Why Pittsburgh Deserves International Attention
Coming to Pittsburgh last month to attend the Remaking Cities Congress, I was struck by the event’s legacy. The last congress was held exactly 25 years ago, right as the decline experienced by many industrialized cities in North America and Europe in the two decades prior seemed especially stark.
But one of the interesting underlying threads of the original event was the spirit of transatlantic exchange on the potential for urban transformation in these cities. Indeed, part of the appeal of the original congress was that Prince Charles attended the event, giving it both allure and gravitas at a time when the need for serious international convening on the topic was particularly needed given the shared transatlantic experience of urban crisis.
Still scarred by the disinvestment of the city’s recent past, the physical manifestations of this crisis were evident in downtown Pittsburgh when I walked through the city. Some of this is hidden from sight (within the empty floors of the city’s large office buildings), but in most cases the scars from the large scale urban visions of the 1960s and 1970s are now seen in the parking lots and empty spaces that dot downtown. These spaces are often the symbols of the small and large scale revitalization dreams that never came into fruition during the urban renewal years (the civic arena adjacent to downtown, for example).
Though the transformation of the city might now seem more nuanced or leaner, the change in downtown and many surrounding neighborhoods has been sweeping. Especially impressive for me was the European-style market square in downtown, the improved Mellon Square (a beautiful urban park built upon a parking garage), the walking paths that now line the city’s three rivers (topped off by the spectacular Point State Park), and grand architecture that is well-complemented by a humane streetscape and memorable natural geography.
The changing downtown scene does not entirely speak to Pittsburgh’s progress as a whole, but it does indicate the city is not merely resting on its historical laurels. In contrast, Pittsburgh continues to actively remake itself, with a strong leadership team to boot. After all, it was a group of community leaders (under the banner of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development) that came together to make the first move and clean up the city’s waterways and air. Several other visioning efforts, such as Strategy 21 in 1985, charted the course for the city’s transformation. All of these are indicative of a city leadership that was willing to risk significant changes in governance to move past the collapse of its steel industry.
This brings me back to the congress itself. Similar to the original 1988 event, this Remaking Cities Congress included several European delegations from cities such as Torino, Bilbao, and Rotterdam. Hopefully, this signals the continuing desire from participating cities to learn from each other and participate in the kinds of transatlantic exchange that could initiate the process changes needed to advance our cities.
To find out more about the Remaking Cities Congress, and to see presentations from European and North American participants, click here. The German Marshall Fund was a sponsor of the conference.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.