Environmental Innovation Began Early in Erstwhile 'Smoky City'

Article excerpt

If it wasn't for an enduring image as the "Smoky City" -- so dubbed by muckraking journalist Upton Sinclair -- Pittsburgh might never have become a center for environmental innovation.

"I think there was a recognition, even in the pre-World War II period, that the city wasn't livable," said Anne Madarasz, director of the museum division at the Senator John Heinz History Center. "It wasn't attractive and, were the steel industry to decline -- and there were some indications it might, even then -- we needed to invest in the city to attract people to live here and businesses to locate here."

In the first half of the 20th century, Pittsburgh's burgeoning iron, steel and related industries pumped so much soot into the air that streetlights would burn in the middle of the day and businessmen would have to change their white shirts at lunch because the pollution had made them dirty. More ominously, the city led the nation in pneumonia death rates, with 172 people dying of pneumonia for every 100,000 deaths in 1932, according to mortality records. Today, pneumonia is responsible for less than 23 of every 100,000 deaths, which is slightly below the national average.

Urban renewal projects, led by Mayor David L. Lawrence and financier Richard King Mellon, began transforming the city after World War II. In 1957, the Allegheny County Health Department's air quality program was created to regulate air pollution.

"That actually predates the Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Protection," said Jim Thompson, the county's air quality program manager. "In fact, control techniques and standards developed here in Allegheny County have actually become models nationwide.

"But, having said that, we still have much more work to do."

Some environmentalists point to air pollution in the Monongahela Valley, the once-proud steel manufacturing center. The American Lung Association ranked Pittsburgh as the nation's sootiest city based on readings from pollution monitors in the Mon Valley.

Coal mining and a reliance on coal-fired power plants have negative environmental consequences. And urban sprawl, despite a declining population, brings with it longer commute times, increased stormwater run-off and habitat loss. Such environmental problems make Pittsburgh's green branding ironic, said Eric Beckman, co- director of the University of Pittsburgh's Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation.

"It's a region of paradoxes," Beckman said. "For every really cool thing that's happening, you see something else that's pretty uncool."

Still, Pittsburgh is making a name for itself, especially in "green" building and the repurposing of former industrial areas called brownfields.

"A lot of these countries (coming to the G-20) are trying to figure out how they remake themselves. What do they do with their old industrial sites?" said Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato. "If you want to see the future of what an old industrial site could look like, we have it right here."

Sixteen years ago, the Green Building Alliance was created in Pittsburgh at the same time that the U.S. Green Building Council was founded. Both organizations assist in creating buildings that operate more efficiently and have less environmental impact. Western Pennsylvania now boasts 221 green buildings.

To be considered green, a building needs to use less water and energy than its counterparts. Proximity to public transportation, recycling, low construction waste and use of sustainable, local materials all increase a building's green credibility, said Holly Childs, executive director of the alliance.

Architectural firm Astorino built PNC Firstside Center, one of Downtown's first green buildings, in 2000. Since that success, their mission is to push green practices in every building they design.

"I don't have to fight for it as much anymore," said Catherine Sheane, Astorino's sustainability manager. …