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 Another key step lies in updating outdated legislation that currently doesn’t allow Pennsylvania businesses, schools, and other organizations to recycle rainwater for drinking even though modern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.
Ever since Cat Adams first drove through the Fort Pitt tunnel to see Pittsburgh’s downtown core – full of buildings, bridges and bustle – she’s felt an unbreakable connection to the city. “I remember driving through the tunnel as part of my first visit to Carnegie Mellon University (CMU),” she recounts. “There’s something majestic about Pittsburgh’s skyline from that view. I was drawn to it instantly.”
Originally from New Hampshire, Cat made Pittsburgh her home when she decided to attend CMU and study architecture. Now, six years into her career with CannonDesign, she lives in the city and looks forward to seeing that skyline each day.
Beyond appreciating Pittsburgh’s beauty, Cat also has a vision for its future: how it can be more sustainable, more equitable, and more beautifully designed. As an architect and the sustainability leader in our Pittsburgh office, Cat is working to affect real change to propel Pittsburgh toward this stronger future.
We took time to catch up with Cat and talk about what she loves about Pittsburgh today and what she hopes it becomes in the future.
Let’s start with an easy one, how did you become interested in design as a career?
As a kid, I always had a creative spirit. I loved art, Legos and building blocks. I wanted to make things. These interests carried through into my education, and I was very fortunate to attend a high school with introductory architecture classes. I took all those classes and one of my professors encouraged me to consider pursuing architecture in college. That led me to attend CMU and I’ve just continued to fall more in love with architecture and the opportunities it can create ever since.
How do you see design playing a role in shaping Pittsburgh’s future?
A lot of ways, but I think urban design is going to be really important for Pittsburgh. Our city has a real tension between various forms of urban transportation. We have bicycles, cars, buses, pedestrians, etc. all trying to move about our urban core and they do not currently always play nice with one another. The ways are city streets are designed contribute to this disharmony.
In recent years, the city has been great about introducing new bike lanes to help ease this tension. They help, but they don’t fully resolve the issues. I think our city and the design community could work together more to design road systems that truly advocate for equitable design in Pittsburgh. It won’t be easy, the congestions issues are real and it’s tough to reshape behavior – but it’s doable, and it’s one of the biggest ways design could make a positive difference for Pittsburgh on an urban scale in the years ahead.
When did you realize you had a passion for sustainable design?
Right around when I moved to Pittsburgh, the city hosted the G20 Summit and I’ve always felt that helped uncover my interest in sustainable design. Throughout college, I spent a great deal of time thinking about design, building energy, water use, and how our built environment plays a role in climate change.
I take the role architects play in shaping our world seriously. The decisions we make about the built environment have consequences, and it’s up to us to ensure they are positive. Working at CannonDesign, I volunteered to be our Pittsburgh Office Sustainability Leader and that’s proven a great way for me to channel my passion for sustainable design into action.
How is sustainable design evolving?
I think more and more people are realizing sustainable design is also about social justice. I don’t know if sustainable design has fully evolved in that direction, but more people are thinking about it in that manner than ever before. The example I gave about Pittsburgh’s city streets – how can we make sustainable design decisions that also encourage equity? That’s the right way to approach the question.
It’s undeniable that the decisions made in corporate boardrooms and legislative forums often tend to disproportionately affect people with limited means. As a designer, we have a responsibility to advocate for these communities. We have a responsibility to design buildings and spaces that do no harm.
Is Pittsburgh a good city for sustainable design?
Absolutely, and there are multiple layers to this answer.
First, Pittsburgh has done a fantastic job of advocating for sustainable design and marketing to a global audience. I referenced the city hosted the G20 summit. Earlier this year when the President announced our country’s possible departure from The Paris Agreement, our Mayor Bill Peduto ensured our city’s commitment and fostered deeper partnerships with the City of Paris. We’ve hosted the Climate Reality Leadership Corps, we’re part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities coalition, we have numerous organizations and annual conferences focused on sustainability, the 27,000 multi-colored light bulbs on Pittsburgh’s Rachel Carson Bridge are all powered by wind turbines.
But beyond just those actions we’re taking, I think Pittsburgh is uniquely positioned to be an incubator for sustainable and resilient city solutions of the future. We face some dynamic challenges related to infrastructure, resources, climate, topography, social justice – and we should embrace the opportunity to lead the way in addressing these challenges. Given Mayor Peduto’s commitment to sustainability, the leadership and the will is there to be sustainable and resilient design pioneers.
Incubator for sustainable and resilient city solutions? Can you give an example?
Given the three rivers that define our landscape, Pittsburgh is a city challenged by maintaining its water. When we have significant rain events, certain areas flood, our sewer systems can back up, and this causes damage and problems across the city. Our water infrastructure is outdated and prompted several water quality advisories in 2017.
We’re also a city with an abundance of land, and as a result, we’ve built out over time as opposed to up. This has led to the introduction of lots of impermeable urban spaces like surface parking decks. To better deal with our water issues, we should convert some of these to permeable areas – gardens, bio swales, grass fields. If we can define a successful urban strategy for this conversion, we’ll not only help Pittsburgh, but we can inspire other cities. Houston is a city that also built out as opposed to up over time and their abundance of impermeable spaces exacerbated some of the flooding challenges in the wake of Hurricane Harvey this summer.
Okay, before we let you go, a few fun questions about yourself. What’s your favorite building in Pittsburgh?
That’s easy, I love Phipps Conservatory. A botanical garden building that is shaped beautifully. They have a butterfly room, fish ponds, gardens… just a beautiful space. It’s also on a campus that houses the first living building challenge certified building in Pittsburgh. Phipps Conservatory is a great asset for the city.
What do you do for fun in your spare time?
I like to be outdoors. I love to ski, I enjoy playing tennis and taking hikes. People sometimes don’t realize that Pittsburgh has a real wealth of nature and it’s a great city for exploring. During the summer, I volunteer with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy to plant trees. It’s a great way to meet new people and get your hands dirty.
Best meal in Pittsburgh?
My favorite place to eat out is Chaya, it’s a Japanese restaurants in the Squirrel Hill part of Pittsburgh. It has a great vibe and the best sushi in Pittsburgh.
Learn more about our Pittsburgh team >
On Monday October 16, CannonDesign will kick off Environmental Awareness Week (EAW), an annual celebration of smart ideas, innovative technologies and iconoclastic thinkers that help guide our progress toward becoming a regenerative practice.
From its initial inception in our Chicago office in 2001, EAW has grown into a firm-wide event that provides the impetus for our staff, clients and other industry partners to pause and consider the environmental impact of our work and our individual lives.
In 2017, this act of reflection is more important than ever. Each year, we select a theme for the week and this year is simple: Act Now.
The unfortunate reality – in the U.S. in particular – is that much of the collective progress we have made on environmental issues is in jeopardy. It now appears that hard-fought protections for environmental and human health will at best be slowed and at worst be rolled back by our own federal government. So what can we do?
Many of us who care about this progress have come to realize that we have placed too much faith in broad solutions from above – the “someone should do something” syndrome. We need to re-awaken in ourselves and each other the notion that each one of us is “someone” and furthermore, “we are the ones that we have been waiting for.”
The EAW activities occurring around the firm this year aim to reinforce that message. This year, we will be hosting three excellent keynote speakers each with a story of action at many levels from individual design professionals to collective efforts by cities and states.
Henrietta Davis, former mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts will present the effort that continues to propel her city’s Net Zero plan toward realization by 2040.
Alex Steffen, a prolific writer and public thinker, will lay out a vision for a sustainable future using examples large and small as supporting evidence.
Bob Berkebile, principal emeritus at BNIM will share his observations on the evolution of high performance integrated design and his recent work in regenerative urban design and development.
We believe these three speakers represent the path forward for the next few years: using people power to bulwark sustainability efforts at the local, municipal, and state levels.
The backdrop for these discussions will be three activities occurring across multiple offices.
The first is an ongoing intra-office competition that is engaging nearly half of the firm as 8-person teams, challenging our staff to take personal actions toward environmentally sustainable lifestyles. Teams earn points when their members take actions from a list of choices including public transit or biking to work, taking shorter showers, turning off electronics, buying local or not buying at all.
A second competition is directly related to our work in designing built environments and challenges integrated teams of architects and engineers to envision a net zero water, waste and energy campus of the future.
Finally, most of our offices will be hosting one or more mini-trade shows and local events where we will collaborate with product representatives and industry partners to showcase the latest in environmentally-friendly building design and construction materials and methods.
Our hope is that this year’s EAW will provide inspiration for ourselves and our industry to push forward harder than ever toward a just and healthy future for all and to Act Now.