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From France to Pittsburgh, city sustainability leader Flore Marion on climate change preparations

A trail in a tree-covered park.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Like all cities in the coming decades, Pittsburgh is going to have to prepare for a changing climate. In Pittsburgh, that means dealing with landslides, flooding highways and record-breaking heat waves.

Flore Marion is the assistant director for sustainability and resilience leading Pittsburgh’s climate efforts. She spoke with WESA’s Susan Scott Peterson about what it will take to make a transition to a low-carbon economy in a city whose legacy was built on fossil fuels.

Marion is featured in Peterson’s new story for WNYC’s Science Friday, “20 Years Later, How Are City Climate Plans Actually Going?”

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Susan Scott Peterson: I understand that you're from Toulouse, France. Can you tell me how you made your way to Pittsburgh? 

Flore Marion is Pittsburgh's assistant director for sustainability and resilience.
City of Pittsburgh
Flore Marion is Pittsburgh's assistant director for sustainability and resilience.

Flore Marion: It’s quite an interesting story. Typically, in a French master's degree, you often have a six-month internship as your last semester. One of my faculty happened to have come back from a visiting position at Carnegie Mellon University, so she said she had a connection there. If anybody was interested in an internship there, she could facilitate that.

I knew of Pittsburgh, but I didn't know much about the city, and I didn't know Carnegie Mellon University. In France, we know the Ivy League. We know MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], we know Brown, we know Harvard, but we don't know Carnegie Mellon University.

And so when I heard, “opportunity in America,” I was like, “Sure, just sign me up! I’m happy to. I would love to go!” And so I applied and I interviewed and I moved to Pittsburgh for an internship at CMU in architecture.

Scott Peterson: And how did that lead to you working at the city of Pittsburgh? 

Marion: So after my internship, I stayed as a researcher for several years. And one of my last projects was a Better Buildings accelerator focused on data access, specifically for energy benchmarking.

Toward the end of this program, the City of Pittsburgh passed their own benchmarking ordinance and were looking for a consultant to help implement it. And I was like, “I have to be the most knowledgeable person [about building energy benchmarking] in Pittsburgh. I need this job. This is my next move. I have to get this job.”

So I applied. I got the job and then I became a full-time employee. My portfolio expanded to other topics and I worked my way up to leading the team.

Scott Peterson: So your office recently completed a new greenhouse gas inventory, and that data showed that Pittsburgh has met its goal of cutting emissions by 20% by 2023. But you also learned that those cuts were basically already achieved in 2013, and Pittsburgh's emissions have stayed the same for nearly a decade. Can you talk a little bit about why you think progress has stalled, and what it means in terms of Pittsburgh's next emissions goals?

Marion: That's a very good question. I think that most of our building stock is very old and some of the easy changes have been done, like light bulb replacement and things like that. And so the next wave of investment is just very heavy. There was no funding before for building owners to really invest in a new heating system and more efficient systems. What it will take is what is happening right now with the Biden administration, all of this funding coming for energy efficiency and infrastructure and clean energy.

Building lives are very long. So even if the money is available right now, it's still going to take several years for people to seek it, design their plans and make those changes. So I don't expect to see a drastic change next summer. I think we should see some impact of this investment in the next three and five years.

Scott Peterson: I did notice in that greenhouse gas inventory that commercial buildings have made great strides but emissions from residential buildings have actually risen a great deal. Can you talk a little bit about what's going on there and what can be done to address that dynamic?

Marion: For the residential buildings, remember we all moved home during COVID. I think that really definitely accelerated that growth of home energy usage. But also, federal funding is going to play a role. There is a rebate program coming out and we're expecting to have a program in the fall of the end of this year.

So there will be funding for heat pumps, replacing your windows, induction stoves, upgrading electricity panels — and there will be more information once there is a final program for Pittsburgh.

But I'm confident that all of this investment coming to residential buildings should be seen on the greenhouse gas inventory in three or five years, also.

Scott Peterson: So for a Science Friday story that I recently reported, I spoke to city sustainability directors in other parts of the country, and I learned that city climate plans used to be really mostly about carbon. But today's sustainability offices are really grappling with the fact that people of color and low-income people and other communities exposed to the first-and-worst effects of climate change have largely been left out of climate planning. And so I wonder if you could talk to me a little bit about how Pittsburgh is including the perspectives of frontline communities as we look to the future. 

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Marion: So the communities are connecting the dots between their health and the climate and the weather. And it's really reflected in everyday life, such as utility bills. The air quality is impacting [people’s] health, too.

That's one of the reasons we are not doing a climate action plan update this year. We want to make sure we have a comprehensive plan that is rebuilding a city for all, including those frontline communities that have been neglected in the past by other [climate] planning efforts.

Scott Peterson: One of the successes you have been celebrating recently is Pittsburgh's new stormwater code. We all know as the climate gets warmer, we're expecting a lot more rainfall in Pittsburgh, which comes with all kinds of issues for the city. We know that there will be stresses to the sewer system and flooding like we saw this past spring. How is this new stormwater code addressing this? 

Marion: The goal of this new stormwater code is to avoid impervious surfaces like we've been building in the past. [We want to] be mindful about how we develop a site and be more creative about providing greeneries that can both absorb this rainwater and also provide benefits to residents or workers that are going to be at the site.

Scott Peterson: When you think about the future — and I mean on a good day when you're feeling optimistic — what does Pittsburgh look like in a world that is experiencing climate change?

Marion: Even more bike lanes. More trees. We recently received a large federal funding for the region, so tree planting is going to accelerate a lot. More EVs [electric vehicles], even though replacing cars one-for-one is definitely not our objective. Our first objective is to reduce this need for car-serviced neighborhoods and focus on pedestrian neighborhoods. And solar panels on our roofs and clean energy being produced in the region and in the city, so that our air quality becomes healthier.

Susan Scott Peterson is an audio producer and writer whose journalism, radio and literary work have appeared with Vox Media, New Hampshire Public Radio, Allegheny Front, The Texas Observer and The Rumpus.