Reinventing Pittsburgh as a Green City

Solutions in action from the Climate 2030 Blueprint

In the late 1860s, as hundreds of factories belched thick black smoke over Pittsburgh, author James Parton dubbed it “hell with the lid off” (Parton 1868). By the 1970s, as the city’s industrial economy faltered, Pittsburgh’s leaders made “green” buildings part of their revitalization plan. A few decades later, Pittsburgh was named the tenth-cleanest city in the world (Malone 2007).

Today Pittsburgh is a leader in green buildings, and has turned its abandoned industrial sites, known as brownfields, into assets through extensive redevelopment. Pittsburgh has shown that building green can reduce energy demand, curb global warming emissions, save consumers money on utility bills, and stimulate a green economy.

Pittsburgh’s David L. Lawrence Convention Center, for example, built on a former brownfield site, is the world’s first Gold LEED-certified convention center.  Natural daylight provides three-fourths of the lighting for the center’s exhibition space, and it has reduced the use of potable water by three-fourths. Sensor-controlled lights, natural ventilation and other efficiency measures cut energy use by 35 percent—saving the building’s owners an estimated $500,000 each year (DLCC 2009; SEA 2008).

Built on an abandoned rail yard, the PNC Firstside Center is the nation’s largest Silver LEED–certified commercial building. It uses about 30 percent less energy than a traditional design, and is located near public transportation (EERE 2009). “When we see energy costs going up … as much as 20 percent, we think it [energy efficiency] makes fiscal sense for shareholders, employees, and the communities we do business [with],” says Gary Saulson of PNC corporate real estate (The Pittsburgh Channel 2008).

As of July 2008, Pittsburgh had at least 24 LEED-certified buildings, ranking it fifth among U.S. cities (USGBC 2008). Spurred by an initial investment from private foundations such as the Heinz Endowments and Richard King Mellon Foundation, Pittsburgh officials are now actively encouraging such efforts. In 2007, for example, the City Council adopted incentives that allow green buildings to be 20 percent taller than others in their zoning districts (City of Pittsburgh 2007). The city also created the Mayor’s Green Initiative Trust Fund in 2008 with money saved through bulk power purchases (City of Pittsburgh 2008). The fund’s mandate includes the launch of a Green Council to oversee Pittsburgh’s five-year plan for green initiatives.
Investing in a green economy does more than save energy: it also attracts businesses and creates jobs. The Pittsburgh region expects to see 76,000 jobs related to renewable energy during the next two decades (Global Insight 2008).That trend has already begun with the recent announcement that EverPower Wind Holdings was opening an office in the city (Schooley 2008), and with the startup of two solar manufacturing companies (Plextronics 2009; Solar Power Industries 2009).

Cities and towns play an important role in encouraging more energy-efficient buildings. Stringent energy efficiency standards for buildings, zoning incentives, and tax rebates can encourage a clean economy. Support for targeted education and training for engineers, architects, builders, and other skilled tradespeople will ensure that the local workforce can meet growing demand for employees knowledgeable about green building.

When Pittsburgh’s future seemed bleak, architect Frank Lloyd Wright was asked how to  improve the city. His answer: “Abandon it!”(University of Pittsburgh 2009). Yet  Pittsburgh has shown that a “green” vision, political ingenuity and persistence, and the  support of private institutions can revitalize a region’s economy, reduce global warming  emissions, and provide a stewardship model for the nation.


City of Pittsburgh. 2008. Mayor partners with the Pittsburgh project to green up abandoned baseball field. Press release. Accessed on February 4, 2009.

City of Pittsburgh. 2007. Ordinance supplementing the Pittsburgh Code, Title Nine, Zoning, by adding a new sub section 915.06, entitled, “Sustainable development for publicly financed buildings.” Legislative file number 2007-1950.

David L. Lawrence Convention Center (DLCC). 2009. Being green. Pittsburgh, PA. Accessed on January 29, 2009.

Global Insight Inc. 2008. U.S. metro economies: Current and potential jobs in the U.S. economy. Prepared for the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Mayors Climate Protection Center. Accessed on April 3, 2009.

Green Building Council (USGBC). 2008. LEED benchmarking data: July 2008. Washington, DC. Accessed on March 31, 2009.

Malone, R. 2007. Which are the world’s cleanest cities? Forbes, April 16.

Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE). 2009. Building energy codes program: PNC Firstside Center. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Energy.

Parton, J. 1868. Pittsburg. The Atlantic Monthly, January.

The Pittsburgh Channel. 2008. Blue Green alliance uses PNC Firstside Center as environmentally friendly example. August 8. Online at , accessed on February 4, 2009.

Plextronics. 2009. Plextronics marks the opening of its new development line at a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Pittsburgh, PA. Accessed on February 4, 2009.

Schooley, T. 2008. Wind power company plans Pittsburgh location. Pittsburgh Business Times, August 21.

Solar Power Industries. 2009. Solar power industries, solar cell manufacturer. Belle Vernon, PA. Accessed on February 4, 2009.

Sports and Exhibition Authority (SEA). 2008. David L. Lawrence convention center. Pittsburgh, PA. Accessed on January 29, 2009.

University of Pittsburgh. 2009. Environmental innovations in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh, PA. Online at, accessed on February 4, 2009

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