The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: Pittsburgh

A Tale of Three Rivers

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.

Top, Bottom, Inside, Outside

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“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”  So said perhaps the pivotal voice on cities, Jane Jacobs, in her, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

I rather prefer Italo Calvino’s observation that, “You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.”

At present, millions of us entertain questions about the places in which we live.  They can be as great as, “Will our city continue to prosper?” to, “When will they plow my street?”  Cities, overall, represent a vast array of intersections between individual and collective designs and pursuits.  Cities are great, but they are remarkably complex and confounding things.

Which makes the London X conference, taking place this weekend in my hometown so typical of the modern era.  We are a city hiding in our own shadow, lest the sun’s rays reveal even more of our insecurities.  We’ve tried everything to reboot, but to little avail.  Initially we attempted top-down ideas, only to discover that our community was tired of the old ways of elites making decisions for others.

And so we proceeded to try a vast array of bottom-up initiatives, gathering the grassroots and adding a populist voice to our city’s aspirations, but experienced great difficulty gathering them all together into a movement.

Then we attempted to move from the inside-out, only to discover that our city’s institutions seemed somehow risk-averse, worried lest their vital hold on London’s life be lost through reaching.  We’ve had big plans and talked a good game, but in the end it appeared as though these great groups appeared to lack the courage of their own convictions.  This was especially true of our political class.

And now we have come to a new phase in our current struggles.  The group Emerging Leaders has opted to step up and ask for some outside voices, passionate speakers in their own way, to bring their world to us and help us to see how we might perform some of our own miracles that could once again place us on a level of one of Canada’s great cities.  Call it the “outside-in” approach.  It might just be the ticket to move of us off of dead-centre and into the mainstream of innovation and creativity.

Again, it’s not the big players coming together to host the conference, but a rather fledgling group, with little in the way of funds, but rather huge in the realm of ideas.  By partnering with the London Community Foundation, they have been able to pull off a major event.  And by landing über popular Calgary mayor, Naheed Nenshi, to deliver the keynote address this coming Saturday, Emerging Leaders is reminding its community that part of its rebuilding process is going to be discovering how other cities reshaped their future and became relevant to new possibilities.

UnknownGrant Oliphant, CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation, has some interesting things to tell us at the conference as well – developments than run eerily parallel to the challenges London presently faces.  Pittsburgh’s renaissance is now old news, but how they accomplished it in such a short period of time is both remarkable and teachable.  Thanks to his leadership, Oliphant took one of the older, more established community players and turned his city’s foundation into a catalyst for relevancy.  Along the way, the community rediscovered new life along its waterfront and new vigor in its bones.  There is nothing that Pittsburgh possessed that London doesn’t.

The final speaker is Randal Charlton, and he knows a thing or two about being down on his luck.  A former journalist, dairy farmer, jazz club manager, and consultant with a global bank, he also led failed businesses and faced numerous personal challenges – justFE-RCharlton-240 like the city of Detroit where he lived.  The community faced a 20% unemployment rate, along with the almost near collapse of its famous auto industry.  Traditional approaches never seemed to work.  Then Charlton cooperated with Wayne State University to build TechTown – a business incubator.  In short, he was charged with developing a more entrepreneurial culture in Detroit instead of merely following traditional patterns.  Neither he nor the university could accept the status quo any longer and the decided to challenge the city to head in a new direction.  Their success is the stuff of national coverage, but it was in the details of how they set up that new entrepreneurship that the real story is told.  Charlton will explain it all on Saturday.

Two top women leaders were to speak at London X but due to scheduling pressures had to back off at the last minute.  That’s too bad because some remarkable women pathfinders have taken part in the new urban renaissance.  Hopefully we’ll hear some of those voices in a follow-up conference.

In this new world of possibility for cities, beauty is no longer in the eye of the beholder, but in the builders of the reinvigorated cities that include all of us and answers our questions as to why we choose to live where we do.

The excitement around London X is palpable, and right now this community could use a strong dose of the possible. The good citizens and leaders of London just have to believe they can pull it off.



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