxation of our aging sewer systems. These problems lead to property damage, unsanitary conditions, and inefficient use of public money on almost cyclical recovery efforts.
One of the ways to address this challenge is updating our tortured sewer system. Already, certain municipalities have introduced stormwater management fees to fund capital investment. Another key step lies in updating outdated legislation that currently doesn’t allow Pennsylvania businesses, schools, and other organizations to recycle rainwater for drinking even though modern technology makes that both possible and safe.
Beyond just policy and investment, we should also redesign our urban environments to respond to this challenge. Similar to water, Pittsburgh also has an abundance of land, which has led us to build out as opposed to up over time. As a result, our city is full of impermeable urban spaces like surface parking decks that cannot absorb water in the face of flooding.
To better deal with our water issues, we should unite a team focused on strategically converting impermeable spaces to permeable areas – gardens, bio swales or grass fields. If we can define a successful urban strategy for this conversion and balance it with infrastructure and policy updates, Pittsburgh can become a model for successfully overcoming this challenge. Such a solution could help cities like Houston – a city that also built out as opposed to up over time – as their abundance of impermeable spaces exacerbated flooding challenges in the wake of Hurricane Harvey this summer and others around the globe.
Reshaping Air Quality and Economy
Access to clean air is essential to living a healthy life. Given our state’s economic reliance on coal-fired power plants, steel foundries, chemical manufacturers, etc., Pittsburgh ranks as one of the 10 worst regions in the nation for particle pollution. We need to act to help all those who call our state home, and the more than half of American who live in areas with high levels of ozone and particulates in the air.
Beyond planting trees and investing in growing our forest area, Pittsburgh is primed to take a more aggressive approach to fighting this challenge: creating a clean-energy economy. Thanks to the foresight of our city’s leadership, Pittsburgh is one of just seven initial cities participating in the Urban Transition Alliance, a multi-national partnership focused on helping industrial legacy cities share ideas and develop new solutions for a more sustainable urban future.
As part of this alliance, Pittsburgh will help craft leading ideas about how an industrial city reshapes its economy. It’s imperative we take these ideas, test, implement and refine them here, and then share our findings and results with other urban centers globally. Evolving beyond an economy reliant on practices that diminish our air quality and natural environment is attainable, and again Pittsburgh should embrace its role as a leader in the fight.
Creating Complete Streets
In Pittsburgh – and numerous cities worldwide – there is a real tension between various forms of urban transportation. With bicycles, cars, buses, trains and pedestrians all trying to move about our urban cores together, it is easy for conflict to occur, sometimes with tragic or fatal results. In Pittsburgh, the poor design of many of our city streets fosters such disharmony.
To the city’s credit, Pittsburgh has been adding bike lanes in several locations across the city. This is a great step, but only one piece of what needs to be a more holistic solution for complete streets in Pittsburgh. Per Smart Growth America, each city should define its unique streets based on its community context, but they need to include an appropriate combination of sidewalks, bike lanes, special bus lanes, comfortable and accessible public transportation stops, frequent and safe crossing opportunities, median islands, accessible pedestrian signals, curb extensions, narrower travel lanes, roundabouts, etc.
Many streets in Pittsburgh fall short of this definition and that puts our children, disabled residents and low-income neighborhoods especially at risk. Fortunately, Mayor Peduto and his team have been vocal about their desire to introduce a complete-street strategy for the city. We should share the steps we take, challenges we overcome and opportunities we discover in implementing this process publicly. Scores of cities are struggling with creating complete streets, and embracing our city’s challenge as we work toward successful outcomes will not only help those who live in Pittsburgh, but countless others around the world navigating streets poorly designed for their safety.
As Pittsburgh forges ahead as a beacon for sustainable urban solutions, there is still work to do. We should be vocal about the challenges we continue to face and our unique position to incubate successful ideas for the future. Such an approach won’t just lead to a more sustainable Pittsburgh, but positive change planet-wide that will make a difference for generations.