In Pittsburgh, 'what we look for and aspire to be'

The EPA's former environmental justice chief explains why everyone needs a voice as we shape our cities for the future.

PITTSBURGH—How do you rebuild a rustbelt city to confront rapid technological and economic change while also addressing social inequity and environmental threats?


That's a key question confronting city leaders here as the community woos Amazon's HQ2 while dealing with legacy pollutants from steel mills and brand new ones from fracking.

"If we are going to talk future cities, you have to talk disproportionate impacts that are going to happen," said Mustafa Santiago Ali, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Environmental Justice who now works the issue for the Hip Hop Caucus.


He spoke at P4 Pittsburgh, a two-day conference drawing mayors, advocates and experts on urban renewal, community activism and civic planning to examine four "essential values:" People, planet, place and performance.

In 2014, a coal processing chemical spill in Elk River, W.Va., produced a $151 million settlement between West Virginia American Water and Eastman Chemical. But the settlement didn't leave the community better or fix underlying environmental injustices, Ali said. Why? Because it failed to build community wealth.

Spartanburg, S.C., offers a different example. The community leveraged a $20,000 environmental justice grant into a $3 million community investment. They built a 35-acre solar farm on a former brownfield, lowered electricity prices, encouraged disenfranchised residents to seek local office. "That is how you build power inside a community," Ali said.

Added Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto. "It's solvable if we work together."

The Hip Hop Caucus is a non-partisan organization dedicated to using art and culture to build power in communities. Ali serves as senior VP for climate, environmental justice and community revitalization.

So it's perhaps no surprise he puts his faith in pop culture to make this message mainstream.

"Art, music and culture is the bridge," he said. "It is what connects us. It gives us the chance to move past our '-isms' and to break down our silos."

"It is what we look for and aspire to be."

The P4 Pittsburgh conference continues today. Follow on Twitter at #p4pgh18

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