The Next Page: A peek at Pittsburgh's post-industrial peers

Yes, Pittsburgh boosters are basking in the G-20 glow. But we've still got a lot to absorb from our European pals when it comes to reinventing a region

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In June, I was part of a Pittsburgh foursome that embarked on an idea-exchange trip to Europe, organized by the Transatlantic Cities Network of the German Marshall Fund. The goal? To witness firsthand the regionalization strategy of two metropolitan areas: Turin, Italy, and Essen, Germany. Both were felled by single-industry decline, and both have come back in a significant way.

The timing was, shall we say, interesting.

The Pittsburgh crew included Pat Getty of the Benedum Foundation, Audrey Russo of the Pittsburgh Technology Council and Allen Kukovich, the former state legislator who heads the Regional Visioning Project. There we were -- along with our traveling partners from Detroit and Cleveland -- riding high on the news that the Penguins had just won the Stanley Cup, and Pittsburgh was just named host city of the G-20 summit. Having suffered our industry demise decades earlier, Pittsburgh is on a well-deserved roll now. Not for the first time, I heard an out-of-towner utter the phrase "Pittsburgh envy."

So as Pittsburgh phases into Renaissance Three, our question as our own regionalization efforts get under way is: What's next?

Perhaps, as these European regions suggest, it's time to change our thinking once again. The idea is to become more collaborative on a widely regional level. The goal is to better compete on the global stage and amass greater economic impact. Hey, it's not like we haven't done this kind of reinventing before.

In the interest of idea exchange, here are notes from an intense and fascinating trip:

In Germany's Ruhr Valley, bold moves are paying off

Let's start with an amazing place called Zollverein.

When the coal mining industry collapsed, stripping the region of 5,000 jobs, Essen, Germany, had a decision to make: what to do with its massive industrial colliery. The 247-acre Zollverein site housed a collection of coal mining shafts and a cavernous coal washing plant, a steel mill, and village of Bauhaus-style buildings, clad with copper-colored brick. Here, over the course of its century-plus history, generations of workers produced 210 million tons of coal.

While regional leaders wrestled with the decision, a tug of war ensued between costly mass destruction or costlier renovation. In the midst of it, the minister of urban planning did something remarkable: he declared the entire site a monument, effectively protecting it from demolition. Just as well, for no one knew what to do with it.

When they finally came to a decision, there was no model for what they did next. It was experimental, controversial and big-time bold. The idea? To turn the site into "a nexus of culture, science and commerce" while preserving, to no minor extent, its rich industrial heritage. Hello museums, mixed-use buildings, and visitors center. Goodbye to the loony suggestion about making the site a giant garbage dump.

An international design competition resulted in a master plan by the ever-hip architect Rem Koolhaas. The challenge of renovating the structures was in deciding what to take out and what to leave in. Boiler goes, guys. That huge, muscular Doppledock hauling structure that straddles the mineshaft? Stays. It's known as the Eiffel Tower of Essen (see above).

Today the site is a showcase of innovative spaces and use, with walking and biking trails, the School for Management and Design, indoor and outdoor performance spaces, conference facilities, extravagant exhibitions, and a gorgeous restaurant housed in the old boiler facility. Perhaps the most impressive piece is the Red Dot Design Museum. The space, designed by Sir Norman Foster, houses the world's largest exhibition of modern design, artfully set among industrial artifacts in a powerful juxtaposition. In a word, stunning. More museums are coming to Zolleverein, including one on industrial heritage .

Now a major tourist attraction, Zollverein is a dramatic statement of the value this region places on its industrial culture. The Pittsburgh group was in awe. (We have those seven smokestacks in Homestead, we reminded one another. And there is the Carrie Blast furnace site, ripe for big ideas.)

The cost? We always asked about the cost.

More than 165 million euros -- that's about $230 million at today's exchange rates -- have been invested already with more to come. The focus now is on attracting new businesses -- and new jobs -- in the next few decades. Their task was made easier when Zollverein was honored as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a distinction that can catalyze higher levels of funding.

The rebirth of Zollverein is credited with sparking the growth of the creative industry and the arts throughout the Ruhr region. (We noted throughout the trip that arts in both the Ruhr Valley and the Turin/Piedmont region are well-funded in their role as economic drivers.)

When Zollverein slowly ceased production by the early 1990s, the 17 cities of the region gathered all mayors and members of Parliament for buy-in of a regional survival strategy.

And they got it. Just like that, from the sounds of it. The credo was essentially to fall into line or be left behind and the only way to do that was to collaborate, not compete. If one city didn't have an idea for a project, then funding would go to the city which did. To encourage collaboration, if a group referred a business or project to another within the region, they received a tax credit.

In 1989, the Ruhr Valley started the 10-year International Building Exhibition / Emscher Park plan to reshape the region, including the massive ecological and economic development around the highly polluted Emscher River.

While Essen built cultural institutions, the city of Bochum led the way in medicine and research. In Duisburg they underwent a dramatic revitalization of the harbor and built a logistics industry around shipping.

We strolled the appealing mixed-use riverfront development with its modern office buildings and restaurants housed in old manufacturing plants. Hard not to love the Lego giraffe that stands uber-tall outside the Lego center with its message that kids rate here, too.

In the next block, condos designed by the (busy) Sir Norman Foster front scenic canals, with shopping and large park nearby. A model of good urban design.

In a visit to Bochum's MedEcon, the collaborative of universities, hospitals, and medtech companies, we learned that the Ruhr region is promoting health tourism and attracting seniors seeking a better quality of life.

To do so, they are working on medical technology to assist independent living. Sound familiar?

Stronger than ever, the Ruhr region is now in the next phase, dubbed Concept Ruhr (2007-2013). Under this public/private funding plan, 35 towns came up with a list of 274 specific proposals to fulfill the objectives set for economic, scientific and cultural development. Once again, the request for projects was a motivating call to action: If you don't do it, another city will. (Think: stimulus funding.) In four weeks, 400 projects were submitted.

In a coup, the Ruhr Valley was named a European Capital of Culture for 2010, which brings with it a bonanza of EU funding and elevates the region to the same league as Paris and Amsterdam. (Jonathan Eaton, artistic and general director of the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, joined us for dinner one night. He is in charge of one of the events: "!SING: Day of Song.")

One parting note on this region: To attract talent to the area, the Ruhr Valley promotes the area as one of tolerance and openness, welcoming all, and it has a higher rate than we do of foreign-born residents. Just an observation.

In Italy's Turin, the life pursuit of quality is job one

In the charming and vibrant city of Turin, set against the foothills of the Alps, cafes spill onto streets that pulse with life well after midnight, even on a Sunday. It's hard to believe now that decades ago this city's survival was threatened when Fiat dramatically downscaled, creating the collapse of the auto industry.

In response to the crisis, more than 100 diverse leaders drafted the first regional plan to better compete in the global economy. It's a story of diversification from one city and one industry to many towns and many defined clusters, including IT, aerospace, nanotechnology, robotics and culture. It's an impressive lineup which worked to transform the area, helped in no small part by hosting the 2006 Winter Olympics. Is there a better international stage?

Behind the scenes, we discovered that the region employs policy measures to help foster innovation, from attracting talent such as foreign researchers and students, to financing R&D. Here's an interesting fact: Laws governing regional innovation in Italy mandate a region to make a research plan with committees to support its development and resources to implement it.

In Turin, we admired the work showcased at Fiat in tech incubators and tech transfer companies and expressed awe in the Thales Alenia aerospace plant. But one attraction was a surprising standout: Eataly.

The vast food and drink emporium is located in a former factory (a vermouth plant, appropriately). It's an example of both adaptive reuse and, more important, how Italians value their culture. It's hard to argue this quality-of-life philosophy before you visit; impossible after you've feasted on Italian pizza and downed a glass of Barolo.

The cool place with a hokey name opened in 2007 offering a wide range of affordable products tied to the region's culture. They call it "good, clean and fair food" in a nod to the Slow Food movement, born in the region and a consultant to Eataly. This is the place for the region's best wheat durum pasta. A choice selection of wine (in a range of price up to four figures). Olive oils. And a gazillion cheeses, some in blocks the size of Fiats.

Beyond appreciation for good regional food, a loftier goal is to get consumers to understand that they are co-producers, responsible for the livelihoods of regional farmers, fishermen and breeders.

Eataly features cooking demos, samplings and places to feast. (I searched in vain for samples of the primo wine.) And here's the kicker -- this vast warehouse of a store is financed in part by the local and regional government. In the same way that Zollverein stands as a symbol of industrial heritage, Eataly represents the value of culture and quality of life in the Piedmont region. In this case, they literally put their money where their mouth is.

Across the street the Lingotto used to be a car factory, as evidenced by the spiraling white concrete car ramps at one entrance. Now it's the home of a mall, convention center, hotel, rooftop race track and a museum that is supposedly way cool but our guide-free group could not locate. Turin is big on adaptive reuse, including all those Olympic Village buildings morphing into student dorms and affordable housing.

Valentino Castellani, the former mayor (who has visited Pittsburgh twice), was a force in recreating this special region with its emphasis on urban planning, diversification and -- notable everywhere -- quality of life.

There's an admirable sense of pride and high expectation in Turin and in Essen, an unmistakable attitude to get things done right.

In a tightly scheduled trip that was remarkable in every way, Pat Getty was most impressed with the bold move by Turin to create an aerospace industry. For Allen Kukovich, it was the can-do attitude of people needing to make a change. Audrey Russo has a long list, including the importance of young people in diversity of thought.

For me? The wonders of Zollverein, which inspired a deeper appreciation for Pittsburgh's industrial past and, I have to admit, the pizza.

Correction/Clarification: (Published 8/18/09) Jonathan Eaton is artistic director of the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh. He was misidentified as being part of the Pittsburgh Opera. Tracy Certo ( ) is publisher and editor of Pop City, an online magazine about Pittsburgh: The Next Page is different every week: John Allison, , 412-263-1915


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