Local Solutions to Global Sustainability

“One of the greatest things about local government is every day you touch on the smallest issues to the largest. A day can range from sending an email about divots near second base of the ball field at Mellon Park to conversations about the national policy on autonomous vehicles.”


Councilman Dan Gilman has been working in Pittsburgh’s City Hall for thirteen years since graduating from Carnegie Mellon. He has been a Councilman for three of those in district 8, which encompasses all of Shady Side as well as parts of Point Breeze, Squirrell Hill, and Oakland. He is currently seeking a second term of office. From the beginning, he has run on a platform of environmental sustainability and responsibility. On this front, Gilman says we need to “run and walk at the same time.”


For him this means in the same day having detailed conversations about something as minor as visibility of recycling in parks to tackling huge problems like urban runoff pollution. All of this has become alarmingly crucial for local and municipal governments since the 2016 Presidential election. From Donald Trump’s administration we see a disdain for the EPA and environmentally conscious policy unmatched by any other president. Gilman says, “You can’t want to be viewed as the economic leader of the world and behave this way,” and sees the government as walking away from their responsibilities.  


The responsibility therefore falls to local government, and they have a limited toolset to address problems with world ecology. The question, Gilman says, is more what is the carrot more than what is the stick. For example, Gilman pushed for legislation that would reward building projects that were certified by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) as having a Silver or Gold rating by increasing their building space. A 15% increase to floor area ratio plus a 15% height bonus means 15% more to charge rent on.


For tackling those problems that are larger than the city, local government also has lobbying and the bully pulpit. They will often write resolutions for the EPA or for federal government officials. Gilman was involved in conversations with the Obama Administration over the definition of water sources and trying to expand it to include streams. This would be incredibly important in protecting Pittsburgh’s water supply which is often connected to unregulated, polluted streams. “All for naught,” Gilman laments, now that regulations like this are being gutted from the EPA.


There are many limitations to fighting a global problem from local government. The clearest weakness is that pollution isn’t stationary. Nearly all of the water and air pollution in Pittsburgh is from outside city limits. Fossil fuel companies from around Allegheny county account for Pittsburgh getting an F rating from the American Lung Association.


However, local government has particular power in that they can set the standard for environmental policy. “I don’t know if I’ve ever written a piece of legislation that I didn’t basically steal from another city. A lot of us know each other.” Gilman explains that if he were to discover an inventive way to legislate sustainability, it would likely be picked up by Boise Idaho councilwoman Lauren McLean. And if it works in Boise then someone in Santa Fe might pick it up, and so on.


As it turns out, municipal governments rarely get pushback on sustainability. Very few local politicians deny the effect of pollution on livability, economy, and the global environment. Developers want sustainability because it’s good for the country, but it also saves money in the long run and their tenants have a strong requirement of sustainability. If there is any pushback at all, Gilman says, “it usually comes from the development community saying we want this too but you have to meet us halfway . You have to be a partner and have skin in the game.” It may also trickle down to union labor because any reduction in construction projects means less work for them.


Gilman does sometimes have trouble reconciling being pro-business with pro-environment, pro-union, and pro-affordable housing. “A dollar can only be split so many ways,” he says. Margins are slim in pittsburgh. If you tell developers to use american steel, it’s expensive. If you also tell them to use union jobs, capture 90% of stormwater on site, be energy efficient, you may end up with a money-losing project and nothing gets done. “Either we have to subsidize and put tax dollars in or something comes off the table.”


There will always be tension between environmental regulation and economic growth. Gilman worries about how to employ former Coal workers if we make an energy transition. This was a major stumbling block in Hillary Clinton’s campaign when she said “We're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” It’s hard to market unemployment as a positive.


The major problem, Gilman says, is the stratification of party priorities. “We’ve gerrymandered districts so badly that people are more concerned with their bases than public consensus. No one is scared about the moderate position anymore,” he says.


There isn’t a one-size fits all solution. Local government needs the help of individual activists, educated voters, businesses and nonprofits to keep Pittsburgh sustainable. Nonprofits are local government’s research and development arms. They are the ones testifying in state and national courts.


The Group Against Smog and Pollution(GASP), the Clean Water Authority(CWA), Sustainable Pittsburgh, The Sierra Club, and the Green Building Alliance are all non-profits looking to make the world a better, cleaner place and all work closely with local governments. “These are my partners,” Gilman explains, “nothing would happen without them.”


Coming from Carnegie Mellon University, Gilman is particularly appalled with the “1980s mindset,” towards technology. He says even though he avoided every class involved in science or engineering, his colleagues, the companies they developed, the companies they interned at all knew how technology could make things more efficient. “We’re making environmental policy based on 80s and 90s technology. Anything in the next decade could change everything.”


Gilman’s passion project is trying to “Moneyball” government. The name comes from the film starring Brad Pitt and Jonah hill who play baseball coaches who use math and algorithms to determine who to send up to bat instead of relying on the experience of former players.


This can be applied to government and public works. Street paving, for example, can use Carnegie Mellon artificial intelligence to map road wear and tear and come up with a prioritization for allocating funds for street paving. “Rather than having someone who has been employed by public works for twenty years with a clipboard go and eyeball a crack and say, this road needs to be paved.”


Having efficiency in government is also good for the environment. Garbage trucks are huge polluters and the quicker they can get the job done and get off the street the better. Having computers plan their route can make that happen. Also, efficiency all around means more money for environmentalism. Saving dollars and cents can mean new sustainable projects.


“Look up,” Gilman says gesturing to the fluorescent lighting in his City Hall office, “This is not an energy efficient building. And that’s just dollars and cents, the cost of retrofitting the windows and the lights would be in the tens of millions.” In order to solve problems of sustainability, you need money from elsewhere.


“It’s true that every piece you do is a small part of a larger puzzle,” Gilman says.  “If we can reduce carbon emissions in Pittsburgh it has a real impact on Allegheny county which affects Pennsylvania.” Still, he knows that cities cannot stop problems like global warming on their own.


Gilman expressed grave concern about future generations. “Where we were six months ago wasn’t where we needed to be. Now we’ve taken massive strides backwards.” As much as Gilman values the impact of local government, if DC undoes EPA regulations, it can render their efforts moot.


The key point that Gilman wants to highlight is that the federal government isn’t taking responsibility for the real local effects of pollution and global warming. Much like health care, gun violence, and other ignored national issues, “You’re going to have the impact trickle down to local governments,” he says. “If I’m spending municipal money on what the federal government should be doing that’s money I can’t spend to pave your streets or fix your ball fields.” Just because the federal government doesn’t care about the environment, doesn’t mean the fight is over. Nor does it mean we have no tools to continue the fight. It all comes down to local government.