At conference, city will plan ways to lead in 'going green'

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A Green Summit in February could lead to a raft of pro-environment legislation in Pittsburgh City Council, promoting everything from urban farms and more recycling to rubber sidewalks, Councilman William Peduto said last week.

The summit would involve leaders in government and the private sector, he said. The goal would be to start with the city's successes so far -- like the passage last month of legislation allowing green buildings to be larger -- and extend pro-environmental policy farther than any similar city.

"Pittsburgh is not simply following," Mr. Peduto said. "We're trying to create a new agenda. We're leading."

Seattle, the recognized leader in green government, has reduced its vehicle fleet and bought hybrids, cut paper use by 30 percent, turned lots into gardens, installed some rubber sidewalks and more.

There's a little more bounce in the step of Seattle residents, but the sidewalks are touted mainly because they bend rather than break, dramatically reducing repair costs. They're made of recycled tires.

Rubber sidewalks are one of around 20 concepts Mr. Peduto hopes to float at the summit, and then to vet through the city's public-private Green Government Task Force, which he co-chairs with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and state Sen. Jim Ferlo. The date of the summit, which will take place in Council Chamber, has yet to be set.

In Mr. Peduto's idea of a green city, those who walked or biked to work might get incentives. People who drove hybrid cars or carpooled might get reduced rates in city garages, or preferred spaces.

Residents could garden on vacant lots, using compost made from city-collected vegetable waste. Schools would have botanical "green roofs" that reduce storm water runoff.

Recycling receptacles would dot parks and public places, and often-ignored rules requiring companies to separate out their bottles, cans and paper would be enforced.

Truckers wouldn't be allowed to leave their engines idling. Anyone who wanted a "greencollar job" in an area like energy efficiency retrofitting would have access to training.

If you wanted to build something, you'd be required to save or replace the trees. You might see your city permits fast-tracked if you were getting the structure certified as environmentally friendly.

Green building is the environmental area in which Pittsburgh has been strongest. The David L. Lawrence Convention Center and five other buildings have earned certification under the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system.

Mr. Peduto shepherded through legislation allowing certified green buildings to be 20 percent larger than others in their areas. He's now aiming to make certification a requirement for buildings that benefit from certain city subsidies.

Mr. Ravenstahl, meanwhile, has hired a firm to improve the energy efficiency of city traffic lights and buildings. (The Pittsburgh Housing Authority is doing the same with its buildings.) The mayor has switched all garbage trucks over to a fuel mix that is 5 percent vegetable oil or animal fat, called biodiesel fuel. The city is hoping to use 20 percent biodiesel fuel soon.

The city's Shade Tree Commission last week showed the mayor early findings from a consultant's report suggesting increased spending on street tree care. It argues that trees reduce heating and cooling costs, keep storm water runoff out of sewers and clean the air.

"For every dollar that we're putting into our street tree program, we're reaping $4 in benefits," said commission Chair Diana Ames.

Organizations that are fighting global warming are pushing city governments to green up.

"We live in an urban nation," said Kim Burnett, a program officer at the New York-based Surdna Foundation, which is paying $125,000 to assist the city's task force. "If we don't think about how cities can reduce their carbon footprints, it's going to be very hard to address climate change."

Activities within Pittsburgh's borders resulted in the emission of 6.6 million tons of greenhouse gases in 2003, according to a study by the task force. Government caused just 4 percent of that.

Still, government is crucial because it sets the tone for the private sector -- and because it can compel others to act, said Rachel Martin, a regional representative of the national Sierra Club who is on the Green Government Task Force.

"It can't stop with changing the light bulbs in city hall," Ms. Burnett said. "It has to come to legislation, and carrots and sticks."

New York City Council last week passed legislation requiring that government buildings and vehicles reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2017, and that the entire city, including the private sector, cut them to that degree by 2030.

Pittsburgh's Green Government Task Force is using computer models to determine which changes would have the biggest impact on reaching a goal -- perhaps cutting greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels, according to Rebecca Flora. The executive director of the Green Building Alliance, she runs the task force and next year will be the chair of the board of the U.S. Green Building Council.

She hopes to bring a greenhouse gas action plan to council in the spring, recommending changes in how government, housing, big institutions like universities, and commercial builders can get greener.

There's a reason that organizations like the Surdna Foundation and Sierra Club are working on greening government in the nation's 57th largest city.

This is, after all, the American city most historically associated with smoke.

"Pittsburgh has an opportunity to demonstrate that, hey, if we can green here, you can green there," said Ms. Burnett.

Environmental leadership "is something that is going to make us more competitive in the future," said Ms. Flora, "and something that is going to have a really positive impact on our image in the future."


Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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