The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: renewal

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.

Have a Little Faith


IT MIGHT VERY WELL HAVE BEEN A SEMINAL MOMENT in London politics, though I doubt anyone realizes it yet.

The London Community Foundation had just presented a proposal that would bring numerous partners together to stage an international design competition for a large stretch of the Thames River. There was positive energy in the gallery, among the city administration present, and also from the politicians on the committee that would pass it on to a larger council vote. The chair of the committee – a seasoned politician – expressed his concern that the Foundation’s proposal and leadership was perhaps all vision and little reality. Whether he understood it or not, he was quickly letting the air out of the Council chambers. Perhaps seeking some support for his skepticism, he asked the City manager for his view. Few of us present were prepared for the manager’s first sentence in response: “Mr. Chair, perhaps it’s time that you had more faith in what the community can do.”

That statement by manager Art Zuidema not only brought the energy back into the room, it pointed to the new way in which jaded politics itself might be renewed. The river proposal was serious, with community organizations bringing forward significant resources, and it was the city’s bureaucratic administration itself that had caught the fire. The vote for the proposal then passed unanimously. In a heartbeat it became apparent that the political class had suddenly become aware that its community was taking the lead in the renewal of a city that had fallen on difficult times.

Today is Ontario’s provincial election and there are more than enough tired and jaded citizens out there who wonder if they will ever see the change they seek. Those who vote will again have good cause to think that it will make little difference. They will unconsciously sense what philosopher and economist, Adam Smith, wrote over two centuries previous:“Countries lose their capacity for growth and understanding when their laws and institutions degenerate to the point where elites from the economic and political process dominate.” Such are the days we are living in.

Gone are the days when elections were about big things. Politics and politicians were charged with implementing structures that made our dreams possible. Politics was “big” because Canada and its people were big-hearted and capable of encompassing a worldwide vision of commerce, compassion, aid, development, and global citizenship. What we have instead during election seasons are promises we are inclined to disbelieve, parties that seem bent on full-out political war, and electoral outcomes that underwhelm us at the deepest levels.

But in that moment in London’s Council chamber we captured a glimpse of what could be if we would but stand up and fight for what we believe to be the greatest in us collectively. We have waited for politics and politicians to stand up and lead when it fact the essence of such dynamism lies in our citizens and their community institutions. But we have been slow in coming together on projects big enough to change the game. Sometimes, as citizens, we have been out-of-touch altogether. In his book, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam talks of the drastic decline in the last 30 years in what he calls “social capital.” Among his discoveries:

  • Attendance in public meetings for town affairs: down 35%
  • Service as an officer of a club or organization: down 42%
  • Service on a committee for a local organization: down 39%
  • Membership in parent-teacher associations: down 61%
  • Average membership in social organizations: down 50%

The breakdown of such linkages is not only contributing to community decline, but democratic decay as well. The London experience of last week shows what can happen when community institutions come together to fight off cynical politics and reintroduce hope and important investment into the future. Thousands of citizens have already engaged in numerous visioning exercises, but the time has come for the major institutions to show up. And in London it is beginning to happen.  The London Community Foundation and its partners are taking the lead. Citizens are raising their voice.  It’s time for a healthy politics to stand up and be counted.

This is how politics will ultimately be renewed – citizens and their community organizations coming together in sufficient enough numbers and resources to overcome the stalemated and increasingly caustic political agenda. It is time for political aspirants to flee the echo chambers of their party propaganda and listen to the genuine voices coming from their own communities. As Aristotle put it: “He who is to be a good ruler must have first been ruled.” It’s time for the highest office holders in any community – the citizens – to assume the chair. It’s time to have a little faith.

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