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Sustainable Cities and Communities


Yiyang Li

December, 2020

A healthy and sustainable environment should be the goal of every society. In 2015, the United Nations approved unanimously the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The UN hopes that societies worldwide can put emphasis on and achieve these goals by the year 2030. As of now, we are ten years away from 2030, yet in many countries there is very little emphasis on achieving this global public policy agenda. We rarely see local governments put emphasis on reshaping our environment, especially during the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic. One of the key

SDGs is to build sustainable cities. The United Nations defines sustainable cities can cities as inclusive, safe, and resilient.


Take the East Liberty neighborhood in Pittsburgh, PA, for example, where none of these characteristics are currently visible. East Liberty is deeply divided and chaotic, and there is a large gap between the rich and the poor. Big companies like Google and Facebook are acquiring properties to build their next headquarters on one side of East Liberty, yet today we have homeless people wandering the streets on the other side of East Liberty. We often experience a very safe environment on one side while experiencing a dangerous street filled with crime and drug deal just nearby. Given that we are only ten years away from the goals that the UN set for us, the people of East Liberty need action now.


Due to a huge inflow of capital to East Liberty, it is being transformed from an impoverished minority neighborhood to a modern one with new technologies. But this transformation is so far fitful and incomplete. Historically, the local government wanted to gradually force out the black population who were the majority in East Liberty. While some of the original residents moved elsewhere, most of them stayed and conflicted with the gentrifying newcomers, thus creating a gap between the wealthy and the poor. This economic disjunction became unmistakable after Google announced its entrance to East Liberty.  With Google’s arrival, new offices and buildings were built, showing a clear distinction from the original look of East Liberty. If one can view the East Liberty neighborhood panoramically, on one side of East Liberty, we have homes and buildings from decades ago almost falling into pieces, while on the other side of East Liberty, we have Google with its newly built steel offices and sleek buildings. 


Google’s entrance in East Liberty entirely changed the original dynamic of the neighborhood. Google and similar companies had created more than 2,800 new jobs in 2018, but that was meaningless to the local people living in East Liberty. Local engineers working in the neighborhood could only make about half of what engineers at Google were earning. Oftentimes, these high paying jobs at Google go to people who are not originally from East Liberty. The local residents remain low paid, while recent arrivals such as high profile engineers, recent college grads, and new tech talents from outside of Pittsburgh are recruited by Google and start

their high paying jobs in East Liberty.


Another prominent paradigm that showcases the disruption created by Google’s arrival is the different tiers of grocery stores. On the poor side of East Liberty, people would often shop at Dollar Tree and Aldi, but the new professionals arriving soon had access to places like Whole Foods and Apple. With Google’s expansion, local merchants are slowly getting replaced by high-tier stores like Apple and Best Buy, leaving the original residents of  East Liberty with nowhere to go. This continual expansion will only deepen the divide between the original residents and the newcomers. Slowly replacing the decaying, old infrastructure while not taking

care of the original inhabitants is not the way to proceed in order to achieve the goal of a sustainable city. Forcing the original people out of East Liberty can only create hatred and violence, not unity and harmony. 


To solve this underlying problem with the great economic and social gap in East Liberty, people need to work together. The local government should realize that the issue exists and map out a solution with the incoming high tech companies like Google and Facebook. These companies should have a clear and attainable game plan for balancing the evolution of communities they invade before implementing and expanding their solutions and properties. These wealthy and high-achieving companies could create solutions that benefit the original residents, perhaps a tax

cut, or implementation of new technology which makes people’s lives easier and is freely available to everyone, or even major employment benefits to the original residents. Because the property prices are considerably cheaper when Google first gets involved, companies like Google should also partner up with local businesses by sponsoring new locations to also expand the local businesses rather than expanding Google’s own businesses. This would result in more jobs and perhaps more regular and practical jobs for the local people compared to the limited

number of high-paying engineering jobs that Google creates.


Google could also provide volunteering opportunities such as recycling and giving donations to reduce greenhouse gas to its employees and local people to make the local environment better. If such companies comply take these initiatives, they may even receive tax cuts and certain expedited processing channels when dealing with official paperwork. It would become a win-win situation that way: using platforms that big companies like Google can provide, the local government can create more suitable jobs for the local people, thus reducing the likelihood of conflict over the deep economic disparities. 


The definition of a sustainable city can be given to a city that is inclusive and safe. The city government and the residents of East Liberty can make their neighborhood a showpiece for a sustainable city by working closely together and drawing into the partnership the newly-established high-tech companies to implement reasonable and acceptable solutions that create a new and high-functioning area in the heart of Pittsburgh. Sustainable cities, an urgent agenda for our shared future, can only be achieved through such new synergies.


"Yiyang Li has a B.A. in Economics from the University of Pittsburgh, having graduated in 2020. She is planning to do graduate study in the US and is currently a research intern at a company based in Beijing."

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