Remaking Cities: Pittsburgh conferees pick up from premier event 25 years ago

Pittsburgh's skyline, parks and nightlife districts have replaced declining factories that were a big topic the last time the Remaking Cities Congress met here in 1988. Photo iStockphoto

PITTSBURGH, USA Twenty-five years ago, as cities in North America reeled from the rapid decline of their industrial base, a Remaking Cities Congress was held in Pittsburgh. Aiming to spark hope, the Prince of Wales attended as the honorary chair and keynote speaker.

Last week (October 15-18) it happened again. Prince Charles (this time by pre-recorded video) addressed the conferees of the 2013 Remaking Cities Conference, sponsored by Carnegie Mellon University’s Remaking Cities Institute and the American Institute of Architects

And what a difference a quarter century has wrought — underscored by Pittsburgh’s stunning skyline, parks, open space and vibrant nightlife districts have replaced the moldering industrial hulks of yesteryear’s heavy steel factories and their belching smokestacks.

But the conferees, while celebrating the rebirth being enjoyed in Pittsburgh — a revival mirrored in whole or part in many manufacturing towns — were candid about remaining hurdles such as the deep challenges facing Detroit.

From my reporter’s notebook (or laptop), here’s a selection of salient ideas and policy directions for cities’ next 25 years, reported by the 350 speakers and 350 attendees from city governments, regional alliances, universities, NGOs, architecture firms and foundations.

Ideas and Directions

Cities/regions should form networks not just of elected officials but leaders of businesses, foundations, universities, citizen groups.

Find out what your city or region is best at — the innovations and economic prospects best poised to grow new and better jobs.

Bristol, England Mayor George Ferguson advocated remaking old industrial buildings into venues for arts and community festivals.  And he told of Bristol’s “street party city” that closes streets on weekends with this signage: “Road Open for People” and “We Bike, We Walk, We Vote.”

Cities as Factories of the Urban Age
Growth, new ideas spring from people interacting, rubbing shoulders in cities. Great urban spaces deliver walkable density, force us to come together.

Regions Matter
They’re the critical population, economic unit of our 21st century world — the “citistates” of our modern era.  And increasingly vital: as the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Katz told the assembly, “It would be nice to have a federal government, but it’s left the building.”  Medicare and Social Security, he noted, are crowding out research and development and investment in education, skills or housing.  The situation leaves states — and now especially cities and their metro regions, to “pick up the slack” for critical infrastructure, educational and economic development planning.  

As the Pittsburgh region testifies — with its record-setting 500 municipalities in a single metropolitan area — modern urban areas have a massive challenge in getting their localities to work together. Efforts to merge Pittsburgh and surrounding Allegheny County have not succeeded. Yet on some critical issues, as one Pittsburgh leader commented: “Our leading corporate and political leaders see no boundaries.”

City Halls Need to Set Strategies, Enlist Partners
The Pittsburgh recovery might likely have never occurred without some controversial Pittsburgh city government moves — many under Mayor Tom Murphy (1994-2006) — to get the state legislature to modernize county government, clean up industrial sites, raise billions to build stadiums and a major convention center.

But collaboration remains a key for most cities’ progress: Pittsburgh’s forward steps, for example, depend on city government working in close tandem with local foundations and such major players as the business-led Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

Creative Class
Older cities’ progress from heavy industry to an information age of intellectual work has been critical. Fifty million Americans, a third of the country’s labor force, now belong to the group urbanist Richard Florida (a conference speaker) defines as “the creative class.” Pittsburgh’s evolution from mass physical labor to a growing base of high-skill jobs is a prime example.

Face the Bad News of Advancing Inequity
The last 25 years have provided an opportunity to dismantle some of the prior generation’s dire errors: urban blight and massive displacement through highway-enabled growth. The great challenge of the next 25 years: to attack the institutionalization of inequity in today’s post-industrial city.

Dangerous Divisions
People left out of the Creative Class — the working class with low-wage jobs — are losing out, leaving their children vulnerable to being trapped in a cycle of poverty. Upward mobility gets stuck; cities become areas of concentrated advantage and disadvantage. Result: fractured societies, a tale of two cities. Riots erupt in London, Rio, Istanbul.

Moral: The well-being of the 21st century’s cities and city regions rests on their commitment to broad inclusion and opportunity — economic and personal — for all their people and communities.  One prerequisite for U. S. city regions: to reform the system of mass incarceration built up by waves of drug and sentencing laws since the 1970s.

Create Sticky Cities
A key strategy: identify, harness the unique assets of place — manmade and natural — that attract and retain people who will invest and grow new enterprises.

People Focus
Cities grow by fostering the talent and earning potential of residents, and not by expanding populations. Economic strategies should aim to promote opportunity and prosperity to all citizens. To that end, a portion of funding for innovation should include investments in training, education, mentoring and participation for underserved comminutes.

Cultivate “Soul”
“We’ve got soul” say city lovers.  And the hyperbole makes sense.    The first step in reinventing a city is to nurture its soul – its identity, people, history and values.

Who Plans and How
A city must cultivate the entrepreneurial capacity of its people to build rich, viable communities Let citizens play a major role in planning their own neighborhoods. Respect the rise of grassroots democratic processes, and encourage it for the long haul. When authorities demonstrate trust, it makes people be less cynical and suspicious. Though in the end, closure is essential: city officials should never use collaboration as an excuse to avoid tough decisions. 

Invest in quality, accessible, affordable public transit to keep people connected to the essentials: jobs, education, food, housing and health services, plus providing mobility for the disabled and disadvantaged.

Stop it (at least in the developed world). Say “no new land” — there’s plenty of empty and underused space in the urban footprint already.

Check for Help
Use “charrettes” — community-based planning efforts for community design or new projects. Or the R/UDAT programs (Regional and Urban Design Assistance Teams from the American Institute of Architects) to enlist broad local constituencies to plan recovery strategies on issues ranging from crime to neighborhood design to loss of major employers.
Expect Kickback
Prince Charles, in his message to the conference, reviewed many of the human-scale, seemingly modest but quite successful real estate projects that his trust has initiated in Britain (with increasing and growing international efforts added in recent years).But at the start, the prince noted, he received “more brickbats than bouquets from the architectural establishment.”

They need to step up, be catalytic, and not sit at the margins. A shining example: solid support from the Kresge Foundation and other philanthropies for the Detroit City Future Plan with its ambitious goals ranging from light rail on the city’s central Woodward Avenue corridor to greening, food production and other new uses of abandoned land.

Moral: The well-being of cities in the 21st century rests on their commitment to broad inclusion and opportunity for all citizens and neighborhoods. 

Think Natural Systems
Think of the urban area as a metabolism, landscape as natural infrastructure — a path to resilience in the face of resource shortages and climate change.

Confront Racism and Marginalization
Muster the courage to confront forms of marginalization of peoples within ourselves, the economy, the criminal justice system, the education system and through society “to truly create cities with liberty and justice for all.” A key Pittsburgh move in that direction: adoption of the “Kalamazoo Promise” model of a college education for all city students who graduate successfully from a city high school.

Sage Warnings

A final word from David Lewis
The conference wound up with remarks from Pittsburgh’s famed 91-year old urban designer, architect, painter and writer, founder of an early community-based city planning firm (Urban Design Associates), emeritus professor of the Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture, and a leading figure at the 1988 Remaking Cities Congress. 

Lewis, a native of South Africa (which he was obliged to leave for his opposition to apartheid) told the conferees he’d likely not be around for a Remaking Cities conference in another 25 years. But he warned:

“My old city of Capetown is surrounded today by slums of corrugate materials.  It has children without education, whole communities without sanitation. Let’s make sure we start to franchise them at the next conference.”

And then Lewis’ “word of warning” to “the next generation of urban planners coming up” — he counseled them to remember they are “vehicles of democracy” — not to steer the process of planning “toward the solutions they themselves champion.”


Editor’s Notes: Co-chairs of the 2013 Remaking Cities Conference were Donald Carter, Director of the Remaking Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, and Joel Mills, Director of the Center for Communities by Design of the American Institute of Architects. Full details will be posted week of October 28 on the conference website.

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Neal Peirce is the founder and editor-in-chief of Citiscope. Full bio

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