Matt Mehalik serves as program manager at Sustainable Pittsburgh, where he has created a sustainable business network called Champions for Sustainability (C4S) for southwestern Pennsylvania. I am one of the 50+ members in the Champions group.

In addition to the network, he has developed several of its signature sustainability performance assessment programs, like the Southwestern Pennsylvania Sustainable Business Compact, the Pittsburgh Green Workplace Challenge, and the Southwestern Pennsylvania Sustainable Small Business Designation program. These programs have served as guideposts for hundreds of regional businesses and organizations, large and small, that have embraced sustainability for the value that it delivers. The programs have documented savings of more than $7.2 million.

Matt is originally from Forest Hills, a neighborhood east of Pittsburgh. After attending undergrad and graduate school at the University of Virginia and then working for Lockheed Martin, he moved back to Pittsburgh in 2002.

Matt also is an adjunct assistant professor of environmental policy at Heinz College School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University.

I have known Matt since I became the sustainability coordinator for Highmark in 2007. We collaborate in the C4S network and serve on its steering committee. I spoke to Matt recently about the transformation of Pittsburgh through sustainability.

Smithfield Street Bridge

The Smithfield Street Bridge in Pittsburgh. Photo courtesy of Phyllis Barber.

Phyllis Barber (PB): Matt, Pittsburgh seems to be getting recognized recently for many of its sustainability-related achievements. It seems like an exciting time.

Matt Mehalik (MM): This year has been a breakthrough year for us in the Pittsburgh area. Regional leaders continually talk about how cities around the world that are noted for their sustainability activities are seeing Pittsburgh as a peer.

At this past April’s People, Planet, Place and Performance (P4) conference, hosted by the City of Pittsburgh and the Heinz Endowments, the head of Stockholm’s Chamber of Commerce encouraged Pittsburghers to be more vocal about all of the remarkable transformative changes that we have achieved.

We are counted among sustainability bright stars, such as Copenhagen, San Francisco, Denver, Stockholm and Portland. We have so many great things to look forward to in the coming years as we can focus more on new, creative opportunities rather than just responding to the trends of decline that defined the past 30 years.

PB: How have you seen Pittsburgh change from the time you grew up here, through when you moved back, and to the present?

MM: Growing up in Forest Hills [a Pittsburgh suburb] during the 1970s, several times a week at nighttime we could see the sky light up bright orange as they vented the open-hearth furnace at the Homestead Steel Works, about five miles away. We would hear shift-change whistles every four hours from the Edgar Thompson Works mills in Braddock and the Westinghouse manufacturing plants in East Pittsburgh and Turtle Creek. There were constant sounds from train whistles driving through Mon Valley and the Turtle Creek Valley. The odor of hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide was common, even at the Little League field.

Most of our neighbors worked for Westinghouse as engineers, draftsmen or machinists. In fact, the neighborhood itself was built by Westinghouse for its employees in the 1920s and is still referred to as the “Westinghouse Plan.” Since the collapse of both the steel industry in the 1980s and the high-tech electrical equipment industry in the 1990s, the industrial and technology-based rhythm of the community has changed dramatically.

A lot has been done to counteract the negative environmental effects of those times, mostly in the city of Pittsburgh. The Mon Valley has had some quick brownfield site developments to cap off contaminated land, mainly in Homestead and Duquesne, but much of the Valley is still trying to recover. The sulfur smell is mostly gone; however, there is still a functioning steel mill in Braddock and a coking plant in Clairton, so bad air is still an issue in the Mon Valley towns. You can still smell it in Forest Hills, where my parents still live.

There has been some progress across the region as a whole. Our workforce has shifted from one based on heavy industry to one that is more diversely constituted, and more people are working in fields that align with the health of the community. Pittsburgh, and the Mon Valley, in particular, still have a ways to go, but now a lot of things are pointed in the right direction.

PB: As we move toward having a more sustainable area and community, it’s important to know what exactly that means, and what it will look like. So how do you define “sustainability”?

Matt Mehalik

Matt Mehalik of Sustainable Pittsburgh.

MM: Most people think of sustainability as a destination, but I think of it as a series of steps and outcomes rather than an end point.

Sustainability is a culture’s capacity to develop, adapt and thrive as its growth spurs new challenges and changes. This applies to communities, small and large businesses, and to entire regions. For example, we see cities like Detroit struggling with similar issues that we [the Pittsburgh region] dealt with 30 years ago because of a lack of sustainability capacity.

Additionally, problems can also be created from rapid growth without a sustainability plan, like the collapse of the real estate market in Las Vegas during the Great Recession, or even highway-oriented development common throughout the South and West. That development poses challenges for those communities to attract a work force that is more interested in a defined sense of place, with bicycling, public transit and recreational opportunities in parks.

The definition is rooted in the transformation of Pittsburgh — what it needed but didn’t have 30 years ago.

It’s the cultural capacity for paying attention to the long-term needs, and the ability to assess and adapt to its challenges. If you have this capacity, then you can be resilient.

PB: How does the environment tie into sustainability?

MM: The environment is one of three pillars of the “triple bottom line” of sustainability — “social” and “financial” are the other two.

Until recently, environmental issues have largely been invisible or ignored, which is one of the reasons that we have had so many problems. The early sustainability movement latched on to some of the more visible ones, like brownfield redevelopment and outdoor air quality.

In addition to environmental challenges, there are other factors to consider, like health and equity and financial liability. In a lot of ways, though, these are all connected, and solutions for problems in one area can often drive change in the others.

PB: For those not familiar with the sustainability community in Pittsburgh, what is C4S or the Champions for Sustainability network?

MM: C4S started as a consulting project in 2004 to assess how the business community could be engaged in sustainability as an economic development strategy. The early work was about benchmarking and how to build a network to engage corporations in sustainability.

It launched in 2007 as a formal network.

PB: How do the C4S network and its initiatives tie into the “new” Pittsburgh?

MM: The first four years were about offering educational programming to corporate stakeholders on key sustainability topics like energy, water, waste, equity, health care, air quality and green chemistry. We focused on these topics because they most directly tied into business cases for organizations. Energy efficiency and waste reduction directly translate into reducing operational costs. They are also the easiest things to measure, so that progress can be tracked.

These issues built a foundation of trust in the business community: sustainability really was based on smart business decisions, not just something people felt obligated to do for ideological reasons. They also coincided with the major cleanup challenges that our region faced because of its past neglect, mismanagement and wastefulness.

Also, this early period coincided with the rise of professionals whose interest and responsibilities evolved to include building sustainability programs at organizations — sustainability managers, such as the work that you have been doing, Phyllis. The need for this information grew from the growing interest of professionals who were building sustainability programs internally. Our sustainability manager network, for example, started with just eight such people in 2008 and has grown to more than 50 such professionals in our area.

Our efforts were about supporting the professional development of people who work in corporate sustainability by offering a safe place for sharing, supporting and growing sustainability practices and its corresponding body of knowledge.

SustainablePGH

From left to right: Matt Mehalik, Phyllis Barber and Jennifer Coleman, former Highmark sustainability intern and Student Conservation Association Green Cities Fellow. Phyllis accepted the Sustainable Business Compact award at a Sustainable Pittsburgh (or the Smart, Sustainable Choices for Operations, Transportation and Facilities) workshop in 2013.

Beginning in 2011, with our network of sustainability professionals established, we shifted our strategy to focus on performance benchmarks. We have gathered and created resources that businesses can integrate and use to focus on what sustainability activities make the most difference for their organizations and for our community.

These resources, including checklists and examples of initiatives that businesses can implement, have been reviewed by sustainability experts and organized into ready-made “menus” that firms can use to build and measure their sustainability efforts. They attempt to make getting started easier, while supporting programs as they grow and evolve. Programs like the Sustainable Business Compact, Small Business Designation Program, and Green Workplace Challenge provide a road map for sustainability practices.

PB: What are you most proud of about the network?
MM: How much people have come together to work and support one another, so that a medium-sized, semi-East-Coast, semi-Midwestern city like Pittsburgh can punch well above its weight on the international sustainability scene.

Sustainable Pittsburgh and its staff are regularly invited to interact with highly regarded sustainability organizations and international companies because of our successful interactive culture around sustainability. We recently were recognized with a 2015 Western Pennsylvania Environmental Award and a Governor’s Environmental Award for our performance programs.

I am proud to be able to work with so many wonderful sustainability coordinators and community members who fight the good fight daily to keep sustainability front and center, because it’s central to our region’s long term success. Our network’s steering committee includes sustainability professionals from the Allegheny Conference, BNY Mellon, Chatham University, Eat N’ Park, eLoop, Giant Eagle, Fed Ex Ground, PNC, UPMC, and of course, Highmark.

PB: If you could do one thing for sustainability in the region, what would it be?

MM: Sustainability is the result of the actions we perform every day. We, as a society and as a region, face some very big challenges on the horizon. We have an old water supply and treatment infrastructure that needs tending. We have roads and bridges that rank among being in the poorest condition nationally. Our air quality still ranks poorly compared nationally.

As Pittsburgh transforms itself, we need to ensure it benefits all with affordable housing, access to transit and job opportunities.

There is much to do. At the same time, I would like to remind the community that our past successes of overcoming collapse are the result of many years of cooperation and collaboration. The spirit of collaboration and mutual support must remain at the forefront and we can continue to address our strategic challenges together. I want my daughter to be able to look back and know that her father did all that he could to make life better for her, rather than needing to clean up messes for lack of forethought or diligence.