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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Mayoral Interviews: Luke Ravenstahl

Over the past month, I took the opportunity to meet with the mayoral candidates for Pittsburgh (or in the current mayor's case, his sustainability coordinator). It was an enlightening experience and hopefully my questions will help you decide who to vote for on November 3.

My interview with Mayor Ravenstahl's office was actually with Lindsay Baxter, his sustainability coordinator. She was quite happy to see my interest in spreading the green word of the candidates. She shied away from questions about public transportation in the city, saying that was outside of her responsibility. Similarly, she said that she and Stephen Patchen, the city's Bicycle/Pedestrian coordinator are largely independent. She views her job as largely a communicative, collaborative role. We already have a recycling, bicycle, and tree departments. Her job as sustainability coordinator is to connect them all together, not "reinvent the wheel."

Lindsay Catches Some Tough Questions

As Lindsay is currently in the Mayor's office (and has his ear), a lot of my questions hit close to home. It's a lot easier to explain what you would do than to explain what you are doing and how it isn't enough yet.

When I asked her why the city of Pittsburgh has dropped out of city rankings for green building. She says we are at an unfair advantage in these rankings. Even if every new building is built LEED-certified, we still can't keep up with cities like Chicago because we just don't build enough new buildings. More importantly, she says we should focus on our existing housing stock and retrofitting it. She highlighted the CCI building on the South Side as a great example of how we can be a leader in that field. However, she says she regularly gets contacted about and says we are known outside the city for our green building in spite of not being in official rankings. On top of all that, she touted the recently passed city legislation requiring LEED certification for any projects that receive public dollars.

She is serving on the board for the Pittsburgh Green Innovators project as Mayor Ravenstahl's representative, and regularly attends meetings along with her counterpart at the county level. Unfortunately, a lot of those meetings are super-secret and she could not share many details. However, on the same day I interviewed her, a state grant was made announcing $2 million in funding for this worthwhile program to educate "green collar" workers in the city.

From the wonkier side of her job, Lindsay is also extraordinarily proud of the Climate Action Plan she compiled for the city. It is the first plan of its kind which addresses the 4 main sectors of the city - businesses, non-profits, education, and municipal. It's a comprehensive plan which can serve as a model throughout the country. Feel free to read the 102-page plan if you're in the mood. Otherwise, you can just quote the city's goal: 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the 2003 level by 2023.

Why Not Solar Pittsburgh?
Regarding solar energy, she thinks Pittsburgh needs to overcome its mental block about solar energy. We're actually more suited for solar than we are for wind - although she dropped hints about a potential plan for a windmill somewhere in Pittsburgh (but not on Mt Washington which could never clear the necessary zoning and bureaucratic hurdles.) She is working with the URA sustainable design coordinator, Matt Smutz, to roll out plans for programs to help small businesses and residences install solar panels.

Start Local
A recurring theme with Lindsay was starting local. The city wants to test the waters locally before expanding programs city-wide. So, first they are installing solar panels on a local firehouse. They are also working on improving the efficiency of the City-County Building, home of the mayor's and Lindsay's offices. Lastly, they are testing out green resident programs on city employees. The Black and Gold City Goes Green is largely focused on city employees and they have set up friendly competitions between departments to see who can amass the most green points. Next up, competing neighborhoods?

Lindsay was clearly very knowledgeable and had strong answers for most questions. For any question she was unsure of she said she would get back to me (and did.) She had a lot of plans and ideas for the future, which I was happy to hear, and I'm happy to be able to share with readers. Some of those ideas are starting to come to fruition (like the street light program which is currently under study.) The city would benefit from more transparency in these plannings and meetings and a speedier process. As a city, we have the potential to act much quicker than the Federal government or state, but it seems like so many of these projects get stalled in the pipeline. If the greater public was more aware of these initiatives, maybe we would all pressure for more progress and see more of these plans brought to fruition.

For more information on Mayor Ravenstahl, see his campaign website.

For more information on the other candidates, stay tuned to this blog. Don't forget to vote for mayor on November 3.

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