Water helps remove 'rust' from region
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After Don Carter returned to Pittsburgh in 1970 from his Army tour in Vietnam and graduate studies in Scotland, he was ready to put his Carnegie Mellon degree in architecture to work. But jobs were tight in Pittsburgh and the term "Rust Belt" was spreading like fungi.
That two-syllable put-down drove him up a wall. Knowing Mr. Carter's later work, that would be a nice-looking wall. (His firm would design Crawford Square, the Village of Shadyside, Summerset at Frick Park and the master plan for the North Shore.) But as a young planner for what is now the Southwest Planning Commission, and as a kid who grew up in East Liberty in its heyday, he got nowhere writing letters to the national media suggesting that there was a lot more to Northeastern cities than rust.
Fast forward to 2009. After Mr. Carter retired as president of Urban Design Associates in the spring, CMU's School of Architecture named him director of the Remaking Cities Institute. And, as America takes another look at its urban landscape and ponders a future of soaring energy costs, Mr. Carter has a couple of new terms he'd like to see people start using.
" 'Rust Belt' becomes 'Water Belt,' " he says. "'Sun Belt' becomes 'Drought Belt.' "
I could at this point write, "In your face, Phoenix and Las Vegas!" But that would be petty. It seems far more worthwhile to quote Mr. Carter at length here in a chapter he is writing for a book titled "Synergicity: Re-Inventing the Post-Industrial City.''
For most of the past four decades, "depopulation, disinvestment and decline characterized 'Rust Belt' cities while population explosion, economic growth and sprawl characterized 'Sun Belt' cities." Mr. Carter sees a reversal of fortunes ahead.
Older, Northern cities "have the best attributes of 'smart growth,' including walkable neighborhoods, historic downtowns and main streets, strong universities and hospitals ... unused infrastructure capacity ... and abundant water.
"By contrast, the burgeoning cities of the 'Sun Belt' are low-density, auto-dependent, and survive on ever diminishing supplies of borrowed water. 'Sun Belt' economies are driven not by diversity but by the business of growth itself, such as home building and construction, which the great recession of 2008-2009 revealed as illusory and unsustainable.''
These "sand cities,'' Mr. Carter says, "are basically deserts.'' Most have brought in alien vegetation and have "created the image of a tropical paradise.'' But as sometimes happens in deserts, that may turn out to have been a mirage.
Even if one must concede that his academic paper is informed by old-fashioned hometown pride and even a bit of payback for decades of smug put-downs by those in boom towns, Mr. Carter has a serious point to make.
"We cannot undo the post-1950 development patterns that led to these regional inequities, but we can provide strategies for rebirth of our industrial heartland in the post-industrial economy, especially if redevelopment is tackled on a regional basis, not just in the central cities.
"The regional cities of the 'Water Belt' may now, half a century later, have regained a competitive advantage. They have space to grow internally on vacant and under-utilized land. They have adaptable buildings and neighborhoods. They have roads and utilities in place. They have strong institutional resources. They are places of authenticity and heritage. They have the persistence, strength and resiliency of the people who did not leave. They have water.''
The two most vital resources going forward -- energy and water -- are in abundance here, Mr. Carter notes. He points also to a recent Pennsylvania Economy League analysis advanced by the Allegheny Conference that points to our region's diverse sources of energy: coal, natural gas, nuclear power and, lately, wind and solar. Just extracting natural gas from the Marcellus Shale, while presenting a number of environmental problems, should continue to generate billions of dollars in value and tens of thousands of jobs.
Our set-up also allows us to get around with a smaller carbon footprint because we became a big metropolis before the automobile became the only way to travel.
So roll the phrases around on your tongue for a while and see how they feel: "Water Belt'' and "Drought Belt.'' Makes you feel almost as smug as a Texan, doesn't it? And if it is overstating the situation, well, "Rust Belt'' did, too.
The kid from East Liberty smiles and says of his new way of looking at the old Sun Belt, "I think they deserve a pejorative, don't you?"
First Published December 6, 2009 12:00 am