Tiffany Taulton is a climate policy expert, community organizer, professor of environmental justice, and one of the authors of Pittsburgh’s Climate Action Plan. She joins the show to talk about how our region is preparing for climate change, how that resilience benefits public health, and how climate action can embrace justice and equity.
Episode Credits: Produced by Taiji Nelson and Michael Pisano. Field Reporting by Jamen Thurmond and David Kelley. Editing by Michael Pisano. Music by Mark Mangini and Amos Levy.
Tiffany Taulton (00:00:02):
Climate change is not a problem of technology. Climate change is a problem of democracy. It is a problem of lack of regard for other people's lives and other creatures lives, and a lack of true respect. It's a spiritual problem. This situation is not going to be improved unless there are directed efforts to help the most vulnerable. There are certain people that for decades have been systematically oppressed, and so systematically we must help those vulnerable communities to be prepared for climate change.
Michael Pisano (00:01:07):
Welcome to We Are Nature, a podcast about natural histories and livable futures presented by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. I'm your host, Michael Pisano, and today's episode is mostly about creating community and regional resilience to climate change. We sent field reporters, David Kelly and Jamen Thurmond back to Pittsburgh's Hazelwood neighborhood to chat with community organizer and environmental policy expert, Tiffany Taulton. Tiffany is the director of outreach and sustainability at Hazelwood Initiative, and a professor of environmental justice at Duquesne University. She was also one of the authors of Pittsburgh's Climate Action Plan. Tiffany brings a pretty wild diversity of experiences and skills to her work here in southwestern Pennsylvania. For me, it was a great reminder that a diversity of approaches to climate action is exactly what we need to tackle the complex ecological, social, and moral challenges presented by climate change. Tiffany's interview is also an inspiration to those of us investing in collective climate action. Her work bringing partners and community members together has had excellent impact on Hazelwood's climate preparedness. I think there's a lot to learn from her approach to regional collaboration.
Let's get to it. Just one last quick note first, after this episode, there's only three shows left in this first season of We Are Nature. As we coast towards the Season One finale, first off, thank you. If you're enjoying what you've been listening to, it would mean honestly the world to me. If you could rate and review us on whatever podcast platform that you listen on. Hey, if you've got a friend or two who you think might like to show, go on and send them an episode. We would like to share these climate action stories with as many people as possible, and I'm grateful for anything that you can do to help. All right, here we go. Without further ado, here is Tiffany Taulton.
Tiffany Taulton (00:03:06):
Hi, my name is Tiffany Taulton. I'm from Pittsburgh. I was born in Pittsburgh, but I wasn't raised in Pittsburgh. My dad is from Clarion and when the steel mills shut down, he joined the Navy and we moved and I've lived all over the world really. I did my undergraduate degree at Georgetown University, and I majored in foreign service because I thought that I was going to be a diplomat with my experience living in so many places and learning different languages. I did live in a lot of places after finishing my degree, I lived in Taiwan, I lived in France, and I traveled throughout Europe and in Latin America, which was my region of study because I lived in Puerto Rico as a kid. After I finished touring around the world as an English teacher, I decided to come back to the US, and New York specifically, and I worked at the United Nations.
At the United Nations I was in the public information department, and so I spoke with visitors from all over the world about the issues of United Nations. My specialty was talking about climate change and environmental issues, and the connection between climate change and public health. Really when Hurricane Sandy hit and destroyed so many lives and came into New York as Superstorm Sandy, that was really when my life changed because I began to realize that climate change wasn't something that was just going to affect people somewhere else. We talk a lot about climate change affecting those that are the most vulnerable and we think about poor people, we think about people in this developing world, not having accesses to the resources that we have here, or to the wealth that we have. But even New York with Wall Street and all the money that it has was impacted by Superstorm Sandy, and it was devastated.
There were months where there were no subways working, where it was difficult to get to work even at the United Nations. We had some days off, but eventually we had to go back and I had no visitors to talk to, and I was sitting in a very cold building with no lights and I realized that this is not a situation that we can talk about in theory. It's not a situation for me to say, "We have to help people somewhere else," but that my own life and the people that were close to me and my loved ones would be affected by climate change here in the United States, and even in a wealthy place like New York. I decided that it wasn't enough for me to keep talking about climate change and talking about the environment or talking about health issues, but that I really wanted to be part of the solution and to really get down into that.
So I decided to leave my job at the United Nations. Before I did that, I started getting trained in permaculture. A lot of the permaculture people in New York were very involved in the recovery efforts after Sandy because they knew how to get food to people, they had mutual aid networks. I really felt that that was the way to go forward in a future climate emergency. I began reading all of the IPC reports, and I realized that at that time, this was 2012, there was a lot of talk of climate change being something that's going to affect... We're going to worry about it in 2100. When I read the reports myself, I realized that the scientists were actually much more alarmed than a lot of the newspapers were stating and summarizing the case, and that there was a lot of uncertainty and the potential for devastation was much greater than a lot of people realized.
I felt that I had to act quickly. So I got trained in permaculture, I got trained as a doula as well because at the time of Superstorm Sandy, a lot of women were unable to give birth in hospitals and I just wanted to be prepared for that situation. I took my training, I left New York and came back to Pittsburgh, which is where my family is from. Because when they say you have a disaster and a disaster of such a high magnitude like we had in Sandy, you can't rely on the government to help you at that point. It's really about the community, the people that you know and people taking care of each other. I felt like it's best for me to come to Pittsburgh where I have my family, and really make community with people.
Especially people that look like me because that was very evident in New York after Hurricane Sandy, going to a lot of the planning meetings, going to a lot of the meetings, "We're going to make New York better, we're going to build back better, we're going to bring it back." You look around the room and there'd be 500 people there, and the number of people that looked like me, I could count on one hand. So this idea that climate change is going to affect communities of color, but communities of color are not in these decisions about how we're planning and preparing for climate change, how we're mitigating and how we're adapting just really got to me.
I decided that I was going to be that person to really be involved and communicate that to people that look like me and make sure that they're part of those decisions. So I moved back to Pittsburgh, which is where my family's from, took that opportunity to get to know my family really after being away for pretty much my entire life. I got involved with the Black Urban Farmers and Gardeners Co-op, BUGS, just as it was starting up in Pittsburgh. I had been involved with BUGS in New York, and I started volunteering at gardens.
From that connection, there was a meeting where they suggested that we go to city planning because city planning was going to talk about farming in Pittsburgh. From there I just got interested in city planning. It never even occurred to me that there was a part of government that planned how cities were developed. I asked to volunteer there and I became an intern there for food policy and open space under Shelly Danko+Day. It was a really great experience. City planning really values their interns and they gave me a lot of freedom to just get involved and to give suggestions as I felt. One of the papers that came across her desk was a request to give input from the city planning office on the new food chapter of the Climate Action Plan. This was the Climate Action Plan 3.0.
It was the first time that a food chapter was going to be included in the Climate Action Plan, there was a lot of interest in that, but really not a lot of time to contribute to that. As the intern and as someone who had just left New York because of the storm that happened and with this real interest in climate change and how it was going to affect communities, I really just threw myself into working on the Climate Action Plan and the food chapter. I attended so many meetings of the Food Policy Council. Just became very familiar with all of the organizations that were growing food in the city and just trying to get the numbers there and see what actually was being produced in Pittsburgh locally, how many gardens were there, who's involved in those gardens? Is it the full community? Does it have the diversity that it needs so that people are getting that education? Where are the gardens located?
Then comparing what's being produced in Pittsburgh versus what is being consumed, because that's how you get the carbon impact, which is really what the Climate Action Plan was about. It wasn't so much about the ecosystem services that food production and plants deliver, it was really about the carbon impact. In my search to really put numbers to things during my work, a lot of people began to notice that I was doing a lot more than your typical intern would. Some of the other interns that were working in city planning, and they're coming across my screen and looking at these Excel spreadsheets, they said, "Have you thought about going to Carnegie Mellon University?" I thought, "Not really. Not really at this point in my life, I'm just really trying to work. I'm not trying to go back to school or anything like that and I don't know anything about robots."
They said, "Well no, there's actually a public policy school at Carnegie Mellon University." One of the interns invited me to go to his environmental policy class at Hines College, and I really enjoyed it. Then he said I should apply. I did not think that was a good idea because it was like six weeks before the deadline and I hadn't been in a math class in years. He was very convinced that I should go to Carnegie Mellon University, that it would be good for me, it would be good for the school. I said, "If I take the exam and I get in, then it's God's will." To my surprise, I was accepted. I did fine on the exam and I didn't tell anybody because I didn't think I could afford it. But then I got a scholarship and I went to Carnegie Mellon University.
I studied policy and management really focusing on environmental policy and nonprofit management, which was a surprise to me as well because I was very much invested in going back into government. But I got a scholarship from the Environmental Fellows Program out of Michigan that was focused on philanthropy and that made me think a little bit more about the nonprofit space and the capacity that it had to make a difference. My internship with them was in New York City again. Surprised I went back. I worked for the Environmental Defense Fund and working on clean energy. That's really what made me think about the potential.
When I was at the United Nations, I realized that I love my work at the United Nations. I love what the United Nations is doing to get the message out. Being in public information, I had that opportunity to educate people and to help them think about their decisions. But the level is so huge, trying to get 195 countries to come to an agreement and do something when the climate crisis was so urgent, I really wanted to be at the local level and make that difference. But having this opportunity to work at the nonprofit level, I realized there was even more that I could do that was even closer to the people. That's really what inspired me to open my mind. When I graduated at Carnegie Mellon University, I looked at some applications and one of them came from Hazelwood Initiative, which is a nonprofit that was focused on community development. I thought, "How much closer can you get to community and impacting their preparation for climate change than to work on literally community development?" That's how I came to Hazelwood.
David Kelley (00:13:34):
Jamen Thurmond (00:13:38):
That covers that entire first section easily. Can you tell us a bit about Hazelwood for someone who has never been there?
Tiffany Taulton (00:13:48):
Hazelwood is a really unique place in Pittsburgh. I feel especially moving here from New York, it's really different. It's really something I love about Pittsburgh in general. I just love that there is a lot of greenery, at least a lot more than I had experienced in New York City. Hazelwood, it still has that small-town vibe, which is really nice. I lived in New York for years and I never knew the people living next door to me. Here the people next door are always out on the porch and you have these conversations, and they ask you questions about yourself and they might share food with you. They invite your family members over to have drinks with them or watch TV outside together. It's a really tight-knit community I've found. I think almost everybody is related in some way. That's also a really interesting thing.
You have this population that is very diverse, and that is something the neighborhood prides itself on. Pittsburgh is a very segregated city. You have many neighborhoods that are just white or just black. Hazelwood is mixed. Hazelwood is about 40% black. I love having that diversity. Again, moving from New York, that is also something that's very valuable to me to have that diversity here. But it's a neighborhood that is changing. It is something that we are concerned about here at Hazelwood Initiative to make sure that we can preserve the diversity, both economic and ethnically. Our average mean income here is about $24,000 a year. We are in the 34% area mean income range here. Our renters, 55% of them are earning about $15,000 a year. So it's extremely low income.
I know there are people that are wondering, "Well, how do you rent, and how do you do anything on $15,000 a year?" That's because a lot of people in this neighborhood are older. We have a large senior population. You have a lot of people that are on Social Security Disability, so there are disability issues here. Then you have a lot of very young people, and you don't have a lot of that middle. You don't have the middle range that would be making those higher incomes. That's what really presents a challenge here to developing the area.
When we look at our rental population, about 80% of the black population are renters. So when you think about prices rising, they are the most vulnerable for being displaced from the community. The neighborhood has seen a lot of decline over the years. As we've mentioned in the past, it was 13,000 people originally, it's about 5,000 now so there are a number of vacant lots. The bus service has been not great for people. It wasn't until last November that the 93 started running on weekends, so giving people who actually work an option to get out at night and on weekends was really important.
Just now looking at the housing stock being quite old, many of the homes here were built in the 1800s or early 1900s. That's also an issue that we're looking at with climate change and just the population itself getting older, "How can they age in place in these houses that have very many stairs oftentimes to get up to them, and are in need of roofs or have moldy basement issues?" That's something that we're looking at. Then just really trying to bring the properties back into use so that we think about, "Where is it ideal to put more housing? Where is it ideal to put new housing? Where is it ideal to rehab housing?" Because that's the most environmental and the most affordable oftentimes is to rehab housing rather than to build new housing. But not always when the conditions are bad.
But thinking about, "Where should green spaces be as well?" Because again, it's about community resilience and it's about community health. I was really excited that Hazelwood Initiative had the gardens, and seeing how we could get people involved. They already had 18 garden beds, so very successful here at the YMCA garden, which is where we are currently, and just seeing how we could expand that to the rest of the neighborhood. But realizing as well through the work that I did at city planning, that small urban gardens were not going to be the complete solution. It's great to develop food locally to reduce miles as much as possible, because that does have a climate impact and it has an impact in the resiliency of the community when supply chains are cut, as we've seen with COVID right now. Having locally produced food is important, but it's not the only solution.
One of the things that I also began to look at in Hazelwood was how we could use the resource that we have in terms of our forest. Unlike many industrial neighborhoods, and I think of the Manchester area where I did some of my architectural studies while at Carnegie Mellon University, which is split by the highway Manchester Chateau completely. The river area is just paved over. I walk that area and it's just hot. It's so hot. I wonder how anyone could want you to live there or shop there when it's so hot and it's going to become hotter with climate change. When you have the poor air quality that Pittsburgh does have and you're walking in these hot areas, the air smells. It really smells. As a person that's very sensitive to smells, it bothered me a lot. I can just think about... Thankfully I don't suffer from asthma, but a lot of people in my family do, especially growing up in Clarion.
It's a concern for me that when you have these hotter temperatures in urban places, the chemical impact of that, those chemicals mixed, you end up with very high concentrations of ground level ozone, which kills a lot of trees as well. So if you're trying to re-green an area, it becomes a threat, and it kills people because it increases the number of asthma attacks that you're going to have. If you have elderly people with emphysema or chronic pulmonary obstruction disorder, COPD, they have diabetes, hypertension, any sort of heart issues, these high levels of ground level ozone, these high levels of heat from the urban heat island effect can really damage people's health. When you look at where you have high concentrations of paved areas and low concentrations of trees, it's often Black and Brown communities, it's often low-income communities.
The people that already are at the limit for health issues because they don't have food, like Hazelwood, don't have a major grocery store here; because they don't have great transportation; because they don't have health clinics nearby. The one thing that you can do to try to restore health to those communities is to plant trees and have community gardens. Hazelwood had some community gardens and it had trees, unlike many other super industrial areas, yes, Hazelwood Green was devoid of trees when the mill was eradicated, but the hills of Hazelwood do have trees.
Michael Pisano (00:21:35):
Hello. Hello. Just have the quickest bit of clarifying context for you, Tiffany just mentioned the Hazelwood Green, and in the next section she's going to talk about the Hazelwood Greenway. Confusingly, the Hazelwood Green and the Hazelwood Greenway are two completely separate places. Hazelwood Green occupies 170-ish acres along the banks of the Monongahala River, and was once the site of the last steel mill operating within Pittsburgh city limits. After that mill closed in the '90s, the then blighted riverfront property was bought by local foundations. The site needed lots of cleanup and environmental remediation, which took place kind of over the next 20-ish years. Today the huge steel frame of an old mill building has been redeveloped into a burgeoning tech hub hosting advanced manufacturing facilities, including Carnegie Mellon University's Manufacturing Futures Institute.
The old steel mill structure is now topped with the largest rooftop solar array in America, providing enough power for almost 400 homes. It's got lots of other fancy sustainability features. The surrounding riverfront campus now includes a public park, outdoor performance space and trails; and more riverfront access, green infrastructure and other development is still underway. While there are still questions about how the high-tech innovation hub will support and interact with their neighbors in Hazelwood, I'm encouraged by the repurposing and cleanup of any old environmental disaster site. If nothing else, it's a clear demonstration of how our region's areas that are still supported by heavy industry can transition towards cleaner, healthier futures.
Okay, so that is Hazelwood Green. Hazelwood Greenway is 183 acre green space that runs through the neighborhood. Tiffany is going to chat about the history and the character and the development of that space in more detail. For now, I'll just add one more thing. Some months after our conversation with Tiffany, Pittsburgh City Council voted to convert over 300 acres of greenways all across the city into official public parks. 140 of those new park acres are in the Hazelwood Greenway. This is excellent news. It opens up new funding for the Greenway and adds more partners to support ongoing work there. Work to provide access to high quality green space for the people in and around Hazelwood. All right, back to the interview.
Tiffany Taulton (00:24:02):
One of the blessings, if you could call it that, one of the positives of the decline of the city's population is that the city took areas that were vacant on hillsides and just let them re-naturalize. So you have 40 years of tree growth in Hazelwood and many areas of the hills that never were developed. We have this distinct advantage that many communities with our economic situation don't have, and that's the trees. I just really wanted to come in with my background in environmental policy and my experience in living in so many countries that have undergone extreme heats, that have under undergone tornadoes; earthquakes; hurricanes; monsoons, when I lived in Taiwan, just I wanted to prepare this neighborhood for that and I found an opportunity that was already here. So I became very involved in seeing what we could do with expanding our Greenway as well, and making that really into a community asset and not into a place that community really just doesn't understand and a waste zone, which is unfortunately what has happened with many of these natural areas in the city of Pittsburgh.
You have some beautiful parks in Pittsburgh, but in communities like ours, we don't have a Frick Park, we don't have a Schenley Park that's expansive with all of these beautiful hiking trails and tennis courts and things like that. What we have is the Greenway. The Greenway, again, were these areas that the city said in the '80s, "Well, we can't afford to take care of them. They're steep hillsides, so we are not going to encourage building on them because that could be prone to landslides. We'll just let nature take its course." They become these greenways for passive use, and they designated community stewards to take care of them. There were community stewards. Hazelwood has one of the more active community steward groups. But many of these areas, after 40 years, the community stewards are no longer with us.
40 years with no resources, no money to buy things, many of the greenways have become dumping areas, quite frankly, and overgrown with invasive grape vines, and porcelain berry bush, and honeysuckle, and knotweed. It's a jungle out there. In an urban setting, people are not prepared to deal with a jungle and people have a lot of fear of, "What is that up there? I've never been up there." Because it's been 40 years since a lot of people have been up there. They hear about it, they're like, "Are there drug dealers up there? Are there lions and tigers and bears up there? I don't know what's in there. I'm not going." So the first step to really encouraging people to protect the forest around them, again, for this climate resilience of the future, all the protection that trees provide us, whether it's particulate filtration so we have better air quality, whether it's the oxygen they release, whether it's the storm water runoff that they can absorb for us and preventing landslides so they protect our property.
The first thing to get people to appreciate it is to say, "It's not dangerous." So we began this series of hikes in the Greenway to get people familiar with it and just taking people out. We had Outdoor Afro out there with us. We had Venture Outdoors, and we did a kids' hike, and they had little butterfly catchers and books and snacks. We had Tree Pittsburgh doing tree ID. We did a winter activity where we were walking in the snow. We did snowshoeing with Venture Outdoors as well, so that was a first time for many people. I don't think, you come to Hazelwood and you think about the steel mill and you think about the crimes of the 1980s and the '90s and think, "I'm going to go snowshoeing here."
We started really having all of these discussions and we even created an environmental development group to meet each month and just talk about the impact of the proposed developments, all this housing developments on the neighborhood as a whole. Not just thinking about, "Well, we need to build houses and cut down trees everywhere to build as much as possible." But let's have a balanced approach to development, looking at our tree cover and community health and climate resilience as well as making sure we have quality housing and affordable housing for people. That's really the discussion that began.
With my contacts in city government and city planning, with the forestry department, I had been very active in looking at trees during my time at Carnegie Mellon University. Some things started to happen globally and nationally where there were grants coming up to increase parks for communities of color, for low-income communities, where there were grants coming up, talking about carbon sequestration in urban environments. Where there were grants coming up, talking about the need for climate resilience through increased tree canopy, which was one of the points of the Pittsburgh Climate Action Plan 3.0 was the need to increase the tree canopy in Pittsburgh.
So they knew that I was here in Hazelwood. They approached me about these grant opportunities, and of course, even though the deadlines were short I said, "Yes, let's do this. Let's make a change." This is an opportunity. This is what I left New York for, to make a difference in a community that looked like me, that was vulnerable and that needed to be prepared. There was an opportunity, and this is a golden opportunity. Like I said, we are very unique to have the tree cover that we have considering the industrial past that we have.
I just really wanted to take advantage of that and look at, is there an opportunity for Hazelwood to be known for something other than crime and other for polluted air and other for terrible asthma attacks? Can this be a new green... a green hub, an Aspen of Pittsburgh where people come for the beautiful bike trails that are on the flats built at Hazelwood Green, and they come here for the hiking in the hills of the community, and they come here to enjoy the Greenway and the birds and the butterflies and our gardens and our flowers? That's really what I looked at.
We were very fortunate to have been selected, as an environmental justice community, as a priority community to receive many of these grants. We have a $50,000 grant currently that we're working with the Trust for Public Lands, and we have Land Force in our Greenway right now improving our trails so that it does become a quality trail. Because it's not just about having a 10-minute walk to a park, it's about having a 10-minute walk to a quality park that is accessible for the community. The trail was not as accessible to people as it should have been. We are improving that, getting rid of some of the many evasive weeds that make it hard for people to walk through there.
Our councilman Corey O'Connor supported us in funding Allegheny GoatScape to come in and help us to remove some of those weeds. The knotweed cover was huge and we're very grateful for that. We had the forestry department actually funded us to have the goats come a second time last week. That has been a great way to get the community involved. Not only are we hiking up there, but we're bringing the kids up there and families, kids on the shoulders carrying them sometimes to see the goats and just see how people and animals and all of us could work together to make life better for each other. We are really looking forward to having Tree Pittsburgh come in this fall. We're going to be planting 150 trees in the Greenway, so increasing the resilience of the forest, which is really threatened by so many vines taking trees down and especially with the storms that we've had of late, having 150 trees planted there.
We also received a grant from the Pittsburgh Foundation to work with Tree Pittsburgh and Tree Vitalized to have the third relief community. I know that Lawrenceville and Manchester Chateau area have had their relief projects and we are having a relief Hazelwood moment. So we will be planting more street trees to provide shade, and again, help with that urban heat island effect. There have been studies that have shown the difference between a tree-lined street and an unlined street could be as much as 20 degrees. This has huge public health impacts, and impacts on the economy. If we want people to shop at our stores in our business district, we need to make it comfortable for them to walk out there. So we are just really looking forward to bringing this vitality to the community through the different relieving efforts, the Greenway efforts and the community gardens.
Jamen Thurmond (00:32:49):
Tiffany Taulton (00:32:49):
Did that answer the question?
Jamen Thurmond (00:32:50):
Yes, that does.
Michael Pisano (00:33:03):
Hearing about all this work happening in Hazelwood is just so exciting for me. It's a testament to the power of community organizing. Knowing that Tiffany and her collaborators are out there thinking about climate, and public health, and green space, and urban ecology, and goat scaping, all that stuff wrapped up together as part of a holistic picture of health for their community, for the region, it really gives me a lot of hope. All right, onto the second half of Tiffany's interview. She's going to get into climate justice. She talks more about climate solutions at the state, the neighborhood, and the cultural level. It is all great, so please stick around.
Jamen Thurmond (00:33:43):
It's funny, our next question. As our climate changes, Pennsylvania is becoming warmer weather and experiencing more extreme weather and worsening air quality. How are the people in Hazelwood experiencing that in their day-to-day life?
Tiffany Taulton (00:34:02):
What you can see is that there's definitely increased rainfall, increased flooding. With the houses being as old as they are, this is definitely a problem. Wow. Cicadas are loud.
David Kelley (00:34:24):
Right. [inaudible 00:34:25]. Wow.
Tiffany Taulton (00:34:24):
I will just... It's got to wait.
David Kelley (00:34:29):
Tiffany Taulton (00:34:30):
I know that with the recent storms, there have been a lot of flooding problems in people's houses, whether it's their basements flooding, which of course leads to more mold issues and Hazelwood already has a very high asthma rate with the legacy of the steel mill and Second Avenue being a state highway essentially running through the neighborhood. So just the diesel fumes from the trucks going through, the VOCs from their tires, this is still a very high asthma area. We have Duquesne University's public health team in here helping students controlling their asthma, doing asthma studies. But yeah, climate change is going to make Pittsburgh wetter and it's going to make it hotter. Our gardens last year were in a drought situation. Our garden manager was very concerned about water levels. I'm very concerned about water levels here in Hazelwood as we think about these efforts to plant the trees. We have to have I think about 10 gallons of water to the trees every week.
When we don't get water from the sky, that means we need to find water from somewhere else. That's a big effort to get all of the trees watered and make sure they survive. Which is one of the reasons why it's so important not to cut down trees because the cost of making the trees live through their first three years when they're most vulnerable, it's really high, it's really difficult and it's becoming more challenging between all of the storms and all of the droughts that we're expecting, and the heat, to keep the trees alive. Which are really a big key to keeping the community cool and preventing future flooding, is to have strong trees and good root systems. I'd say very locally that heat issue.
When we talk about communities of color, when we talk about low-income communities, one of the other issues that it brings up is the energy burden. I mentioned that over half of our renters are at $15,000 a year. If their energy bills are going up... and their energy bills are already a larger percentage of their total expenditures each month than they should be, they are highly energy burdened here. If their energy bills go up because of climate change because it's hotter, so now they have to run air conditioning and run fans, if their energy bills are going up because you have these sudden cold spells like we had this year, that really puts them at a position where they're having to choose between their safety and their heat, their body temperature in their house or food, or medicine. That is just really a choice that nobody should ever have to make. We're looking at how can we get community solar in the neighborhood. Then you look at houses that are over 100 years old, and what are their roof conditions. So this entire situation becomes something that we have to think about.
Not, "How many houses can we have in five years?" But, "What is the plan 20 years from now when we have temperatures that are insane and people that cannot afford to have air conditioning running 24/7, people that cannot afford to turn on the heat every night?" We saw what happened with the deaths in Texas when they had the power outages. I lived through power outage in New York from Hurricane Sandy, from the great blackout of 2003 as well. I went to Puerto Rico to help after the blackouts there because I realized what it was like, and I lived in Puerto Rico as a kid and I wanted to help with that situation. I just think about the preparation that we have to make here in Hazelwood and in Pittsburgh for these blackouts that are becoming much more frequent.
My mother in Swissvale has experienced them. My family in Stanton Heights has experienced much more frequent blackouts, sometimes as often as once a month nowadays. So thinking about how we can make our energy grid more resilient and how we can make people more resilient at a local level. Again, when you have these big storms, when you have multiple areas impacted at once, you cannot rely on the government to bail you out. We have to have local resilience. We have to have a situation where every community in Pittsburgh is prepared to go without power, or is prepared to be on its own power through many mini solar panels on their houses or through community powered solar, or to have a community powered solar area where at least they can go and get some cooling for a moment, or at least they could charge their phones and connect with family and be in connection with people.
That's really something that I'm thinking about in Pittsburgh is just, "What are our long-term goals, both in Hazelwood and citywide to make sure that every community has what it needs to survive a major drought, a blackout caused by a heat wave when everybody's running electricity and then nobody has electricity because the grid has been overburdened?" Or if you have these storms we've had in the last month where trees are just knocking down lines right and left, I'm just thinking about, "Where can we get money to bury those lines?" Which would also help with making sure the trees have enough space to grow and absorb the water. Then how can we get solar onto people's roofs? How can we have solar mini stations where people can go for cooling, because it's just not going to be possible to keep people's houses at a temperature that's healthy.
I would say one thing that we're realizing as we begin to more intently scrutinize our sustainability and climate resilience here in Hazelwood is to realize how much we need to expand our cooperation with other communities. Because just like air quality, it affects Pittsburgh, even when the air doesn't come from Pittsburgh and it comes from Clarion or even Beaver County with this fracking situation that's about to happen. When you want to make a difference, you have to look at the regional impact. What we're doing here in Hazelwood is really starting to strengthen our partnerships with the surrounding communities. We've really started to have more cooperation and collaboration with the Greenfield area, which has suffered a lot, especially in the Run.
You have the Run area, which for I think the last 20 or 30 years now has suffered immense flooding. They've seen sewer overflows, they've seen sewers explode, sewage getting into their homes regularly and just terrible, terrible flooding. So their desire to reduce flooding joins with our desire to make sure that we don't have an increase in flooding here in Hazelwood with all of our hills, and to make sure that we don't have landslides accompany the runoff from those hills. Folks from Greenfield, folks from the Run have started coming to our community meetings. They've started coming to our environmental development meetings. They've joined us on hikes and discussions of what to do with the Greenway and how it can be expanded.
This idea has started to grow of creating an actual... Like one guy, Mathai, did in Kenya, having a green belt in Pittsburgh where we have this bio-corridor that connects Schenley Park through Hazelwood's Greenway, through Duck Hollow and into Frick Park. That's really elicited a lot of excitement, especially for people in Hazelwood that remember being connected to Duck Hollow and that want to go back to having that freedom to get back into that area easily on their bicycles or by walking, and that's been cut off for them and they've been isolated from that. They would really like to see that connection. It's not just about going across to south side and connecting the bike trails and the gap, but it's really about making the connections that historically the people in Hazelwood have had with their neighbors in Braddock, in Rankin, in Swissvale, in the Mifflin area, and through Squirrel Hill, Greedfield, the Run, reconnecting all of those areas back together.
The cooperation with those areas has really intensified as we've talked about, "How can we jointly expand the tree cover? How can we jointly take advantage of this amenity that Hazelwood has, this Greenway, this extensive Greenway space?" We have the largest greenway in the city of Pittsburgh at 183 acres. It's actually bigger than the Hazelwood Green site, which is 178. This is really an opportunity for us to do something special, not only for Hazelwood, but for the city as a whole to invest in climate resilience for the city, to invest in clean air for the city, to reduce asthma and flooding and landslides for the entire city. Because as we saw in 2017 and 2018 with those terrible, terrible floods, Pittsburgh's infrastructure is not ready for that and the government budget is not ready to help that many people repair their homes and save their homes from landslides.
So we need to prepare the tree cover here in the city of Pittsburgh, and we need to make sure that the tree cover is solid. One of the great threats that we have to our tree cover is not only development, which is a huge threat, this idea that you can just build, build, build, and plant more trees somewhere else later. It's the idea that the trees that we have are not going to survive the coming changes to the weather, because of the invasive pest. We have spotted lantern fly now. We had the emerald ash borer that really devastated the ash population. You have knotweed, kudzu, you have all of these things coming in that are really threatening the health of our trees; and you have the lack of tree diversity itself, species diversity.
Something that we are having this conversation with our neighbors is, "Where can we plant trees? How can we increase the diversity? How can we make sure that we're planting trees in a way that increases their ability to survive?" When you have all of these windstorms and droughts, you want to make sure that you're creating micro-climates that are going to water the areas that need the water, and that are going to create wind breaks in the areas that need wind breaks. It has to be done at a larger scale than just Hazelwood. We cannot preserve the trees in Hazelwood just thinking about Hazelwood. We have to think about, "Where's the water coming from that's coming into Hazelwood? What is Hazelwood overlooking in the surrounding community, and how is that airflow impact the trees? How does it impact the people?" Really beginning to work with the surrounding communities is something that's going to be huge for the resilience of the city as a whole.
David Kelley (00:45:19):
Jamen Thurmond (00:45:21):
Okay. For someone who has never heard of climate injustice, could you explain that concept?
Tiffany Taulton (00:45:29):
Yeah. I'm also adjunct faculty at Duquesne University. I teach environmental justice there. I spend a lot of time talking about environmental justice for my students. It's something that carries over to my work here in Hazelwood. This is an environmental justice community. This is a 40% black, extremely low income. This is a community that has been unfairly burdened in the past, and continues to be unfairly burdened in our economy. This unfair burden is the idea that there are certain communities that are referred to as sacrifice zones, communities that are sacrificed for the good, the greater good of society, which is largely defined as those that are wealthier and whiter, quite frankly. Extraction takes place in those communities, those frontline communities. It's where you have gas extraction, you have oil extraction. It's where you have the polluting factories placed. It's where you have the garbage dumps placed.
We have all of that here. We were the site where the steel mill was manufactured, where the coke was. We have the recycling center here for the city of Pittsburgh. We have this interstate highway here of Second Avenue. We have Route 885 here. We have this tremendous amount of pollution that is being produced in this community, so we are burdened with the pollution from all of this economic production, but we don't see the benefit from that economic production. All of this steel that was produced, what does that bring the community here? Do we have cheaper homes because of it?
All of the pollution that is produced and all the roads that are coming through here so that people can go from one part of the city to the other, or from one part of the state to the other so that they can bring their goods there, does that make us have a grocery store that people can shop at? Does it give us a pool where our kids can play and learn to swim? It doesn't. Does it give us affordable housing? So we have all of the pollution and none of the benefit. That's really the injustice where there are certain communities that are burdened with the hazards but do not receive the benefits of that extractive process that is our economy right now.
Jamen Thurmond (00:47:54):
How does climate change intersect with environmental justice?
Tiffany Taulton (00:47:59):
Just to summarize, the people that are unfairly burdened by the process that has created climate change are also unfairly burdened because they'll be the first to hit it, to suffer the effects of that climate change, and they'll be the least prepared to deal with the effects of climate change. That is really the climate injustice that the very process that created climate change, the very people that least benefited from that process that led to climate change, all those things that were produced so that people could live a richer life that they did not get to enjoy are the very people that are now suffering the most from it, and the least resilient because they have the least means to fix their houses afterwards, the least means to move somewhere else that's safer. That's the injustice that they are the first, the worst hit, and they were the least contributors to the climate change issue.
All of the mining that takes place so that you can get your computer that you're going to throw away a year from now, and your phone that you're going to change out every six months, this community does not have all of those computers. This community was not on the internet, a lot of it before COVID, and people don't even know how to use their phones for all of these smart applications that are the only way to apply for housing assistance now. They are not benefiting from all of the extractive processes that created these technological wonders that many wealthier people enjoy. They are not benefiting... Rural communities are not benefiting in having lower gas prices and having lower heating bills and having better air conditioning. They're not benefiting from having beautiful organic food at their tables, from all of these extractive, industrial farming operations or fossil fuel operations. The communities that suffer the pollution are not benefiting from that. That is the environmental injustice.
The climate injustice is the fact that that very environmental justice, that lack of regard for your fellow human being or your fellow creature on this planet is what has caused climate change. Climate change is not a problem of technology. Climate change is a problem of democracy. It is a problem of lack of regard for other people's lives and other creatures lives, and a lack of true respect to involve people in the decision-making processes that affect them. We don't ask people, "Would you like to have a polluting factory next door to you?" We don't ask people, "If we're going to switch your water system from one system to another, are you okay with that?"
We believe that it's okay to have some people suffer, that it's okay to have some trees suffer, that it's okay to have some animals suffer, that it's okay to have some rivers dirty, and some lands dug up, and some mountains flattened. It's a lack of respect for the lives and for the presence. It's a spiritual problem that is at the root of the climate change crisis. That is the injustice there, that we simply do not respect everyone equally. So we are okay burdening some people and not giving them benefits. We are okay dictating to some people what happens to them in their lives and not giving them a democratic meaningful way to be involved in that decision-making process.
This situation is not going to be improved unless there are directed efforts to help the most vulnerable. This is not a situation where you can say, "We are helping everybody." There are certain people that for decades have been systematically oppressed and systematically disinvested in, have systematically had their land stolen from them, have systematically had their property values not accurately valued, have systematically through redlining not been able to purchase properties in areas that are in safer areas to live now. So systematically, we must help those vulnerable communities to be prepared for climate change, to fix their roofs so that they can have solar power, to clean the mold out of their basements, and to plant trees and regrade where necessary so that flooding does not hurt them. Because they were purposely located in those areas, their funding, their money was purposely stolen from them, and it purposely needs to be given back.
Jamen Thurmond (00:52:51):
Awesome. We're on to the solution section.
Tiffany Taulton (00:52:54):
Just sound like a revolutionary in this thing.
David Kelley (00:52:58):
It's good. I love hearing the radicalization. Yeah.
Jamen Thurmond (00:53:04):
What changes need to happen in our region to combat the effects of climate change?
Tiffany Taulton (00:53:10):
I would say for the state of Pennsylvania, what it needs to concentrate on is water control, it would be first, and heat control number two. I think Pennsylvania needs to look at where it wants the water to go and how it's going to make sure that the water's absorbed in a good way. Pennsylvania, I think, has been in violation of water standards for a long time, both from a lead standpoint and also in its regional capacity in terms of pollution outflows to the Chesapeake Bay. If it takes into account the climate changes that are occurring and what it needs to do to be better prepared in the future, it's going to address all of those other issues. Looking very seriously at green infrastructure, I think is key, because you cannot build your way out of a spiritual problem.
As I said before, this is not a technology problem. Solving the climate crisis is not a question of building more machines or of having more monitors to measure things, it's about respecting the life that is around us in all of its forms. We need to respect people, we need to respect animals, we need to respect forest and their right to exist, their right to reproduce, their right to have diversity of species and not just the species that we as human beings or as the wealthiest human beings believe is the most valuable. It's not about having the biggest apple or the shiniest apple or the reddest apple, it's about having a diversity of apples. Because the diversity is what is going to allow us to survive because we don't know which one of those apples is going to survive increased storms, increased heat, increased pests, increased rainfall. So much is changing, the greater diversity we have, the better.
The state really needs to look at, "How can we preserve the most diversity of everything?" People, animals, birds, insects, trees, all of it. We need to start looking at setting aside areas. I think there's a book called Half-Earth, and it's really inspired this national movement to preserve 30% of the land by 2030. I think we need to look very seriously at how we can do that. I would say preserve more than 30%, because climate chaos means that we don't know just how bad it can get. We don't know. Every day we learn there were more emissions than we thought we were measuring, that the change in the oceans is bigger than we thought. We should give ourselves some room to fail. Risk management is about... I think we need to have higher levels of risk management when it comes to expanding the amount of protected land, the number of tree diversity, species diversity that we have in each area. That's what the state as a whole needs to look at. How can they have more biological diversity in more places close to people, and respect the world that we live in?
In Hazelwood specifically, I'm looking at how we can have better tree cover, how we can have better quality of trees, and how we can create an environment where trees can survive. As I mentioned, we need to have a cool Second Avenue, both to filter the particulate matter from the high level of traffic on that state route, and also to make sure that the streets are cool enough for people to actually walk around the neighborhood and to go shopping and to stop as we redevelop. If we have low power lines, low utility lines, low cable lines along the sidewalks, especially if it's along both sides, that limits the growth potential of the trees that we plant. If our sidewalks are too narrow, it limits the growth potential of the trees that we plant. It doesn't really make sense to me to plant trees that are then going to die in 8 years or 10 years when we really need them to be big enough to withstand the wind and big enough to withstand the heat. We don't have time to keep planting and planting. That's not an effort.
I would say my biggest goals for Hazelwood right now, if anyone's listening out there, please help us to bury the lines so that we can get better tree cover along our streets. Also, please make this a priority area for public transportation and for any trucks that are going to be doing recycling or development to be electrified, so that we don't have that diesel exhaust hurting our children that already have a high asthma rate, and just going through the neighborhood with all of the redevelopment.
David Kelley (00:58:10):
Jamen Thurmond (00:58:11):
Then the last question, what are some important sites in Hazelwood for climate justice?
Tiffany Taulton (00:58:18):
I will say that in terms of climate justice for Hazelwood, I really want to emphasize the opportunity that we have in shading Second Avenue and really changing that from being the high air particulate matter problem that it is right now. If we can electrify the buses, if we can get more trees on Second Avenue, which will also reduce the temperatures there that lead to that high level of ground level ozone. If we can increase the species diversity in our Greenway and expand the Greenway out, there is an opportunity. There are a lot of vacant properties very close to the Greenway. If we could get, I don't know, Allegheny Land Trust or somebody to help incorporate some of those vacant properties into the Greenway so it is more ecologically viable. You do need a certain amount of space for animals to do that, that diversity and the species diversity.
So expanding the Greenway, connecting the Greenway to Schenley Park, to Frick Park through Duck Hollow. Having that green corridor I think is going to be really important for the city of Pittsburgh, and for Hazelwood in its economic redevelopments, becoming a green place, maybe a trail town or at least an active community place for people to visit. I think that with the redevelopment occurring at Hazelwood Green, we also have an opportunity, because that site is 178 acres, to take advantage of that and make that really green. I know that there are plans to have some sort of tree nurseries there and to redevelop the riverfront. I think that if significant tree cover is added, that would help a lot with preventing runoff into the mont, and making sure that we have the potential to cool both sides of the neighborhood, both the river front side and the hillside.
If we have good tree cover on both of those areas, that will help to make sure that the neighborhood doesn't overheat, and help to bring at least some type of justice to this community in improving its air quality, reducing the impact of ground level ozone as it heats up by cooling it with the trees. Trees create their own weather. That's why everyone is so impressed with the Amazon rainforest. We need to also make sure that we have sufficient enough tree cover here in Hazelwood to cover the neighborhood and keep that cooling and keep the air quality. Hazelwood Green has a great opportunity to contribute to the neighborhood's health in that way, and to climate justice for the neighborhood as a whole.
Michael Pisano (01:01:12):
Many thanks to Tiffany Taulton for chatting with us today. You can learn more about Hazelwood Initiative's excellent work at hazelwoodinitiative.org. Thanks also to David Kelly and Jamen Thurmond for the reporting on today's episode, and to Taiji Nelson, Sloane MacRae, Ciara Cryst, and Nicole Heller at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The music in today's episode was made by two of my most talented friends, Mark Mangini and Amos Levy. They also made the music for We Are Nature's companion video series, which is linked to in the show notes.
Until next time, here's some wise words about kinship. "Wildlands are our birthplace, our civilizations were built from them, our food and our dwellings and vehicles were derived from them, our gods lived in their midst. Nature and the wildlands is the birthright of everyone on earth. The millions of species we have allowed to survive there, but continue to threaten, are our phylogenetic kin. Their long-term history is our long-term history. Despite all of our pretenses and fantasies, we always have been and will remain a biological species tied to this particular biological world.
We should forever bear in mind that the beautiful world our species inherited took the biosphere 3.8 billion years to build. The intricacy of its species we know only in part. The way they work together to create a sustainable balance, we have only recently begun to grasp. Like it or not, and prepared or not, we are the mind and stewards of the living world. Our own ultimate future depends upon that understanding. Now I believe we've learned enough to adopt a transcendent, moral precept concerning the rest of life. It is simple and easy to say, 'Do no further harm to the biosphere.'" That was E.O. Wilson from his book Half-Earth. I've been and hope to remain your host, Michael Pisano. Thanks for listening.