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Trilingual urban planner will apply innovation skills as part of Peduto's staff

| Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013, 10:35 p.m.
Debra Lam, chief innovation and performance officer

The flooding of Ho Chi Minh City and the damage Hurricane Sandy inflicted on New York and New Jersey carry lessons for Pittsburgh, said Debra Lam.

Among them, she said, is that urban development must be more than sustainable. It needs to be resilient.

“We can't prevent and predict everything. Our challenge is to acknowledge that and increase our ability to not just survive these shocks and stresses, but to thrive in spite of them,” said Lam, who will become Mayor-elect Bill Peduto's chief innovation and performance officer when he takes office on Monday.

Lam, a graduate of North Hills Senior High School in Ross, worked on public policy and urban-planning projects in cities in China, the Philippines, Vietnam, London and New York. She earned degrees from Georgetown University' School of Foreign Service and the University of California at Berkeley. She studied climate change and public policy at the University of Cambridge in England.

It's a ludicrous amount of experience for someone 32 years old.

“This is exactly what Pittsburgh needs — somebody with that international background,” said former Mayor Tom Murphy, who met Lam during a five-day advisory panel organized by the Urban Land Institute. The city is at an inflection point, he said. “Pittsburgh needs to get used to being successful. For years, we've been managing decline. Now we need to manage growth.”

Murphy, who called Lam “remarkably smart and insightful,” recommended her to Peduto, who gave her the job.

The position comes with a broad, open-ended description that says she will manage city government's “technology, sustainability, performance and innovation functions,” including oversight of the 311 system, city finances and the information technology department.

Trilingual, Lam learned Cantonese from her parents, who emigrated from Hong Kong to the United States and speak the language at home. While enrolled at Georgetown, she studied abroad in China and Taiwan and learned Mandarin.

The result: “I speak Cantonese with an American accent and Mandarin with a Cantonese accent,” she said.

After graduate school, Lam joined the London-based engineering and public-policy consulting firm Arup.

“It's a really innovative and creative organization that really focuses on shaping a better world. During my time there, I was exposed to a lot of really great projects, really challenging projects,” Lam said. Her colleagues — “the best of the best” — forced Lam to “learn very quickly. You have to, to keep up.”

Arup projects took her around the world, but her work always ended short of the finish line. The task of enacting her plans fell to the city officials with whom she worked.

“It's very challenging to implement something. Very challenging. I think it's something that's been missing in ... what I've done. It's something I very much want to do,” Lam said. “I don't get to see the complete life cycle. Ultimately, you need to be accountable.”

Pittsburgh has experienced a range of urban-engineering experiments. Successful efforts, such as the establishment of Point State Park, help define the city. Others, such as the razing of the historic heart of the North Side's Allegheny City to build Allegheny Center, engendered an enduring bitterness.

“It's really important to engage communities, to understand the local context,” Lam said. “When you're talking about urban planning, you should be trying to improve the quality of life for the city and its residents.”

Problems arise when planners view cities as perfectable, she said.

“It's not going to be an end state. It's going to be a constant, evolving process.”

Mike Wereschagin is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach himat 412-320-7900 or

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