The ‘steel city’ of Pittsburgh has faced extreme challenges in recent decades. In the first of a series of interviews with Chief Resilience Officers around the globe, we ask the city’s Grant Ervin about the CRO role, the social, economic and environmental priorities; and how the Rockefeller Foundation-funded 100 Resilient Cities is helping

When Donald Trump announced his intention to take the US out of the Paris Climate Accord in June last year, it was Pittsburgh he cited. “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” he said. Some of the most notable responses came from individual US cities and Pittsburgh led the way. The city’s mayor, Bill Peduto, fired back on Trump’s favourite medium, Twitter: “As the Mayor of Pittsburgh, I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement for our people, our economy and future.”

A few months prior to the president’s announcement, in March, Pittsburgh had released its first Resilience Strategy. It can be read here: One PGH.

The Strategy sets out the city’s priorities. The Steel City, it states, “must still overcome the stresses associated with its industrial legacy and crumbling infrastructure, while responding to ongoing pressures stemming from urbanization, globalization, and climate change. Persistent socioeconomic inequities, coupled with a history of fragmented governance, planning and service delivery, continue to undercut resident quality of life and strain city resources.

Rebuilding secondary education for refugees

Downtown Pittsburgh: Photos of Pittsburgh courtesy of Dave DiCello – to view his many other great images of the city, click here:

Beginnings and 100RC

Back in 2014, there were a couple of things that took Pittsburgh on this path, says CRO, Grant Ervin. The mayor had just been elected and there had been a lot of input from a 1000+ citizen-led transition team, which had sustainability as a strong theme. “We wanted to be a participant not just of a national conversation but also a global conversation about sustainability,” says Ervin.

By this time the 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) initiative had been established, which looked timely as Pittsburgh started to shape its strategy. 100RC has the following mission statement: “We help cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social, and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st century.”

Created in 2013, 100RC received over 1000 applications and announced three tranches of successful applicants, with Pittsburgh in the second of these, announced in December 2014, alongside six other North American cities.

100RC offers four main areas of help:

  • The support to hire and empower a CRO to coordinate and oversee the resilience activities, coordinate stakeholders, and ensure resilience is a city-wide priority.
  • Support for the CRO to develop a resilience plan, with “a clear and actionable set of priorities and initiatives”.
  • Access to a range of services to support the implementation, including solutions to spur investments and financing for resilient infrastructure, information technology tools, and policy models for resilience-enabling laws and regulations.
  • Connection to other Network members, to share what works, spotlight success, and advance global and regional dialogues on urban resilience.

Pittsburgh has had an excellent relationship manager, says Ervin, who also oversees other cities, including Chicago, with which there are a lot of common challenges. 100RC also has subject matter experts that cities can draw on, plus the ability to make connections and work with other members.

Pittsburgh’s Challenges

Every city is different and this shapes the resilience efforts. Ervin describes Pittsburgh as “90 distinct neighbourhoods that have grown up along topographical, geographical, racial and ethnic lines”. There could be no shying away from the challenges if they were to be properly identified and tackled. “It was not just about what are our shining stars. We asked, what are you worried about, what challenges do you see,” he says. It involved looking into all of the “dark corners”.

The city was dealt a body blow by the collapse of the domestic steel industry in the 1970s and 80s, with such a resultant exodus of people that by 2000 its population and tax base had halved (it had 300,000 inhabitants in 2015, with an aging demographic). The city laid off 446 employees in 2003 and its credit rating the following year was given junk bond status.

Its decaying infrastructure could not be adequately maintained and while new jobs, particularly tech-based, have helped to rebuild the economy, the benefits have been uneven. The resilience strategy states: “Recent analyses ranked Pittsburgh in the bottom quarter of the top 100 regions nationwide in terms of progress on racial economic inclusion, as defined by racial gaps in wages, poverty, and employment.

Rebuilding secondary education for refugees

Lawrenceville and Children’s Hospital: Courtesy of Dave DiCello

Identifying the Priorities

There has been a lot of citizen involvement, including one-to-one interviews and focus groups, and work with individual neighbourhoods to identify their specific problems. It has also harnessed its wealth of universities, consultancies, and independent research institutions. And with the 100RC backing, it has been able to engage specialists, including Rand Corporation as its strategic partner for the One PBH work and the likes of Arcadis on some of the implementations.

Pittsburgh’s geography means it is highly susceptible to flooding. It sits where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers converge to form the Ohio River. Vulnerable are the city’s bridge and tunnel networks and aging water containment infrastructure. The day before talking to Ervin, he had been dealing with flooded steam tunnels within the downtown district heating system.

Not surprisingly, part of the resilience plan focuses on mitigating challenges created by severe weather events, such as blizzards and heavy rains, driving the need for a flood management system and the expansion of green infrastructure. Pittsburgh is designated a Biophilic city. These are cities that are “built around nature, giving residents a recognition and affinity for local flora and fauna, providing education, investing in infrastructure that protects nature and brings residents closer to it”. As such, it is focused on green space, urban forests, biodiversity, and community education and engagement.

Also a priority is improving air quality, worsened again by its hilly layout and identified as a key public health challenge. To counter this it is seeking better coordination of measurement, advocacy, community engagement, and regulatory efforts.

What Ervin describes as the “systemic inequalities” are clearly also at the centre of the strategy. “We need to open up economic opportunities for some of our most vulnerable residents.” He adds: “We were talking a lot about inequality but had no way to measure it.” Collecting the data to underpin evidence-based decision-making has been “a huge piece of work”. This has in part drawn on Rockefeller Foundation expertise around inequality indicators and has supported the creation of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that can direct investment in areas such as mobility – including providing easier access to employment – healthcare and home-ownership. Such are the data analysis challenges that it is exploring setting up a Resilience Institute.

Ervin also highlights energy as a big priority, with a lot of work in this space. This means dealing with the city’s aging infrastructure and leading the way to a clean energy transition.

The resilience strategy has an extensive plan of actions that also spans education; food; supporting non-profit organisations (which often stepped in to provide vital support within the voids caused by previous crises in the city); recycling and reducing waste; supporting start-up and SME companies; repurposing its 30,000+ vacant lots for community benefit; sustainable redevelopment; improving civic engagement; cybersecurity; improving relations between the community and police; supporting aging residents and those with disabilities; and tackling the opioid epidemic in parts of the city.

Rebuilding secondary education for refugees

Photos of Pittsburgh courtesy of Dave DiCello –


In total, there are more than 300 actions under way, says Ervin, and the mayor has committed to dedicate at least ten per cent of the city’s capital budget to resilience-related activities.

How does the CRO fit within the city council as a whole? “How it plays out in day-to-day decisions is an evolving process,” says Ervin. Having a strong lead from the top is important and a lot of the integration is through data analysis and strategic planning, as these need to be cross-agency.

It remains relatively early days for Pittsburgh and the other 100RC cities, as it is for many communities outside this network, in terms of now implementing their resilience strategies. Clearly, they were not starting from scratch when they started to define these, as shown by the resurgence of Pittsburgh in many areas ahead of this latest initiative. Nevertheless, the CRO role brings focus and the 100RC network adds resources, finance and collaboration. While the president might command the headlines, it is reassuring that so much good work is being done in US communities such as this one.