IT WAS ONLY THREE DECADES AGO that Pittsburgh was deemed to be dying – an urban nightmare with polluted rivers, crumbling inner core, steadily declining employment, and a population fleeing for greener pastures. Yet the city my wife and I visited this past weekend showed rare traces of such a blighted past. Instead, we were caught up in a city life teeming with creativity, investment, and a keen new belief in itself. In just few years it has transformed from a warning to a model.
We had first been invited down by officials this past summer for the 15th anniversary of their RiverLife project. Rarely had we witnessed a waterfront so teeming with possibilities. Even though this past weekend’s visit was in the midst of ice-cold conditions, winter blues were nowhere to be found. The city got its game back. It knows it and it’s eager to tell its story.
The difference between the two visits, six months apart, couldn’t have been more distinct. The summer tour was all about Pittsburgh’s dynamic river transformation and the celebration of what that change has made to the city. Situated and the meeting point of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers, it was known for decades as the City of Bridges. Its riverfronts were essential to its image and economy. When both began to fail, the once teeming metropolis fell into decline along with them. The years weren’t good to the city’s reputation.
Fifteen years later, the city’s waterfront has been transformed from an aged relic of industrialization to waterways designed with mobility, celebration, new businesses, and a strong sense of civic pride in mind. Though hardly complete, Pittsburgh not only has a new spring in its step, it has become the essential American model of how people can reinvent themselves in a way that redefines what it means to be a community in general.
But Pittsburgh is more than just rivers. This past weekend introduced us to new cultural dynamics that basically have the city morphing from the inside out. Key to it all were the city’s foundations sector. In drawing the key actors together, the foundations created the impetus for getting civic leaders to imagine a different city, one not so much linked to its past but its people. What began as a river project eventually mushroomed to focusing on the city’s cultural sectors. Incentivized planning and the desire to include the next generation of leaders has seen the city go from a fading industrial giant to a gregarious community of the arts, technology, and museums.
Grant Oliphant, former CEO of the Pittsburgh Community Foundation, and now the head of the larger Heinz Foundation, was key to it all. He spoke in London, Ontario’s X-Conference last year and challenged the large crowd to think big if it wanted to grow out of its malaise. In less than a month he’ll be back in the city, at the X2 conference, to check and see how we are doing in civic renewal and to talk about how Pittsburgh re-energized its cultural centre.
Jane and I were fortunate enough to listen to how Pittsburgh’s growth has been so successful that its leaders are now meeting to figure out a way to shape that growth for the future. It’s hard to imagine how a city with a declining pulse only 30 years ago could transform itself so radically in such a short period of time. It’s a reminder of what any community could do if it collaborates and doesn’t grow overly concerned about who gets the credit.
Check out this video below for the quick 1-minute ride it took us to climb up the incline overlooking Pittsburgh at night.