View from Mt. Washington. Photo by Tracy Certo

by Grant Oliphant

Last week’s news of yet another accolade for Pittsburgh met with local celebrations worthy of a Zambelli Fireworks display. And rightly so.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2014 survey named Pittsburgh as the “Most Livable City” in the mainland United States. Only Honolulu fared better among U.S. cities in the study, which measured “the best or worst living conditions.”

We are proud that Pittsburgh’s dynamic transformation, especially over the past 10 years, continues to attract recognition and praise for its achievements, and those who like to keep track of the downpour of awards we have earned in recent years have only to log on to VisitPittsburgh’s website. They will see that Pittsburgh has landed on more than 200 “best” lists in recent years.

We have the top ballpark in the country (TripAdvisor). We rank among the best places to pursue the American dream (The Atlantic). We are one of the best all-American vacation spots (The Travel Channel). We are the fifth-best place to retire (Livability.com). And perhaps my favorite—we were named one of the 10 unexpectedly romantic cities in the world (Forbes.com).

The negative “Pittsburgh Can’t” attitude has been supplanted by a new self-image as the City of Possibility. Pittsburgh recreated itself as an “eds and meds” powerhouse in the wake of the steel industry’s collapse. It weathered the recent economic recession better than most. We are now experiencing steady job growth and long-awaited, if slow, population increase. Downtown is booming, and neighborhoods like Braddock and Hazelwood are poised for resurgence. There’s forward-thinking leadership at both the city and county levels and renewed cooperation between them. The innovation-based economy is gaining momentum.

But wait. While there is surely much to celebrate, there is also still much to be done. The worst mistake we could make now is to rest smugly on these laurels. Longstanding racial and gender inequities endure. Not everyone is benefitting equally from the transformation underway. Our city schools, while making strides forward, still need attention and support. And posing a real threat to livability, air quality in the region still ranks among the worst in the nation.

Pittsburgh’s skies are no longer dark at noon, but our cancer risk from air toxics ranks in the top 2 percent. The region fails to meet federal standards for particle pollution and ozone, which have been linked to poor health outcomes from cradle to grave at levels measured across southwestern Pennsylvania today. These include heart and lung disease, asthma, poor birth outcomes, lung cancer and early death. We fall even further behind tighter limits set in Canada and recommended by the World Health Organization for all nations.

Does this sound like a description of the “Most Livable City” we truly want to be?

Is Better Good Enough?

A feature story by Jeffery Fraser in the recent issue of Pittsburgh Quarterly about the region’s persistent air quality woes asks the salient question: “Is better good enough?” He asks why Pittsburgh seems willing to tolerate levels of risk when it comes to pollutants that are higher than in cities like Boston, Seattle and even New York, where the air is much cleaner. Indeed, our city ranks in the dirtiest 10 percent of monitored urban areas for average annual particle pollution, and we aren’t improving as quickly as many other places.

Sure we can celebrate how far we’ve come since mothers tied scarves around their children’s mouths as makeshift respirators. Or how far we’ve come since we had to sweep the soot off our doorsteps several times a day (this is still a hard reality in some local communities). But let’s be careful about conflating progress with success and becoming apathetic as a result.

Perhaps more troubling is an apparent tendency to discount any evidence that runs counter to the feel-good narrative of Pittsburgh as the comeback city that’s moved from “hell with the lid taken off” to “most livable.”

At the Breathe Project, a clean-air initiative launched several years ago at The Heinz Endowments, we receive regular complaints about toxic smells from people living in neighborhoods like Mt. Lebanon and Squirrel Hill with no industrial sources in the immediate vicinity. Many of these grievances come from young professionals who came to Pittsburgh from New York or San Francisco for a great job, affordable living and to raise families.

In fact, there remain a number of major industrial sources of pollution in Allegheny County that are poisoning the air for huge populations of area residents. The best available science tells us that a significant fraction of our air pollution comes from these facilities right here in western Pennsylvania. Some local regulators tend to largely blame coal-fired plants in the Midwest instead, punting the problem—and responsibility for a solution—upwind.

Pittsburgh Possible

There’s also a tendency to corral the problem around communities in the Mon Valley and the north boroughs that are especially hard-hit by industrial pollution. However, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are finding chemical signals from these point sources all across our city, not just right at the plant fenceline or in surrounding neighborhoods.

Compounding the problem, these exposures are indiscriminate. As Utah economist C. Arden Pope III—one of the most widely cited experts on the health effects of air pollution—said during a 2013 visit to Pittsburgh: “Air pollution each year kills as many people as does smoking. While smoking is riskier, only 20 percent of the population smokes. But everyone breathes.”

We need to have the courage to demand strong action on this issue from our political leaders and those charged with the duty of protecting our public health. When these concerns are raised among civic leaders, many of them blanch. “I agree it’s a problem,” one told me recently. “But can we please not talk about it? It’s bad for our image.”

Here’s the only image we should care about: I believe in what I think of as “Pittsburgh Possible” – having the will to do the hard thing that everyone else thinks can’t be done. That’s the Pittsburgh we should want to create.

If we truly want to be the most livable city, better can’t be good enough.

Grant Oliphant, president of the Heinz Endowments, wrote this piece for the foundation’s blog, THE Point.

 

NEXT staff

The staff at NEXTpittsburgh writes about the people driving change in the region and the innovative and cool things happening here.