- An interview with:
- Raymond Gastil
Following the decline of the steel industry from the late 1970s into the early 1980s, Pittsburgh went from a thriving Steel City to a city in decay. Today, Pittsburgh is a leading center for jobs and research in medicine, education, health care, and high-tech industries. How did the city shape a response to this change?
There was a strong narrative when it came to shaping the city’s response to the disastrous collapse of steel. In part because as early as the 1960s, the city realized that it needed to have a strong focus on becoming a headquarters city, with a service as well as industry economy, and that just kept on going.
For a city that is in love with its past, Pittsburgh wasn’t sentimental about the physical artifacts of the steel industry. Old mills soon made room for a new industry, including the Pittsburgh Technology Center on the Monongahela River and the National Robotics Center on the Allegheny. They were statements for the future, before the more recent wave of tech companies coming to the city.
People were also willing to change, which is similar to what’s happening today, with more cities moving towards a talent economy. For Pittsburgh, the game changer was when robotics and universities started attracting the big names, the Ubers of this world. How did these companies transform the city?
Research centres and tech companies literally bring a spatial transformation. They bring a new pattern of urban living in which you can live and work in areas that don’t require a commute to downtown. This is a pattern that Pittsburgh had for different income groups historically, and one of the city’s challenges is to find a way to sustain that so that the benefit of a compact community is an inclusive one.
“My sense is that Pittsburghers never forgot how to be city dwellers. They never stopped sitting on their stoop, and they never stopped talking to their neighbors.”
There’s an interesting paradox in the sharing economy. In Barcelona we had a one week strike, because Uber and Cabify were challenging the policy on who is allowed to drive a taxi in the city. The sharing economy provides us with a sense of personal ownership in terms of work, mobility and housing, though profit still goes to private companies.
There’s been questions about the shared motorbikes which becoming more popular in cities. They are parked on the sidewalk, on public space not in racks or parking lots, though again the company is owned privately. Is the sharing economy democratizing or privatising the city?
On the one hand, we need to charge for the use of our streets and we need a serious curbside management. On the other hand, we need the company’s data, so they can help us to better manage our streets, which is still a public responsibility. Most cities have a tradition of informal management. We only act when something’s really bad. It’s not an optimal system, but it’s a human one. If cities enforced every law, the city would just end. There’d be revolution. We don’t have to control scooters everywhere, just where the scooters are a real problem. We have to find a way to be pragmatic, not absolutist.
In 2017, when the Financial Times asked the ex-mayor of NYC Michael Bloomberg about what attracts people to new York he said, “because New York is cool”. One of the key points for Pittsburgh is not coolness, but a way of life, which has to do with the morphology of the city – its density and sustainability. It’s compactness that makes cities like Pittsburgh and Barcelona attractive. How important is the quality of life factor for the success of a city?
Being cool has to do with real estate. When people move to Pittsburgh to study, they end up staying because they can get a house, a job and still have a rock band. Some of that is changing, both for long-time residents and newcomers. Even so, and while it is a generalization, there is truth in it. Pittsburgh is a less expensive city and it has a supportive culture that allows people to have creative activities aside from their jobs. Another factor is the neighborhoods. American cities in general don’t have a density like that of Barcelona where activities take placed in the public realm of sidewalks, streets, and parks. Pittsburgh has some of that. You can still run into your neighbours.
Living in a dense city means you live more closely to people. It urges us to engage with the community, and be part of an ecosystem. Density creates a sense of belonging between citizen and city: You feel that you are from Pittsburgh.
My sense is that Pittsburghers never forgot how to be city dwellers. They never stopped sitting on their stoop, and they never stopped talking to their neighbors. The other day there was an event in a park here in Pittsburgh for July 2nd, exactly the kind of thing every couple in Seattle would dream of. The fact that these events still happen in Pittsburgh, and that they feel welcoming to newcomers and long-time residents is not a coincidence, but cultivated by of a lot of work and a lot of history. Pittsburgh is a place where you can learn from where you live.
“Leadership is about listening and interaction. In every planning process, there needs to be clarity about how change in a community is related to potential change at a larger scale.”
If we want to give space to citizens, we need to empower communities so they can co-design the future. A bottom-up approach, it sounds great, but when Barcelona first introduced its “superblocks”, the local neighborhood community was not easily convinced. Now they are thrilled. How can we reconcile these kind of initiatives with the initial opinion of the citizen?
People are generally fine with new developments as long as you’re not doing them in their neighbourhood. That’s where the job becomes complex, because some decisions about urban change go beyond the scale of a neighbourhood.
Leadership is about listening and interaction. In every planning process, there needs to be clarity about how change in a community is related to potential change at a larger scale, and what their role is inside that structure. Planning has to make sense to people. You have to set goals, and the objectives should be clear. People become involved when they believe in your competence and it’s our job to identity how urban change will be a benefit, not a burden, for the community.
Both the government and industry are trying to follow the new behaviors of the millennials and Generation Z. We talk about giving power to citizens, while in fact they have already taken it. What’s the role of the architect or the planner in this sense?
There will always be a need for public roles and entities. Sharing cars will never replace an entire public mass transit system, and larger systems will always coexist. The role of the architect and planner is about working towards a consensus on the big principles. What do we need in terms of sustainability, equity, and belonging? Our role is to listen to the community and work with them to set the guidelines for the future.
Architecture and planning are humbling, because you have to accept that there are communal preferences which are sometimes contrary to what you were trained to believe in, whether in urban form, architectural character, or even aspects of sustainability. When architecture is done correctly it’s uniquely able to get down into the complex, everyday urbanism, even the “muck” of people’s lives, which is where change begins. We need people to imagine that the daily patterns can change, including the younger generations who are busy with the sharing economy. That’s where architecture will make the biggest difference in the next decade.