Gallery: What is a Sustainable City? Four Influential Green Mayors Disc...

Braddock church renovated into a community center

It’s a question we think about a lot here at Inhabitat: what is a sustainable city? Is it LEED certified buildings? Efficient public transportation? An abundance of green space? This past Friday, we had the pleasure of attending The Sustainable City Mayoral Panel during the Festival of Ideas, where four mayors from forward-thinking cities discussed these very ideas. The cities — Seattle; Philadelphia; Braddock, Pennsylvania; and Medellin, Colombia — could not be more different, but the overriding idea that a sustainable city is a healthy, vibrant city, was unanimously the same. The mayors (and former mayors) were each inspiring in their own way.

John Fetterman – Mayor of Braddock, PA

Panel moderator Kurt Anderson described Fetterman as “a character out of fiction,” and indeed, standing 6’8″ tall and weighing 300 pounds, he certainly is. But he was also by far the most inspiring mayor on the panel. Fetterman landed in Braddock, a tiny former steel town just outside of Pittsburgh, to work with AmeriCorps, after receiving his masters in public policy from Harvard. He soon realized that the crumbling town needed a lot more than volunteers. Braddock has a population of 2200. Just 50 years ago, that number was 20,000.

Andrew Carnegie built the first bessemer process steel mill in Braddock in 1873 and for nearly 100 years, the town thrived. Then the steel industry declined, and Braddock went with it. As Fetterman says, Braddock lost “90 percent of our population and 90 percent of our homes.” Crime rates soared and unemployment rose to 300 percent. Today, Braddock is the poorest community in Allegheny County.

Since assuming office in 2005, Fetterman has thrust Braddock into the national spotlight as a symbol of hope. He’s given the city the tag line “Reinvention is the only option,” and he has been working tirelessly to that end. With much of his own money, Fetterman has renovated decrepit buildings and lots and turned them into vibrant public spaces. A church is now the community center, abandoned lots are now organic gardens, and the largest unused space became Braddock’s first park. Art galleries have opened, green businesses have moved in. On top of that, Braddock’s crime rate has decreased dramatically, with police calls dropping nearly 50 percent. The town hasn’t seen a homicide in more than three years. Fetterman is so completely dedicated to Braddock that he has the zip code tattooed on his left forearm, and the dates of murders that occurred while he’s been mayor on his right. For Fetterman, sustainability means making Braddock desirable once again.

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