When it comes to examples of cities that have successfully emerged from the industrial age into the information age, look no further than Pittsburgh. But can it be done with an eye toward climate solutions? In this editorial collaboration with Project Drawdown, storyteller Matt Scott follows engineer and artist Clara Kitongo, architect Erica Cochran Hameen, and transportation manager Sarah Olexsak, three of the women working toward a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable community, straight out of the future they want to build.
DAVAR ARDALAN (HOST): Hi, I’m Davar Ardalan of Overheard. And this week, we have something new for you: the story of three climate change problem solvers in the city of Pittsburgh. Today’s episode comes by way of storyteller Matt Scott of Project Drawdown. His reporting in the short documentary series Drawdown’s Neighborhood amplifies the underrepresented voices often left out of climate-solutions stories.
According to Pittsburgh’s Department of City Planning, the Steel City is already experiencing the effects of climate change, including harsher winters, hotter summers, record-setting precipitation, and increased numbers of invasive species.
Project Drawdown focuses on climate solutions, and recently they turned their attention to Pittsburgh, an American city determined to make climate solutions a reality. Here’s Matt Scott.
MATT SCOTT (HOST/STORYTELLER): When you ask Pittsburgh residents where to visit when exploring the city, Mount Washington is one landmark that comes up time and time again, and it’s no wonder why. The first time I visited was an overcast fall day, and my view overlooking the city was breathtaking. What jumped out most, believe it or not, were the bridges below me, as far as the eye could see, lining the Allegheny River. Right in front of me were the so-called Three Sisters: Roberto Clemente, Andy Warhol, and Rachel Carson, three aztec gold suspension bridges connecting downtown Pittsburgh. I repeatedly lost count as my mind drifted off, in awe of the proud city in front of me.
Pittsburgh has nearly 450 bridges, more than any other city in the world, and most have been produced from local steel.
While this history of manufacturing still defines much of the infrastructure in Pittsburgh and beyond, it also came at a cost: smoke pollution due to burning coal, contaminated rivers due to sewage disposal and rampant boat traffic, and high mortality rates from typhoid fever. In the mid-20th century, Pittsburgh mayor David Lawrence became a leader in the city’s pursuit of clean air, improved health, and a better look overall.
On this episode of Overheard, we’ll journey through Pittsburgh and meet Pittsburgh climate heroes determined to turn one of America’s greatest cities of the industrial revolution into one of the greenest of the information age. Key to their work: including the Black communities, communities of color, immigrants, and other underrepresented groups often left out of the climate conversation, while unleashing their own climate superpowers in the process.
How is Pittsburgh bridging the gap from a history that was so reliant on extractive industries–coal and steel–to a present and near future with climate mitigation and resilience at the forefront?
More after the break.
CLARA KITONGO (ENGINEER/ARTIST): (Singing)
For so long the people have been pressed down
The system got me wonder where to break down
Sunup to sundown, working for my ransom
Trying not to feel like I’m let down
But moving forward as I sway to the beat… (song fades)
SCOTT: That’s Clara Kitongo, performing her original song “Roots” while sitting in a tree nursery in Lawrenceville, just off the 62nd Street Bridge. Clara is program manager of the One Tree Per Child program at Tree Pittsburgh, an environmental nonprofit dedicated to restoring and protecting the urban forest through tree planting and care, education, advocacy, and land conservation. As a performing artist, tree tender, and educator, it’s no wonder that Clara connects to climate solutions through her music.
KITONGO: As you can tell, the song is really about getting to like the root of the issue, the things that really matter. The second verse actually goes like (singing):
No barriers they put up will ever block us
If we unite, there is no way they can stop us
United we will stand
Divided we will fall
We got to find the rhythm as we sway
It’s really about unity, and I think, when we learn more about trees, I learned recently that trees, actually, their roots are connected, and in certain species, they’re literally communicating through even the little bacteria on the tree to communicate if there’s disease going on. Or if a tree has been damaged or if a tree’s about to die, it just starts sending all of its nutrients to the roots so it can spring out more other little trees around it. So much to learn from the roots, from the roots of trees but literally from going to the root of a lot of the issues that we’re dealing with.
SCOTT: As you might have guessed, Clara combines her love of storytelling and music with her knowledge of trees each and every day. Tree plantations, particularly on degraded lands, are an important climate solution, because managed well, they can restore soil, sequester carbon, and produce wood resources in a more sustainable way. In general, trees also provide clean air and help us breathe, they cool streets in the city around us, and they make for a more habitable city.
Recognizing the power of trees, the city of Pittsburgh’s goal is to actually plant 780,000 more trees by 2030, which would increase the tree cover from about 40 percent to 60 percent.
While Clara isn’t a Pittsburgh native, it’s her upbringing in Uganda that taught her the importance of trees and forests.
KITONGO: Being in Uganda, it’s like a tropical country, so we’re like right on the Equator. It’s really warm, it’s always rainy. But from those early ages we learned about deforestation and reforestation. So I always knew when you have a place that’s deforested, you’re probably going to get a desert at some point, or when you bring trees into spaces, you start changing how the fabric of the space really looks like.
SCOTT: One of Clara’s role models is Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan social, environmental, and political activist and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Maathai has been called “the troublemaker who fought back with trees.” In receiving her master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh, Maathai paved the way for Clara, another young African woman working with trees in the Steel City.
KITONGO: I learned about the Green Belt Movement, which Wangari Maathai had started with poor women in Kenya, really turning a place that had been basically like deforested, to plant, to build houses, now turned into a forest.
SCOTT: In founding the Green Belt Movement, an environmental organization that empowers communities, particularly women, to conserve the environment and improve livelihoods, Maathai’s legacy is one of connecting deeply with tree roots and her roots. While she passed away in 2011, her legacy lives on through people like Clara.
The representation Wangari Maathai provided is so critical because, as Clara reflects, that representation has helped others find belonging.
KITONGO: Part of finding the voice is really bringing your true and most authentic self to the space because that allows people to come in their true and most authentic self into the space.
I was like a Black girl in Pittsburgh, and most of the people who are working in this field are white men, older white men. So I instantly cut myself out of civil engineering literally just because I didn’t see anyone who looked like me in that field. Now, looking back, I’m like, I probably will do it if I want to, like, I’ll find a way to do it, but at that time I didn’t have the tools to really be able to navigate kind of that reality.
SCOTT: How did you realize that you could actually do something? Because one thing that I find is that a lot of the images that are about how horrible it is could feel really, like, disempowering, and you feel hopeless looking at it—like, what are we going to do? This is such a big problem that we have to address. We need to plant a lot of trees and do a lot of other things to actually do something. But how did you get to the point where you realized that you could actually do something about climate change?
KITONGO: To be honest, sometimes it feels like a little drop in the bucket, like a really small little drop–
KITONGO: But I think part of the reason why I even continue to do it is part of my own personal beliefs. I practice Buddhism, and there’s a concept of, like, the oneness of self and environment, but then also part about the butterfly effect. It’s like, things like that where it’s like a small little thing that one person does, does have a ripple effect in certain aspects. So, if I make your day, if I make you smile right now and you’re feeling good, maybe you’ll smile to somebody else, and you know, you start a chain reaction like that. So that thought process of Buddhism allows me to center my mind a little bit, because it does feel sometimes like, are these trees really making an impact? But they really are because when you look at it in a wave reaction—like this small thing is adding to a much bigger movement—then I see, OK, I need to at least do something because to do nothing is not an option.
SCOTT: Each day, in her work at Tree Pittsburgh, Clara stresses the importance of climate action for the next generation.
KITONGO: Trees, especially the older, much more mature trees, play a very big role in carbon sequestration, just pulling the carbon out of the air, using even the roots sinking carbon in, so this we are doing is almost like a capital project for the future. You know how people do capital fundraisers: Planting these trees now is almost like banking on the future because we’re going to only see these benefits like 10, 20, 30 years from now. So when we work with young kids, you are really giving them that perspective of seeing, wow, you are literally part of changing the fabric of what this city is going to look like in 20, 30 years from now, and your hands have a role in it.
SCOTT: I asked Clara to reflect on lessons from her journey, particularly as someone who hasn’t seen many people like her represented in the spaces she now occupies.
KITONGO: Sometimes we don’t know that we have a superpower.
KITONGO: I came to the U.S. with many layers, being an immigrant. On the surface, I’m African American, but I’m really African. So there was like, where do I really fit in? And how do I find my voice in all of this space? The truest thing for me is that the environment connects me to all of those experiences. And I think that’s part of the journey of my own life is realizing, oh actually, because you are born in Uganda and you have this unique experience, that is in itself a superpower because of the perspective that you’re bringing to the table.
SCOTT: Up next, another climate hero literally building the future of Pittsburgh while not losing sight of its past.
More after the break
SCOTT: In 1950, a young photographer named Elliott Erwitt stepped off a Greyhound bus in Pittsburgh to document the Steel City’s rebirth after World War II. Flipping through the photos published by National Geographic in 2017, I find it interesting that most of Erwitt’s images of the Steel City aren’t of its imposing steel buildings or marvelous bridges but of its people, including its children. One image shows a young Black child, who was working as a “shoeshine boy,” with his shirt in tatters. Others show children along Beelen Street, an area that was largely destroyed by landslides—a climate challenge Pittsburgh still navigates—just a decade later.
Seeing these photos of Pittsburgh helps me appreciate how far things have come. It also begs the question, Where do we go from here? How will photos of Pittsburgh—its buildings and its people today—compare with the Pittsburgh that local climate-solutions heroes are working toward?
If Erica Cochran Hameen has anything to say about it, the future will build upon Pittsburgh’s storied past rather than start entirely from scratch. Erica is a professor and architectural designer specializing in building retrofits, which address electricity and fuel waste with better insulation and windows, efficient lighting, and advanced heating and cooling systems.
ERICA COCHRAN HAMEEN (ARCHITECT): One of the most sustainable things we can do in the world, instead of building a new building, is retrofit what we have: Taking an existing building and making changes to it so that it operates better. And when I say better, it means that the people should be more comfortable. Our occupant satisfaction should go up. We should make decisions that are going to help people be healthier and more productive, and we should save energy. So it’s a win, win, win all across the board.
SCOTT: For Erica, who is the director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Architecture and the co-director of their Center for Building Performance and Diagnostics, that means putting equity first. Erica researches sustainable and equitable design, energy efficiency, and social justice issues as it relates to our built environment.
Many of the insights she uses to make an impact in Pittsburgh were sparked during her time in New York.
HAMEEN: So I was working in New York, and I was doing a lot of building renovations and retrofits, especially public-sector work. And one of the things that for me was just very eye-opening was seeing differences in education and the school system. And I’d go to one neighborhood and the schools were beautiful, and then I’d go to another neighborhood and things were just falling apart. And sometimes, unfortunately the difference in the two neighborhoods was about wealth and income or immigrant status. And I thought, well, this isn’t right. Just because they’re brown or Black, or because they’re not from America, or are a low-income neighborhood, why don’t they get a good school? It’s still the same city. We’re all using our public tax dollars to educate them. So why don’t they have the same thing?
SCOTT: Often when we think of buildings, climate change and equity aren’t top of mind.
We know that buildings are responsible for 81 percent of Pittsburgh’s greenhouse gas emissions. Homes alone account for a quarter of the city’s emissions. After all, the majority of Pittsburgh’s homes were built before 1960, before energy-efficiency standards were in place.
To combat this, the city of Pittsburgh has a goal to ensure all new buildings are carbon neutral and to mitigate high energy burdens on vulnerable communities, a step toward a sustainable and equitable future. There’s a long way to go to achieve equity, but Erica started talking about it more than a decade ago and doesn’t plan on stopping now.
HAMEEN: I thought, well, I can do something about that. I’m a designer. I can solve this problem. I always think I can solve a problem. Whenever I see a problem, I can fix that.
SCOTT: So Erica got to work.
HAMEEN: I said, OK, my background in these New York City schools, I’m going to study and use my numbers knowledge, because I’m really good at statistics. And I’m going to say maybe all the environmental conditions that are out there—and I identified 185 environmental and physical conditions and compared each of these 185 conditions against the 125 schools that all had similar percentages of children whose parents had similar income, similar percentage of Black and Hispanic. The only difference is your built environment that you’re in. And I’m going to show how, with statistics, that what we do as architects and engineers matter, and it affects test scores and absenteeism and weight and obesity and health and your academic performance.
SCOTT: Yeah. This is so powerful. And the thing that I’m wondering is what was the status quo, especially as you started your work, what was the status quo in the architecture field? Were other people thinking about equity and all of these other issues? Or was that something you found that you were kind of bringing into the conversation?
HAMEEN: I think some people were having that conversation. I don’t think it was as big as it is now. With a lot of the in-your-face inequities that have been caught on tape recently, people are beginning to ask more and more questions, which I’m glad they’re asking questions. I regret that all these horrible things had to happen for this to bubble up. But the inequities of police brutality, the inequities of people not having access to clean air and clean water and a quality education, the inequities we’ve seen with the pandemic—that everyone, when they said everyone stay home, there was such a difference in the quality of your stay-home education that everyone faced.
And so because of all of that, now people are talking about it more. When I started talking about this 10 or 20 years ago, I don’t think as many people were involved in the conversation. And so I’m happy that the issues of equity and understanding the connection between climate change and equity, I’m happy that people are understanding that they go together. When people say, “I care about sustainability, I care about climate change,” you can’t do that and not care about equity. They just have to go together in the same conversation.
SCOTT: Part of Erica’s vision for the future is to end energy poverty, the lack of access to affordable, reliable, modern energy services and products.
HAMEEN: Pittsburgh has the second highest energy poverty rate for African Americans of any city in America. I want to change that. It shouldn’t matter how much money you make. It shouldn’t matter what country you’re from. It shouldn’t matter your religion. You should be able to go home to a house that is comfortable in the summer and in the winter, that no matter what country you’re living in, you should live someplace where you can breathe, where you’re not having heatstroke because it’s so hot due to climate changes; we have global warming. Or you’re worried about flooding because of rising sea levels, that we have new solutions and you are able to use those.
And you could go to school regardless of where you’re from and get a quality education. That you will be in a building that is healthy. You don’t have high teacher-turnover rates. And you have a playground for children, that you have a school with access to playgrounds. I think if we can just provide equity in housing and education, so much would change because education gives you those tools to make things better. If we start giving people those tools at a young age, then when they become adults, you can do anything.
SCOTT: Steel bridges have defined the infrastructure of Pittsburgh beginning with 1883’s Smithfield Street Bridge, the oldest steel bridge in the United States. As I stood atop Mount Washington, a climate-solutions storyteller in a city once known for its innovative yet emissions-intensive industry, I couldn’t help but think of more metaphorical bridges. After all, Pittsburgh was the industrial center for a growing country, and that comes with a lot of baggage. Old nicknames like the “Smoky City” are a reflection of that, and yet, today Pittsburgh functions as a leader in implementing climate solutions.
In order to understand that drastic evolution, I sat down with one of the people who knows it best.
SARAH OLEXSAK (TRANSPORTATION ELECTRIFICATION MANAGER): So like a lot of families in the Pittsburgh area, my family definitely has a past of working in coal and steel, and they began that time in central Pennsylvania in the coal mines.
SCOTT: That’s Sarah Olexsak, a third-generation Pittsburgher and someone closely tied to Pittsburgh’s legacy as an industrial center built by blue-collar workers.
OLEXSAK: So most of my family was from Slovakia, and they immigrated to the U.S. for a better life, like so many people do. And after working in the coal mines, my great-grandfather said that he wanted an even better life for his children.
So he moved the family to Pittsburgh so that they could work in the steel mills. And that’s what my grandfather did. And it’s what–my father had a career in steel as well.
SCOTT: That’s why it’s so notable that today Sarah is the senior manager of transportation electrification at Duquesne Light Company, the electric distribution company serving southwest Pennsylvania. For more than a century, Duquesne Light has been working to deliver a safe and reliable supply of electricity to more than 600,000 customers in Allegheny and Beaver Counties.
Sarah’s career in electric vehicles puts her ancestors’ innovative spirit to use in new ways, this time building toward a world that achieves drawdown: the future point in time when greenhouse gases stop climbing and start to steadily decline.
OLEXSAK: So as of 2019, transportation accounts for the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. So when we think about areas that we need to work on to chip away those greenhouse gas emissions, transportation is a huge area. And so that’s what I’ve devoted my career to.
SCOTT: What makes the work Sarah does so critical is that the majority of the world’s emissions result from transportation, electricity generation, and other forms of energy production and use.
Considering her family’s history in steel and coal, I wondered, Why did Sarah decide that she would help lead the shift?
OLEXSAK: While I was at school, I took a class called environmental ethics. And I think that that was one of the first classes for me that sort of like the light bulb went off. This is the subset of philosophy that says, What is humankind’s moral obligation for protecting the environment and how we look at preserving our natural resources?
SCOTT: While Sarah worked with the U.S. Department of Energy from the mid-2000s to the mid-2010s, it’s her roots and belief in the people of Pittsburgh that led her to be the change that Pittsburgh needs.
OLEXSAK: I think that Pittsburgh is a place where we really, really embrace our past and what got us to where we are. We have so many advances that have been made here in energy, in manufacturing, in the steel industry, and in so much more and the evolution of our local industry and the people who are making things happen here. So many players doing so many really exciting things.
Thanks for listening. For this edition of National Geographic’s Overheard, this is Matt Scott of Drawdown’s Neighborhood, with support from filmmaker Erik Douds.
ARDALAN: If you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app and consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/explore to subscribe.
To learn more about Project Drawdown, visit drawdown.org.
This week’s Overheard episode is produced by Carla Wills, manager of audio.
Our producers are Khari Douglas, Ilana Strauss, and Marcy Thompson.
Our senior producers are Jacob Pinter and Brian Gutierrez.
Our senior editor is Eli Chen.
Our fact-checkers are Robin Palmer and Julie Beer.
Our photo editor is Julie Hau.
Hansdale Hsu sound-designed this episode and composed our theme music.
This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.
Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.
David Brindley is National Geographic’s interim editor in chief.
And I’m Davar Ardalan. Thanks for listening, and see you all next time.
Clara, Erica, and Sarah are just three of the Pittsburgh climate-solutions advocates featured in Project Drawdown’s short documentary series Drawdown’s Neighborhood. The series, done in collaboration with adventure filmmaker Erik Douds, will announce its expansion to additional cities later this year.
Check out the New York Times best seller Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, edited by environmentalist and Project Drawdown co-founder Paul Hawken, for more climate solutions from scientists, researchers, and environmental advocates.
And find out how climate change impacts including wildfire, extreme heat, and drought are affecting forests from the Amazon to the Arctic in National Geographic’s special issue “Saving Forests.”