By Conaway B. Haskins III

Independence Day 2019 provided me with a serendipitous opportunity: to leverage my family’s holiday vacation to Pittsburgh for exploring urban ecology issues. For four days, we walked, drove, and rode (multimodally) in and around the Steel City. My goal was to gain more insight into the on-the-ground reality of how this iconic American city is navigating dynamics of the globalization of urban sustainable development and emerging city governance networks within its local and regional context. 

At present, Pittsburgh is home to just over 300,000 people; a steady decline from its mid-20th century high mark of 600,000 or more residents. The city anchors a growing metropolitan area of over two million. Just over two years ago, Pittsburgh found itself at the forefront of the national and international debate over President Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement. As he defended this move as part of his “America First” policy, Trump quipped, “I was elected by the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” This sparked a sharp retort by the city’s current mayor, Bill Peduto, who stated via Twitter that “As the Mayor of Pittsburgh, I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement for our people, our economy & future.” Several days later, Peduto took things further by joining with Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris who also chairs the global C40 cities climate advocacy group, to announce that both cities would commit to curbing their global climate impacts. The two mayors proclaimed that, “the only way to do right by Pittsburghers and Parisians is to abide by the principles of the Paris Agreement, which guarantees the future health and prosperity of both of our cities—and every other city in the world.” 

Later that year, Peduto announced the formation of OnePGH, a citywide strategy to generate “engaged, empowered and coordinated neighbors” for urban resilience. These moves positioned Peduto as one of the most visible American mayors on the climate change issue. It also helped Pittsburgh land a $2.5M 2018 Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge grant to strengthen its local leadership capacity to enact initiatives addressing global environmental issues in keeping with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Peduto committed the city to scaling renewable power via new community solar programs, increasing energy efficiency through new financing programs, implementing a new energy transparency benchmarking ordinance, and expanding bike and pedestrian infrastructure in priority areas in the city… all by 2020. 

Local efforts: However, just two years after his Twitter battle with the President, Mayor Peduto stood in front of an audience gathered at Carnegie Mellon University to discuss the OnePGH initiative and acknowledged that the city faced a number of limits to acting on its own. To implement the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Paris-inspired changes “can’t happen under old models. Old models are city government,” he said. He announced that OnePGH—and presumably his global commitment—would shift from being a city-run initiative to a project under the auspices of a to-be-determined nonprofit model operating outside of government. According to media reports, his announcement caused a mix of confusion and opposition, including concerns that public functions would be driven by “elite, private interests.” This series of events demonstrates the highly complicated political, policy, and population challenges facing American cities that wish to align with the emerging global sustainable urbanization agenda of socializing the SDGs and Paris Climate Accord in their local environs.  

Global cooperation: In 2015, the U.N. member nations agreed on seventeen goals to “guide global action on sustainable development until 2030.” With significant input from United Cities and Local Government, a century-old Barcelona-based NGO, the SDGs included Goal 11: “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” This measure was interpreted as a recognition of the impact that urbanization has on development, and of the influence that local leaders can have on generating bottom-up change on a global scale. America’s cities have emerged as focal points for the Global Urban Agenda because of our country’s role as the second largest contributor to global carbon pollution and second largest consumer of energy on the planet. As a result, The U.S. Conference of Mayors has aligned its priorities with the SDGs, and over ninety U.S. cities have formally joined the effort to support the Paris Climate Agreement in the face of the federal government pullback. 

Nonetheless, emerging research into these efforts demonstrates the complexities city leaders face in implementing substantive change, particularly when faced with the limitations on their abilities to govern in places beyond the boundaries of their legal jurisdiction. As in the comparative context, the political realities of local and regional government in the U.S. merit consideration, because they shape the prospect of pursuing and implementing interventions. Additionally, the unique dynamics of American social and political life raise concerns about the effectiveness of the Global Urban Agenda in the U.S. context, particularly for its aging cities in growing metropolises. For example, emerging research into Urban Metabolism (UM)—defined as “the sum total of the technical and socio-economic processes that occur in cities, resulting in growth, production of energy, and elimination of waste”—acknowledges that the bulk of future urban growth is projected to occur in cities of less than 500,000 inhabitants, and developed nations will have a much slower rate of growth compared to developing nations. 

Limitations and opportunities: In the case of a city like Pittsburgh, which has experienced sustained and projected population decline over the past five decades, the issue of municipal power stopping at the city limits is of prime importance. The city proper comprises just thirteen percent of the metro area population; meaning that, to borrow a phrase from Pres. Trump, the mayor of Pittsburgh was elected by roughly 1/8 of Greater Pittsburgh. His power, and that of city government, effectively stops at the border where Pittsburgh City meets suburban Alleghany County. As a result, the municipality can only claim responsibility for, and legally act upon, the elements that fall inside the city proper (or within agreed-upon regional compacts), even though regional ecological influences prevail. Taking a cue from the literature, it is conceivable that the most effective means for Mayor Peduto to help Pittsburgh reach the SDGs and climate goals is to focus on measuring the city’s Urban Metabolism to assess its prospects for building a more Circular Economy (CE) dynamic, since sustainability requires decreasing reliance on external resources.

Global urban agenda policy priorities require a better process for setting goals and monitoring progress. It also necessitates better understanding, which may be gleaned by examining and integrating knowledge of the complexities of urban systems, particularly where data are more readily available. Cities like Pittsburgh house reams of public and private data that measure the crosscutting cultural, economic, political, and regulatory dimensions of their UM, and have the platforms communicating this information to the public. During my travels, evidence of early-stage public engagement efforts was visible in public spaces, such as local museums and major city intersections. 

With eighty percent of the U.S. population currently living in urban or urbanizing areas, and projections for eighty percent of the rest of the world’s population to be effectively urbanized by 2050, it is clear that U.S. cities share responsibility for addressing sustainable development and climate change. Still, the realities of urban political life mean that socializing the global urban agenda likely requires a more workable set of models, strategies, and expectations.

Conaway Haskins

Conaway B. Haskins III is a PhD student in the Planning, Governance and Globalization program in the Virginia Tech School of Public and International Affairs and he has taken several online courses at the Virginia Tech Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS). This story is based on Conaway’s case-study report, written as part of the Urban Ecology course. Reprinted with author’s permission and edits.