A Sustainable Pittsburgh: Aiming to Be Its Best
Donald Bonk interviews Joylette Portlock, executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh, as part of the Pittsburgh Tomorrow podcast series. This interview was conducted before COVID-19. The transcript is abridged and edited for clarity.here. View Joylette Portlock’s profile here.
“We work from a comprehensive definition of sustainability that pulls together a focus on social equity and environmental protection as well as economic prosperity, and we look at activities that are at the intersection of all of those things.” – Joylette Portlock, executive director of Sustainable Pittsburgh
Donald Bonk: Welcome, Joylette. We’re excited to have you. Can you tell us your background and how you got to this point?
Joylette Portlock: I’m a scientist by training with a doctorate in genetics. I have worked for my whole career in the space between scientists and technical experts, and the public really needs the information and to understand it better. Working in science communication and more recently working with regional decision makers on some pretty complicated topics that are very important to our shared future.
Bonk: Can you give us a little bit about your role at Sustainable Pittsburgh?
Portlock: Sustainable Pittsburgh is a 21-year-old organization, and I have been in my role here for just over a year. We’ve worked this entire time on advancing sustainability practice and policy in the in the larger 10-county region. We work with decision makers and community leaders around policy. We work to create communities. We manage a number of performance programs which enable people to take their organization to the next level when it comes to sustainability.
Bonk: So you help them measure what they’re doing?
Portlock: We help them to measure, really understand and grapple with what the breadth of sustainability really is. People have different definitions for that word.
Bonk: Can you give us an example of some of them?
Portlock: Sometimes, you’ll talk with folks and they will have a definition of sustainability that’s purely environmental; we say sustainability and they think green. Some folks, you say sustainability and they think entirely financial.
We work from a comprehensive definition of sustainability that pulls together a focus on social equity and environmental protection as well as economic prosperity, and we look at activities that are at the intersection of all of those things.
There are a number of different actions that a business and a community can take to improve its comprehensive sustainability profile. We act as a tool and resource for folks. We also manage a host of different types of networks that enable people to connect, to learn from one another, and to share information.
Bonk: Best practices…
Portlock: Yes, best practices and all that great stuff, which is such a wonderful learning opportunity.
Bonk: The wisdom of crowds, right?
Portlock: Exactly. One of which is the CEOs for Sustainability Council of Executive Leadership, which we host and is led by executive leaders who are engaging the larger business community on advancing sustainability in the region.
If we’re looking at the big picture, we work with business and community leaders around policy. We work to create and foster communities of folks practicing sustainability. We do a lot of work around talking and communicating on these issues and doing some of that translation work around shaping our regional narrative for what we can be. And we are a source of expertise on sustainability topics.
If we get down into the micro level, we have a set of performance programs which organizations can do to be certified at different levels of achievement in sustainability and map their progress. We have the Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurant program, which you may have seen if you’ve gone out to eat. You can go to eatsustainably.org for a map of the 150 restaurants that have been designated as sustainable. We are also in the process of trying to engage workplaces of all kinds.
Bonk: We’re going to dive into the future now. What would make Pittsburgh the best city in the world, or the ideal city? You’ve got this blank canvas; it’s all yours. What do you do?
Portlock: Well, that’s a little bit difficult to answer, because as with anything, we’re not starting from a blank canvas. But I think that the answer to your question about what would make the city the best is what Sustainable Pittsburgh has worked towards for its entire existence, which is for the city and the region to have a strong economy in which all people are living up to their potential, are engaged, and are prospering within the means of a clean and healthy environment.
Bonk: If you had one opportunity to really do something transformational in the city and to change the narrative at the same time—a moonshot idea—what would it be?
Portlock: There are a couple of interesting ways that our narrative could shift in really exciting and positive directions. One is around our equity considerations. You are probably familiar with the number of challenges that the region—but the city specifically—has with diversity and equity, especially looking for racial equity and opportunity for folks.
Changing that story would do enormous things for the real life experiences of people here, the access to those economic opportunities and change how the city and region are perceived as a whole.
Bonk: So kind of a human potential focus, right? If you allow everyone to reach their natural full capacity, there are ripple benefits. It’s not just helpful to them; it also helps change the region.
Portlock: Right. Focusing on the equity considerations will make for a more prosperous region. Some of these issues have been around for a long time. We’ve known that for a long time. That’s why it’s a moonshot: These are, in many cases, structural issues to grapple with and which do take time to solve. But I think that they would utterly transform Pittsburgh’s future and the narrative that we tell about this place if we were to overcome them.
I have another moonshot. How do we construct an economic development narrative for the region that is practical and based in a diversified economy that would help us build jobs, grapple with climate challenge, and build thriving communities for the long term?
Bonk: Distributing our risk, in a sense, by having different things that we depend on for our economic future. And, if I’m understanding you correctly, having disparate energy sources that are more sustainable.
Portlock: Right. We need to think very seriously about what our future looks like and what sustainability means. It’s about how we build our communities, our businesses, our economy, and our people in a way that will last and is resilient.
To do that, it’s important that we recognize some of the facts in front of us. Clean energy jobs are being added five times faster than the state general unemployment rate. There are nearly 12,000 of those green energy jobs in Allegheny County.
Bonk: Now we’re going to go to a question that’s more practical. I like to think about the fact that 1990 and 2050 are equidistant. We’ve got three decades in front of us, as we’re here sitting in 2020. Can you give any thought to one, two or three practical ideas for the next three decades?
Portlock: Thinking about 1990 being as far away as 2050 is an interesting realization. Sure, I can give this a shot.
The first really practical idea that we should embrace is the knowledge that as a species—and my background is in biology—we do our best work together. People accomplish great things when we work together. There is an unprecedented opportunity in front of us right now to leverage partnerships and lean into the collaborations that are going to get us to the places we need to be, to build or put the team in place.
One of the best things about Pittsburgh, by the way, is that there’s so much engagement and investment from so many people making this a better place. It’s really important. That’s been a big part of my experience. It’s one of our real strengths as a city and as a region.
Second, I think all organizations, regardless of size and type, practically can embrace sustainability as a fundamental strategy for success. That can look like a lot of different things and a lot of different places, but there is a real strength in taking a comprehensive view for your organization or for your municipality, and what it will really take to create that success in the long term.
Bonk: That’s part of your mission at Sustainable Pittsburgh: to help people craft those questions and, as you said, translate them into practical benefit.
Portlock: That’s right. We do have right now a way for all workplaces to engage with a confidential baseline assessment on a wide variety of sustainability issues.
Third, if you’re thinking of 2050, that can’t help but bring to mind the climate challenge. Working towards a regional strategy for being part of the global solution to climate change is also a thing we need to practically consider.
Bonk: Is there anything else that you’d like to share with us about Pittsburgh or the future?
Portlock: Pittsburgh is a great place. I’m originally from a small town in Delaware. That was great training to grow up in a small town, to land in a place like Pittsburgh. A lot of the things I value about Pittsburgh are the things I’ve already mentioned: the collaborative spirit, strong sense of place, ability for people to try to work together and to accomplish great things. It’s about the character of Pittsburgh. It’s so valuable and something we should treat as the asset that it is and be one of the things that we leverage to create that more sustainable future.