Pittsburgh's 'Green' Progress Sharply Debated

Article excerpt

Stumping across the region and even at the National Press Club in Washington, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato remain on message: Fifteen decades of Steel City soot and smog are gone, replaced by a "green city."

But experts and environmental activists punch holes in the narrative, saying the term "green" is so vague that it allows cities and corporations vying for the title to make themselves fit the image.

It's not a simple matter to define how green a region is, some point out, because several definitions for the term exist -- an individual or collective carbon footprint, for example, or health of the environment, or proliferation of green buildings.

Pittsburgh clawed its way to a top ranking for green buildings, a definition politicians often tout, with its energy-efficient buildings such as Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens and the David L. Lawrence Convention Center that will host the Group of 20 economic summit Sept. 24-25. The city's transformation, officials say, attracted the summit.

Yet, critics contend the city and region lag in other, standard "green" measurements, such as per capita production of gases many scientists believe contribute to global warming.

Politicians and several local environmentalists strongly defend the region's "green" moniker, saying Pittsburgh and its surrounding communities should be measured by how far they've come from the "two shirts-a-day" years of industrial blight -- when men needed to change from sooty to clean shirts -- to a 21st century economy that attracts technology firms and is gearing to produce wind, solar and other alternate sources of energy.

"They're just putting on a 'green' show," said Casey Capitolo, an East Liberty organizer for Three Rivers' Climate Convergence, the umbrella organization for dozens of environmental groups coming to Pittsburgh to protest G-20 policies. "All of a sudden, Pittsburgh is now one of the greenest cities in the country? It's a complete myth."

Onorato and Ravenstahl disagree.

"We have advanced and it's important to talk about our advancement. But I don't think by suggesting that it's a green city that anyone is resting on our laurels or is satisfied where we are," Ravenstahl said.

"I think you can see all the fine work that's going on here currently," he said. "I think that sometimes we either take for granted or we don't even realize how much good activity is happening here. I think, especially, that when it comes to green buildings, we're ahead of the curve and have been for some time.

"Also, we're looking at sustainable solutions, not just buildings."

That's an admirable goal, said Kevin Tuerff, co-founder of Green Canary Sustainability Consulting and owner of Texas-based EnviroMedia Social Marketing, but it's one Western Pennsylvania hasn't reached, compared to other major metropolitan areas.

EnviroMedia partners with the University of Oregon to produce a "greenwashing" index that tracks how companies and communities spin their environmental records. A recent advertising campaign by Pennsylvania's coal industry that portrayed itself as "clean, green energy," for example, scored a "bogus" rating for "green" chutzpah.

"There are quite a few government officials greenwashing today," said Tuerff. "There's the chamber of commerce version of 'green,' and then there's another standard. If you want to claim that you're a 'green' city, then you should have a low carbon footprint per household. Using that measurement, New York City would be one of the most efficient, because of its density, and Houston would be closer to the worst.

"Pittsburgh probably falls somewhere between these two."

Not easy being green

A city's per capita carbon footprint is measured by tallying carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions and then dividing that number by the population. …