Episode 3: Pittsburgh, USA

Welcome to the Daring Cities podcast, where we talk to urban leaders around the world who are taking radical climate action to prepare for, adapt to and tackle the climate emergency. In this episode, we visit Pittsburgh, USA. Despite ongoing challenges, the town that’s still known as “Steel City” has made extraordinary strides in forging a green post-industrial future. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto says fracking imperils that progress — and reveals his agenda for a healthy local economy.

Show notes

  • Host: Julia Scott
  • Produced by: ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability
  • Music credits: Ketsa, Chad Crouch

Episode 3: Pittsburgh, USA

Episode transcript

Julia Scott: [00:00:06] On this episode of Daring Cities… We visit Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This Rust Belt city in the eastern United States sits atop one of the world’s richest deposits of coal and gas, the Marcellus Formation. Now it’s fighting hard for a green, post-industrial future. But that kind of change doesn’t happen overnight.

Bill Peduto: [00:00:28] I often say Pittsburgh traveled farther than anyone in the ability to clean air, but we still don’t have cleaner. And that isn’t a knock against anyone, but an understanding of the reality.

Julia Scott: [00:00:42] Despite ongoing challenges, the town that’s still known as Steel City has made extraordinary strides in building a green workforce and introducing renewable energy.

Bill Peduto: [00:00:53] If this city can make the kind of changes that we are, and do so in a way that involves the entire community in that process, then what’s stopping any other city?

Julia Scott: [00:01:10] Welcome to the Daring Cities podcast, where we talk to urban leaders around the world who are taking radical climate action to prepare for, adapt to and tackle the climate emergency. Cities are taking daring steps towards solving the climate crisis and finding ways to navigate opposition and support from unexpected places as they go. I’m your host, Julia Scott.

Julia Scott: [00:01:34] Daring Cities is produced by ICLEI: Local Governments for Sustainability. ICLEI is a global network of more than 2000 local and regional governments committed to sustainable urban development. We drive local action for low-emission, nature based, equitable, resilient and circular urban development.

Julia Scott: [00:02:01] When Mayor Bill Peduto was growing up in Pittsburgh, it was known as the Smoky City. Coal was mined from Pittsburgh’s hillsides and then burned to forge steel. You could see the smoke from all the steel mills, coal plants and factories.

NEWSREEL: [00:02:15] Jones and Longland Mill is one of the top steel producers in the country.

Bill Peduto: [00:02:19] Pittsburgh was dubbed ‘Hell with the lid ripped off,’ and it was rightfully so. We were a city of great wealth, but at a great cost. One of the richest cities on earth. But we created air that was dangerous to breathe, water that was poisonous to drink, and a great disparity between those that owned and operated the mills, the mines, the factories, and those like my grandfathers that worked within them.

Julia Scott: [00:02:47] The collapse of U.S. Steel and the decline of the American auto industry in the early 1980s destroyed the city’s manufacturing economy. Pittsburgh, the second largest city in Pennsylvania, lost 40 percent of its residents. Bill Peduto’s family stayed.

Bill Peduto: [00:03:03] And I watched Pittsburgh die. And when I was in high school in the 80s and throughout college, the city of Pittsburgh went through a depression greater than the Great Depression, and we saw an entire industry collapse.

Julia Scott: [00:03:18] For the next 20 years, Pittsburgh struggled. The industries weren’t there, but their legacy was: struggling neighborhoods, diesel and water pollution, asthma. In 2007, the city took its first steps toward developing an equitable, resilient future by signing the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. The next year, it adopted the first-ever Pittsburgh Climate Action Plan.

Bill Peduto: [00:03:41] There’s an old adage: if you’re not measuring, you’re just practicing. And we realized that if we really wanted to see real progress, then we had to have a measurement and we had to have a baseline.

Julia Scott: [00:03:58] Pittsburgh is now in the midst of one of the most significant, innovative post-industrial transitions in America. The city’s 2030 goals include a commitment to 100 percent renewable electricity and a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The city government itself will end its use of fossil fuels, cut its energy and water use in half and get to zero waste. It also plans to divest its pension assets from fossil fuel investments. And when it comes to jobs, Pittsburgh has already moved on from fossil fuels and heavy industry.

Bill Peduto: [00:04:32] Coal is at its lowest production since the 19th century. Even during the Great Depression, there was more coal being produced here than there is today. Renewable jobs now outpaced those jobs in coal and gas and oil combined.

Julia Scott: [00:04:51] Pittsburgh’s future is already here in its 2030 district, a futuristic mixed use low-emission area of the city that’s creating green jobs and has nature-based principles central to its design. By 2030, 556 buildings across four neighborhoods will have cut energy use, water use and transportation emissions in half.

Bill Peduto: [00:05:14] When you start to combine all of that and you understand that 80 percent of your greenhouse gas emissions are coming from buildings, you realize that you can make a significant difference in the amount of greenhouse gases that you’re producing, and you can do it in a decade.

Julia Scott: [00:05:34] Two buildings have been certified by the Living Building Challenge, one of the coolest examples of next level thinking with a performance standard so rigorous it calls on buildings to function as cleanly as a flower.

Bill Peduto: [00:05:46] They use the same amount of energy as a plant. They don’t draw any energy. They produce their own energy. They use rainwater. They don’t have any plugs or heating systems or anything else that isn’t sustained directly from the sun and from rain.

Julia Scott: [00:06:02] But the part that makes Mayor Peduto the happiest is Pittsburgh made it happen on its own.

Bill Peduto: [00:06:08] The products to build it, including the engineering and the architecture, 95 percent of it was resourced within a 100 mile radius of Pittsburgh. All of the materials within the building itself all made right in our region.

Julia Scott: [00:06:25] And that’s the point. The jobs that drive Pittsburgh’s next industrial revolution are here. Pittsburgh’s gearing up to add more green jobs to its already burgeoning construction and supply side workforce in the renewable sector. But not everyone has seen things change for the better. Pittsburgh has many segregated neighborhoods where health disparities break down by race, and access to high-paying jobs follows the same pattern.

Bill Peduto: [00:06:50] We’ve seen gentrification move into some of those neighborhoods, but we’ve seen far more disinvestment than we’ve seen investment. When we talk about disparity in Pittsburgh, it’s real. When we view it between those that have and those that do not. But it is even more so when race becomes a factor, and we hold ourselves accountable to do better.

Julia Scott: [00:07:22] Other citywide changes are also afoot. Mayor Peduto says the city government already operates on 50 percent renewable energy. The biggest game changer has been district energy. District energy is the concept that it’s much more efficient to be able to produce your energy where you’re using it than to ship it dozens or hundreds of miles, and to use it where energy users are clustered, like in a downtown. Right now, Pittsburgh is able to passively heat buildings using steam generated by a local plant.

Bill Peduto: [00:07:52] In an area like western Pennsylvania that’s reliant on coal and nuclear as the sources of electricity. District energy allows us to use steam. It allows us to use solar. It allows us to use hydro.

Julia Scott: [00:08:06] Pittsburgh is looking to up the efficiency of the system by partnering with a private company to turn it into a co-generation plant that will produce both heat and electricity, and upgrade the entire system for another 50 years, something that the city doesn’t have the money to do. Interestingly, some of the biggest local fossil fuel based utilities are on board.

Bill Peduto: [00:08:27] What you see is that there are many companies that are forward-thinking and those companies will be the ones that will still be here in 100 years.

Julia Scott: [00:08:37] The city of Pittsburgh is partnering with the U.S. Department of Energy to lay the groundwork for a ‘grid of microgrids’ concept that makes it possible to tie in different small-scale inputs, like micro turbines, solar fuel cells and geothermal.

Bill Peduto: [00:08:51] Pittsburgh is now partnering with Aarhus in Denmark, a city that has gone to 100 percent district energy. And we’re learning from them how that expansion occurs and we’re working with them and the University of Pittsburgh to make sure that it does.

Julia Scott: [00:09:10] The concept could serve as a model for other cities. Pittsburgh is a member of ICLEI’s Urban Transitions Alliance, a network of industrial legacy cities around the world that are in the middle of a major shift toward sustainable urban development. But Pittsburgh’s progress is under constant threat from hydraulic fracturing, which has hollowed out western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio for more than a decade. The practice, also known as fracking, extracts oil and gas from the shale rock deep underground. Pittsburgh and the surrounding area frequently cope with polluted water and dirty air from all that drilling.

Bill Peduto: [00:09:46] The threats are real. I mean, they’re measured in research. The first threat is just to the environment itself. A lot of these companies that came in during the boom around 2008 have now left. Some have gone bankrupt, and yet they still have gas wells that are leaking methane and nobody accountable to to stop that. The amount of methane produced through each well adds to our carbon footprint immeasurably, even in some cases more than coal.

Julia Scott: [00:10:25] These outcomes are likely to worsen thanks to a petrochemical plant under construction on the banks of the Ohio River. Less than an hour from Pittsburgh, the Shell facility, known as a cracker plant, will manufacture plastic pellets from ethane, a byproduct of fracking. The plant will produce more than a million plastic pellets a year and emit enough greenhouse gases to cancel out all of Pittsburgh’s progress toward its 2030 goals.

Bill Peduto: [00:10:50] The wind blows east and the plants are being built west, so the negative impacts will be felt by the people of the city of Pittsburgh. Even more so when we start to crack the gas, and known carcinogens are put into the air.

Julia Scott: [00:11:09] Several other cracker plants are slated for the nearby state of Ohio. As mayor of Pittsburgh, there’s not much Bill Peduto can do beyond continuing to be a strong advocate for air quality and clean energy. The natural gas expansion could last another 60 years. It’s the old familiar refrain of jobs versus the environment. When those are the stakes, everyone loses. Rather than play defense and just oppose the build out of frack plants, politicians have united around the message that good green jobs and renewable energy could revolutionize the region.

Bill Peduto: [00:11:45] So, together with the mayors of Huntington, West Virginia; Morgantown, West Virginia; Youngstown, Ohio; Columbus, Ohio; Dayton, Ohio; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Lexington, Kentucky… we’re building a coalition around a new economic development strategy modeled after the Marshall Plan, to invest in this entire region to build out the Green Revolution.

Julia Scott: [00:12:20] Making that transition takes time and a lot of heavy lifting. It also takes funding. COVID-19 britalized Pennsylvania. It also devastated local economies. The city of Pittsburgh will end the year with more than $100 million in lost revenue, money the city can’t make up.

Bill Peduto: [00:12:38] We’re looking at serious cuts in next year’s budget in order to balance our budget and be able to pay our bills. We’ve spent the past nearly 20 years rebounding from near bankruptcy to building out a healthy ledger and a healthy city surplus. Unfortunately, we’ll be spending all of those refunds this year.

Julia Scott: [00:13:03]  When the city does recover… The work ahead is to quite simply reinterpret its identity. Pittsburgh has been home to extractive industries for longer than anyone remembers. Going in a new direction is a contravention of that legacy, and even a negation of the city’s DNA. Of all the challenges Pittsburgh faces, that one might be the greatest of all.

Bill Peduto: [00:13:26] Well, I think one of the hardest parts is breaking away from the culture. You know, there’s resources beneath our feet that can be extracted that will make somebody rich. But I do believe that if we start changing the culture to understanding that the people who built America once can build it a second time, then certainly any city in this world could do the same or do better.

Julia Scott: [00:14:06] Thanks for joining us for this episode of the Daring Cities podcast, Daring Cities is produced by me, Julia Scott, with engineering help from Chris Hoff. Special thanks to Mayor Bill Peduto from the city of Pittsburgh and to Kale Roberts and Ariel Dekovic from ICLEI.