Building and Planning for a Healthy and Equitable Future in Pittsburgh
When it comes to measuring the health and well-being of a community, there’s likely no better metric than the average life expectancy of its residents.
What would you guess are the average life expectancies in total years of residents from the places listed below? As you read along, just go with whatever first intuitively pops into your head; try not to overthink it.
A. A resident of the United States of America
B. A resident of Allegheny County
C. A resident of the City of Pittsburgh
D. A resident of Highland Park neighborhood of Pittsburgh
E. A resident of Larimar neighborhood of Pittsburgh
Ok, do you have your guesses written down? Now click here for the answers.
How did you do? Were you at all surprised at the results and the disparity between the residents who live in Highland Park and Larimar despite the fact that their communities are immediately adjacent to each other in Pittsburgh’s East End?
They say "Time is the most valuable thing a person can spend." They also say "You can always earn more money, but you cannot earn more time." ‘Not sure who first coined those sayings, but they are undoubtedly true. What is also true is that some communities in Pittsburgh are literally being robbed of decades of their time.
As Dr. Nobel Maseru explained during the 11th Annual Sustainability conference, there are many complex factors that go into these numbers, but the underlying social fabric is woven with threads of historical systemic racism. It's clear that this is the case simply by quick comparison of the bottom five and top five neighborhoods in the previously linked graph. As civil engineers, this is history that we must acknowledge. All of us, myself included, should educate ourselves on this critically relevant history. For example, the history of transportation civil engineering projects and the history of redlining of neighborhoods, disinvestment, and increased flooding. The first step in fixing a problem is acknowledging it exists. After that, education and learning. Then hopefully informed action.
On May 7 and 8, 2021 ASCE Pittsburgh Section, EWRI Pittsburgh, and Sustainable Pittsburgh held its 11th Annual Sustainability Conference, "Building and Planning for a Healthy and Equitable Future." The conference was held virtually and included experts from around the region and nation. If you were unable to attend both sessions were recorded and can be found here on YouTube: Go here for Day 1 and here for Day 2.
Below are some of my own personal reflections from the conference.
1. I've been on the conference planning committee for just about all eleven Sustainability Conferences. The racial equity panel discussion on Day 1 was one of the most important and eye-opening discussions I think this conference has ever had. If I were to recommend one session to watch one from the videos above, I would recommend this one. This was the first ever panel comprised entirely of BIPOC presenters that we've ever hosted at the conference and it was long overdue.
Some of the key items that stood out to me during this discussion is how Allison Acevedo, Director of the Office of Environmental Justice at Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, is making social justice and equity more of a priority for future funding decisions at the state level. Her group is also working towards decoupling this policy from future political regime changes. Likewise at the local level, Majestic Lane, Chief Equity Officer and Deputy Chief of Staff at City of Pittsburgh the City of Pittsburgh, stated how the City is in the process of developing neighborhood equity indicators and a framework for future City planning purposes. As engineers and planners, we now have the data to make better informed decisions regarding placement of investments in communities that need it most. Now it's a matter of top-down policy implementation at all levels of government as well as support from the engineering profession in order to make this type of action happen.
2. Our keynote speaker Carolyn Kousky, Executive Director at the Wharton Risk Center, University of Pennsylvania, presented how climate related disasters are perpetuating deeper poverty and greater inequality across the nation. To break this cycle, we need systematic changes to federal disaster recovery funding policies - especially for disaster recovery loans and grants. We also need more affordable and timely insurance mechanisms so that climate risks in disadvantaged communities are considered.
3. To address inequities perpetuated by climate change, communities will need infrastructure investments and budgets that are adaptable and flexible to a changing climate. Also, bold policy decisions are needed that may not be always popular with some key stakeholders, developers, and politicians. The City of Houston faced two major disasters and is moving forward with policy decisions that are requiring more from the development community in order to make their city more resilient. See Day 2 keynote speaker Carol Haddock MPA, PE - Public Works Director - City of Houston. See also the excellent climate resilience panel hosted by Grant Ervin, Chief Resilience Officer at the City of Pittsburgh where panelists talked about climate resilience initiatives underway as part of the City of Pittsburgh OnePGH Resilience Strategy.
4. All of us, myself included, need to do a better job communicating to the public the health and climate related challenges we are facing. We need language that is more understandable, accessible, and relatable. We need less scientific jargon and more plain language. We also need to find ways to empower the local community as part of the decision-making process so that there is grass roots community level ownership. Just about all of Day 2, but especially the panel discussions, spoke to this issue. Dave Rosenblatt, State Chief Resilience Officer in the State of New Jersey, Will Pickering, CEO of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, and Ariam Ford, Executive Director at Grounded all spoke to the critical need for addressing this issue.
5. Creating lasting institutional change is very difficult. But for it to happen, it needs to start with leadership and a vision. Executing that vision also does not happen overnight and requires many years of partnerships and collaboration. Howard Neukrug, current Executive Director of the University of Pennsylvania Water Center and former CEO of the Philadelphia Water Department, talked about his multi-decade vision for the Office of Watersheds in the Philadelphia Water Department. As a result of the creation of the Office of Watersheds’ vision, eventually came the award winning and transformational "Green City, Clean Waters" plan for the City of Philadelphia. It's a terrific and motivating story. For young professionals this one is particularly worth watching.
Overall, the conference left me with a sense of optimism for the future of the Pittsburgh region. As this conference demonstrated, we have some tremendous regional leaders in Pittsburgh. It's great hearing a quote like this from Will Pickering, CEO of Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority: "When it comes to climate change and the future health of our communities, it's plain to see from our perspective that the 'do nothing' option isn't one that's acceptable."
Or this quote from Ariam Ford, Executive Director from the Pittsburgh based non-profit Grounded Strategies: "The process of empowering local residents and addressing historical inequities that Grounded is doing unfortunately isn't one that fits into the traditional engineering design process. The key is finding ways to bridge that gap between the grass roots communities and larger institutions."
Finally, as civil engineers, we are in many ways responsible for the future health and well-being of our communities and the people who call them their home. As we go about our daily work planning, designing, and building critical infrastructure projects, we should never forget the following words of wisdom and inspiration which I feel summed up the conference in just two succinct sentences. The first is from Dr. Nobel Maseru, and the second is from Ms. Carol Haddock:
"When inequality is too great, the idea of community cannot be obtained."
"It's the people, not the pipes."
On behalf of the conference planning committee, I would like to thank our conference speakers and all those that attended. We would also like to thank our partners: The City of Pittsburgh (especially Grant Ervin's team), American Public Works Association, and the Local Government Academy.
Tom Batroney, PE
President-Elect ASCE Pittsburgh
The Sustainability Conference Planning Committee Consists Of:
Jason Baguet, PE, Sci-Tek Consultants
Tom Batroney, PE, AKRF
Ben Briston, PE, Wade Trim
Ana Flores, EIT, Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority
Jim Price, Sustainable Pittsburgh
Greg Scott, PE, CDM Smith