Pittsburgh Sustainability Guru on Transit, Energy, EcoDistricts

  • Pittsburgh sustainability manager Grant Ervin in the first floor of the City-County building. Photo: J.S. Jordan

April 18, 2014

When Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto took office in January, he hired Grant Ervin as his first sustainability manager. Ervin previously worked with the smart-growth organization 10,000 Friends. Ervin says the city is looking to improve energy-efficiency, transportation and recycling efforts, as well as ensuring water quality.


Ervin sees Pittsburgh as an historically green city. Although, he admits heavy industry has left many enviromental challenges. Ervin says there's been a renaissance recognizing that the environment and economy are connected. “Our economy cannot grow if our environment is polluted,” he says.

Ervin says the Peduto administration will look at how to develop clean technologies and sustainable industries, so Pittsburgh's environmental and economic sucess are one and the same.


"Everybody has a good idea," according to Ervin. Some of his co-workers want to look at small things, such as paper towel dispensers in the city bathrooms, while neighborhoods, citizens and universities are finding ways to make the city more efficient and liveable.

In the administration's first 100 days, for example, Ervin took the idea of one citizen, and joined a trade group called the Urban Sustainability Directors Network.


Ervin says Pittsburgh has been accepted as part of an internationally recognized EcoDistricts program that connects issues land use, energy, and food systems in communities. He says the city wants to initiate the EcoDistrict concept in the Uptown neighborhood, located between Oakland and downtown. He hopes to improve the safety of biking and walking in that community.


An index that tracks the sustainability of cities and states, called Clean Edge, gives Pittsburgh low marks. The index tracks two dozen indicators, in categories such as green buildings, advanced transportation, clean electricity and carbon management. Pittsburgh gets an 18 percent, (compared with the high score: San Franscico got an 89 percent), and lower than cities such as Tampa, Florida.

Ervin says Pittsburgh has advanced in recent years, moving toward green energy, and retrofitting old buildings to be more energy-efficient. He says the city is poised to be a leader in the transportation sector. It is partnering with Carnegie Mellon University, and is coordinating traffic signal timing, to improve flow in the East Liberty neighborhood.


There are concerns in some corners about how natural gas operations could impact water quality, specifically introducing radiation contamination.

While such issues are not specifically under Ervin's job description as sustainability manager, he says water is a key asset in the Pittsburgh region, and the city will monitor both quantity and quality.


Ervin says recycling offers a huge opportunity for Pittsburgh, but there needs to be a culture shift. He says the city recently received a recycling grant from the PA Department of Environmental Protection, for increasing its recycling materials to 59,000 tons, an improvement from previous years. But he says the city is looking at increasing education and enforcment of recycling laws when it comes to businesses and restaurants that are not currently participating.