Cities have been embracing sustainability movement

'It's about more than green'


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With its abundant LEED-certified buildings, its superlative green wall, its fledgling biofuel companies, its transmogrified riverfronts and reclaimed brownfields, Pittsburgh wants to be known as a city where sustainability is taken seriously.

But many of Pittsburgh's peer cities also want to claim leadership of the sustainable living movement. Businesses want it, too. When radio stations are urging you to visit their websites for green-living tips (WDVE now has a "Go Green" section on its website), when Wal-Mart starts examining its carbon footprint, when universities are offering "sustainable architecture" courses, when seafood restaurants are advertising sustainable tilapia on their menus, is that a success for the sustainability movement? Or, rather, does the word become neutered, its meaning diluted amid a blitz of "green" publicity and earth-friendly marketing?

And in a world where everybody's going green, how does a city or company set itself apart?

"Perhaps we do so by taking the full view of what sustainability is about. It's about more than green," said Court Gould, executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh. "It's about being green and being profitable ... it's about learning and improving, keeping what works, throwing away what doesn't."

Pittsburgh, despite its lingering image as a city of heavy industry, has been working at it longer than most. David L. Lawrence and Richard Mellon King may have never uttered the word "sustainability," but clearly, the Pittsburgh they knew in the 1940s and 1950s was not a sustainable proposition; a city of such smoke and muck would not survive the 20th century. Springdale's Rachel Carson, dead and gone for 46 years, was exploring conservation themes during the same era, and her 1960s writings on man-made pesticides and their effect on the natural world are still considered watershed publications in the modern environmental movement.

"Pittsburgh was into sustainability earlier than most cities and has a deep track record in sustainability and green design," said Donald K. Carter, director of the Remaking Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.

"In fact, Pittsburgh was into sustainability before it was a word. Renaissance I in the late 1940s to the late 1960s included cleaning the air and water and creating Point State Park and Gateway Center out of rail yards and factories."

If we can split Pittsburgh's sustainability movement into two eras, the modern era probably begins about two decades ago. In 1992, the United Nations' Commission on Sustainable Development was established; this was five years after the U.N.'s Brundtland Commission crafted what is now recognized as the guiding mission statement of sustainability: "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

By 1993, a loose coalition of builders and designers formed what became Pittsburgh's Green Building Alliance. In the late 1990s came the Riverlife Task Force (now known simply as Riverlife); the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, as we know it now, came about in 1992, after federal transportation legislation gave it responsibility for coordinating regional transportation spending (though it had existed since the 1960s as a lower-profile planning agency). "Our regional vision is focused on sustainable development," said Shannon O'Connell, communications coordinator for the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission.

Transit affects construction; architecture affects the landscape; our land use affects our transportation decisions.

And all of it affects commerce and the way we live -- around the world, and here in Pittsburgh. As Riverlife likes to point out, from 2000 to 2009, more than $4 billion was invested in Pittsburgh's riverfront development, half of it private, and more than $500 million has been invested in LEED-certified green buildings. The SouthSide Works is often offered up as Pittsburgh's best example of sustainable development, in that it reused an old brownfield, is transit-friendly and melted into the existing street grid.

"Since our beginning 10 years ago, Riverlife has stressed sustainability in riverfront development," said Stephan Bontrager, communications director of Riverlife. "Sustainably restoring the river's edge helps to improve the environmental health of the region.

"We also have to think about the future as we come up with solutions for maintenance and care for our rivers and riverfronts," he said.

"When we create a sustainable community, it keeps Pittsburgh competitive with other flourishing cities around the country and around the world."

The idea of sustainable development, once somewhat ancillary to the overall environmental movement, has become more widely embraced in the last two decades by builders, urban planners, industry, even religious institutions. In 2006, the Vatican told the United Nations that the international community must commit to worldwide resource management and environmental protection. "As the essential symbiosis of life on the planet becomes plain, there is already a growing acknowledgement that good environmental policies are by extension good people policies, too," said Archbishop Celestino Migliore.

As such, sustainability is an emerging component of the local and national economy, and it's a part of the national consciousness and vocabulary. In 2009, "sustainability" was mentioned in 239 New York Times stories, according to the Lexis-Nexis newspaper database; in 2008 the number was 203; in 2005, there were 69; in 2000, just 22 stories used the word.

Still, the challenge is getting people on board with the broader components of sustainable development -- not just environmental protection and resource preservation. Even the SPC's "sustainable" overhaul of its Downtown home, the Regional Enterprise Tower, focused on greening issues: new windows, new lighting, energy use and water conversation.

But it's about more than energy efficient light bulbs -- it's a new commerce paradigm, a new way of thinking about business. Under President George W. Bush, the U.S. Department of Commerce launched its Sustainable Manufacturing Initiative, aimed at helping big business understand the challenges, and implications, of sustainability.

It's about growing the economy in a way that doesn't degrade the environment, or entire ecosystems, or entire countries. It's about ensuring prosperity as well as peace and social justice -- witness all the "fair trade" coffee shops and "sustainable" and "socially responsible" investment portfolios (known as SRI portfolios). It's about the global picture -- energy, nation-building and warming initiatives.

And in the end, it makes good business sense, said Steve Schueth, president of First Affirmative Financial Network.

"Over the last 25 years, the SRI industry has developed a pretty robust qualitative analysis process." Quantitative analysis measures dollars and cents, short-term profit potential; qualitative analysis, at least in this respect, tried to measure "the soft side of the equation. The beauty of it is that it allows us to identify better-managed companies ... good environmental management is a proxy for good management, period."

Shareholders around the country seem to be getting the picture. According to a report issued this month by the Investor Network on Climate Risk, 82 companies filed a total of 95 shareholder resolutions on climate change alone, a big increase over 2009 numbers. That was partly driven by the U,S, Securities and Exchange Commission's own guidance. In January, the SEC issued a guidance that said "this interpretive release is intended to remind companies of their obligations under existing federal securities laws and regulations to consider climate change and its consequences as they prepare disclosure documents to be filed with us and provided to investors."


Bill Toland: btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625. First Published March 16, 2010 4:00 AM


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