City of bridges: OnePGH Plan highlights Pittsburgh’s role as a ‘convener’

Pittsburgh’s OnePHG plan recognizes that City Hall can’t go it alone. (mandritoiu/Shutterstock)

This year, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto announced OnePGH, a strategic plan to address complex city challenges and create a more livable city for residents. The new plan comes at a pivotal time, as Pittsburgh transitions from an era of managing its economic and population decline to now managing a growing innovation economy.

At the core of OnePGH, Mayor Peduto wants to ensure that all residents share in the benefits of the city’s development — and he recognizes that City Hall can’t do it alone. So the Mayor is taking a cross-sector approach, building on the efforts and expertise of businesses, nonprofits, neighborhood groups, universities, foundations, and many others. OnePGH was developed in conjunction with the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative.

In March, the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative brought together civic leaders from 10 cities, including Pittsburgh, to help them advance innovative cross-sector partnerships. The week-long program provided eight Pittsburgh leaders involved with OnePGH access to leading partnership and collaboration experts. It also created the time and space for the team to assess its efforts, tackle challenges, and refine its approach.

Megan Sheekey of Bloomberg Associates spoke with Pittsburgh’s Chief Resilience Officer Grant Ervin, who attended the leadership training, to find out how the city’s partnership efforts are going.

Megan Sheekey: Initiatives in the OnePGH plan are focused on basic rights for Pittsburgh residents, including clean air, clean water, livable housing, and economic opportunity. As the lead in the development of OnePGH, how is the plan’s approach to address city priorities different than in the past?

Grant Ervin: One of the biggest challenges that we identify in our OnePGH strategy is the need to overcome fragmentation between sectors, levels of government, and communities. Our ability to row in a common direction will be essential for the city to overcome long-standing challenges.

Pittsburgh’s Grant Ervin

On stormwater management, for example, we served as a convener of partners and municipalities in the region. Our Green First plan for infrastructure incorporates all of those challenges of working with 83 other municipalities in the regional sanitary authority.

Also, in our work on energy, we as the city coordinate a buying cooperative that pulls together about 30 municipalities, nonprofits, and colleges. It has allowed us to optimize our purchasing power to reduce costs and increase the amount of renewable energy we use.

Taking a collaborative approach is not necessarily new for us. What’s different now is that we are doing it while the city’s economy is in a relatively healthy position. And that will prepare us as a city to better address issues during a time of crisis.

Did coming together for the Bloomberg-Harvard program provide any new tools for the implementation of OnePGH or change your thinking in any way for this ambitious plan?

Definitely. The content of the Bloomberg-Harvard exchange was excellent. Professors provided practical lessons through the case studies we discussed of cities’ successes and failures. And the ability to share stories between cities allowed for the integration of actual lived experiences.

[Read: When City Hall can’t do it all: Building stronger partnerships]

Second, the ability to “be coached” and to have someone else facilitate is refreshing — especially when you are the one who is usually coaching or facilitating.

OnePGH was developed with stakeholders across Pittsburgh. Now that you’re transitioning into its implementation, what are the key considerations and needs in order to drive it forward?

As we’ve developed OnePGH, we’ve discovered and called up a variety of issue experts, residents, and public, private, and non-governmental sector leaders to feed into the process. One of the key lessons is to seek the right stakeholders and expertise for the required challenge.

The core of Pittsburgh’s One PGH plan is ensuring that all residents share in the benefits of the city’s development.

For example, through our Climate Action Plan, we’re aiming to get to 100 percent renewable electricity. So we’ve sought out issue experts at the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, and with the Pittsburgh National Energy Technology Lab. We’ve really leaned on them to help educate us in how do you do this.

Moving into implementation is really no different. We continue to call upon new leaders as issues emerge. When you step back and look at the OnePGH Strategy you can see all the different aspects of the community’s voice in the product.

What do you think are the biggest barriers to city government partnership with other sectors? Capacity? Channeling funding? Trust? Legal requirements?

Certainly all of those. One of the challenges a lot of cities are facing is that, as state or federal agencies abdicate their contribution to local communities, local governments are being required to step forward and fill the gaps left behind. At the same time, Pittsburgh lost over half its population in the second half of the 20th century and was forced to downsize half of its local government workforce in the mid-2000s. Some of these gaps were filled by non-governmental organizations, but many were not for a variety of reasons.

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As resources wane, cities are now placed into a new role of convening the different players from different sectors who can address challenges. And thinking innovatively about how and where resources can be organized within this new context. We may be under-resourced, but city government is still the best positioned to bring people together to solve local problems.

That’s what we’ve done with OnePGH. As local government resources declined, a patchwork quilt of attempts to solve challenges like aging infrastructure and generational inequality have evolved. OnePGH is an attempt to bring some cohesion to those efforts, and to identify and integrate new resources and efficiencies into addressing systemic challenges.

What, if anything, has surprised you along this journey? Any lessons learned that you would impart on mayors and city leaders wanting to think and act more collaboratively to tackle pressing issues?

Two things have surprised me. First is the need to create a learning culture within city government. We’ve worked hard on this, to understand how systems within the city operate. Part of our efforts are to provide for the ability to investigate and analyze how those systems operate. It has also become part of our culture to learn from other cities, to see how they operate and share this information among colleagues in our own city. In many cases this can build confidence to make change.

“We may be under-resourced, but city government is still the best positioned to bring people together to solve local problems.” — Grant Ervin

Second is the fact that every issue you tackle is like peeling away the layers of an onion. Cities are complex places, where oftentimes innovation is not rewarded but discouraged. One reason for this is that there is a “status” in the status quo. People or organizations benefit from how a process is organized or how a system is deployed. It’s important to go into any issue recognizing the many layers — the history, personalities, and reasons for why certain decisions were made in the past.

So, what’s next for Pittsburgh? How can citizens and leaders in every sector there join the Mayor’s call to action?

We will be pressing ahead on the creation of what we’re calling the OnePGH Fund, a new not-for-profit vehicle to support the city’s goals. We are looking to cultivate and bring together stakeholders from all sectors to help solve some of the city’s biggest challenges. Residents can help by working together to identify key project opportunities in their communities. Love Your [Resilient] Block is one program already underway to revitalize our city block by block. Foundation, corporate, and other private partners can provide crucial expertise and resources to drive OnePGH initiatives forward.