Prince Charles returns (on video) to a remade Pittsburgh

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He came through the Fort Pitt tunnel 25 years ago in a blinding snowstorm, to give a keynote speech about revitalizing industrial urban areas -- and missed the view of a city on the remake.

On Wednesday, the Prince of Wales, champion of livable cities, preservation of traditional craftsmanship and community architecture, will appear in Pittsburgh again to address the Remaking Cities Congress, a three-day conference jointly sponsored by Carnegie Mellon University and the American Institute of Architects.

Don't call the paparazzi -- this time Prince Charles won't be in Pittsburgh. Instead, he'll deliver his speech via prerecorded video to an estimated 300 participants -- urban designers, economists, policy makers, community activists and public officials from all over the world who will be crafting a new agenda for post-industrial cities.

He'll have a lot to say about the shared endeavors between Pittsburgh's renowned urban designers and like-minded Britons since 1988's conference, which was a seminal moment for both groups, said Hank Dittmar, chief executive of the Prince's Foundation for Building Community, which promotes sustainable, walkable, environmentally friendly communities and historic preservation.

Over the years, the prince has prompted outrage in architectural circles for his criticism of modernist building projects and skyscrapers. In a 1981 speech, he had challenged architects to create buildings in service of communities rather than abstract theories. Then, in 1984, he took on a proposed tower extension to the National Gallery in London, calling it a "monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend" -- effectively scuttling the project.

And at the 1988 Pittsburgh conclave, the prince called postwar urban planning and design in the U.S. and Britain "pretty disastrous," encouraging "a renaissance of craftsmanship and the art of embellishing buildings for man's pleasure and for the sheer joy in beauty itself."

"I think it's no secret that the prince was at the beginning of a journey which continues to the present day," Mr. Dittmar said of that Pittsburgh visit, "a quest to regenerate and revive cities and learn the art of city building, which has been the core of his life since then."

The 1988 conference, he added, "was a seminal moment in terms of thinking about social justice issues in community building. Those strands have continued through many different trends and ideas, with a growing group of people who use collaboration as a method of design and across disciplines and community."

Don Carter, director of the Remaking Cities Institute at CMU -- a research center that grew directly out of that conference 25 years ago -- says the first meeting produced a plethora of recommendations.

"We called for a regional vision for transformation, based on the public-private partnership that grew out of the alliance of David Lawrence and Richard King Mellon after World War II," said Mr. Carter, who is also a consulting principal at Urban Design Associates. "We urged diversification of the economy to invest in the irreplaceable treasures we already had -- historic neighborhoods, downtowns, main streets, rivers, to view brownfield sites as assets and opportunities."

Many of these ideas which were acted upon -- in Pittsburgh, the mills along the Monongahela waterfront are gone, replaced by riverfront development, trails and marinas, and many of the brownfields have been redeveloped with high tech and industrial parks, retail centers and apartments, notably the SouthSide Works. Urban Design Associates has been involved in projects in about 30 communities in Western Pennsylvania -- and all over the world, from Cincinnati to Moscow.

In 1988, a different Pittsburgh

Prince Charles' involvement at this latest iteration of the Remaking Cities conference comes at a very different time for Pittsburgh, whose comeback story was just beginning to get traction in 1988.

Only three years earlier, to everyone's shock, Rand McNally declared Pittsburgh the nation's most "livable" city, and the Prince of Wales' visit burnished the once smoggy metropolis' shiny new image. By the time he arrived, unemployment in the metropolitan region had finally dropped from 15.8 percent in 1983 to 7 percent at the end of 1987.

Today, the city has fully established itself as a model of innovation and renewal at a time when "global urbanization" is becoming the rule rather than the exception -- earlier this month, for example, Bill Peduto, the presumptive mayoral victor in November, was already in Prague for a conference, and Prague's mayor will pay a return visit soon.

"Pittsburgh already is a global metropolis, with deep and growing ties to other cities all over the world," said Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution, who will speak at the conference. These cities and metropolitan areas "link to each other through their commercial ties, learn shared lessons from each other on how to grapple with urbanization and can leverage their power in their home nations and globally."

Mr. Katz is the co-author of "The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy," published in June. He says Pittsburgh is in an "enviable position" to thrive even as federal and state government support falters, given its physical beauty and relatively small footprint, "with this intense proximity to CMU, the University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne."

It's an unusual city "in that all of its anchor institutions are in the same place, with all the benefits of density in these networks of firms and workers, networks of investors, inventors, entrepreneurs, manufacturers and advanced research institutions that co-govern cities."

Gone is the concept of a world as a network of nations, he added. "The world's basically evolving as a network of trading cities. Going forward in this decade, cities and metropolitan areas are in the drivers' seat, engines of the national economy, centers of trade and investment, and now they need to take on what was once the role of national governments."

Hence, workshops at this week's conference will combine case studies of the Spanish city of Bilbao and Milwaukee; Germany's Ruhr Valley and Buffalo; the Italian car-making center of Turin and Detroit; the Dutch port city of Rotterdam and New Orleans. And the speakers include George Ferguson, an architect and developer who recently won election as mayor of Bristol, in England, which has been engaged in intensive neighborhood renewal efforts.

Much of today's initiatives rely on the precepts developed by David Lewis, founder of the pioneering Urban Design Associates firm and longtime CMU professor, who was one of the first to come up with the shocking notion that the best urban neighborhood planning comes from the ground up. It seems obvious now, but was revolutionary at the time.

This "inquiry based" planning was adopted in Britain, said Mr. Dittmar, the prince's adviser, noting a deep institutional connection, and a shared ethos between UDA and the prince's charity, which have shared best practices and collaborated on projects in Glasgow, and elsewhere, creating walkable communities that made the most of their historic assets.

The basic rules are simple, said Mr. Carter. "Never go into a community meeting with answers. Ask questions. And the first ones should be very basic: 'What do you like best about where you live? What do you like least? What are your dreams for this place?' And from that, from dozens, hundreds or sometimes thousands of interviews, you can get a portrait of the community's strengths, weaknesses and aspirations and build from that."

The passage two years ago of the Localism Act in Britain now provides for neighborhood planning and community rights. "If a favorite pub is closed and scheduled to be razed, the community now has the right to raise the money and bid for it first before a developer," Mr. Dittmar said. "That has really energized neighborhoods in taking control of their destiny."

Yes, progress. But ...

Mr. Carter is a steadfast optimist, and he'll certainly be talking up the city in this week's conference. In a recent TEDx talk, he posited that Pittsburgh's steady growth in per-capita income is a better measure of success than population growth.

But his mentor, Mr. Lewis, remains less sanguine. Now retired, but still known as the man who brought Prince Charles to Pittsburgh -- a feat that was years in the making -- the world-renowned urban designer, artist and architect fully intends, at 91, to participate in this week's conference. In fact, he'll introduce the prince.

Surely he will point to successes engendered, at least in part, by the last Remaking Cities conference?

"I will leave that to other people," Mr. Lewis said.

"The reason why we're doing this again is because our cities are in deep trouble -- a different kind of trouble," he said. "Great things have happened, certainly. Glasgow has turned a corner. Pittsburgh has diversified. But you have to go through the Mon Valley to realize that community after community is still struggling. What's important is that there be team approaches -- not just architects, but economists, sociologists, transportation people, planners, environmentalists -- that include the community in meaningful roles. And until the community gets those tools, they won't be able to remake themselves."

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Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949. Twitter: @MackenziePG. First Published October 12, 2013 8:00 PM


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