Early morning view of Downtown from the North Shore
A view of Downtown is framed from the North Shore side of the Three Rivers Heritage Trail. Photo by Kim Palmiero.

According to UN estimates, urban environments are responsible for 75 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. If we have any hope of staving off the worst effects of climate change, we need to start with our cities.

That’s where the 2030 District Challenge comes in.

This international challenge supports owners and managers of urban buildings in their goal to improve indoor air quality and achieve 50 percent reductions in energy use, water consumption and transportation emissions by the year 2030.

Pittsburgh, under the leadership of the Green Building Alliance (GBA), has answered the call with gusto.

With 528 properties representing more than 84 million square feet across Oakland, Downtown and the North Side, Pittsburgh’s 2030 District is the largest in the world.

“The 2030 District coalition has accelerated Pittsburgh’s progress toward vital international climate agreements,” said Mayor Bill Peduto, in a press release about the initiative. “With the entire city united, Pittsburgh joins global leaders in our commitment to the Paris Climate accords and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.”

Mayor Peduto, along with the GBA leadership and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, celebrated our city’s progress with an event at 3 Crossings in the Strip District last night.

There’s much to celebrate: Over the last year, local partners collectively decreased energy use by 23.5 percent and water use by 18.6 percent for a combined savings $38.5 million. In addition, the Pittsburgh 2030 District purchased 10 percent of its energy from renewable sources in 2018.

These gains have allowed our city to reach its 2020 benchmarks for energy a full year ahead of schedule.

“We are extremely grateful for the work of all those involved in the Pittsburgh 2030 District. The work that the district does in bringing together businesses and policymakers is invaluable,” said County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. “Working together, we are having a substantial impact on our region’s environment and our focus on sustainability is attracting innovative companies and encouraging investment in communities throughout our region.”

Natalie Stewart, communications director for the GBA, tells NEXTpittsburgh that in addition to scaling up the network of local business and property owners involved, 2018 was also notable for the launch of the Make My Trip Count commuter survey. The GBA received feedback from more than 20,000 residents, which will inform long-term transit planning for both the Port Authority and Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission.

“Mobility is an enormous piece of the story,” says Stewart.

Looking forward, GBA leaders say their main goal for 2019 is expansion beyond Pittsburgh. Angelica Ciranni, the Pittsburgh 2030 District’s senior director, says she and her team will be focusing on “strategic recruitment” of organizations like schools and nonprofits further afield in Western Pennsylvania.

She notes that the GBA has full-time staff in Erie, Pa., who reached the small city “emerging status” last March. So far, Erie has nine local property partners.

While the 2030 District Challenge is based around hard, empirical benchmarks, Stewart says the real value goes well beyond statistics or energy savings.

“We’re talking about larger themes that the Mayor talks about,” says Stewart. “Equity and health for everyone.”

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.