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2013 Remaking Cities Congress

Cities Remade, but for Whom?

Resolving inequality seen as the next great urbanism and design challenge

By Zach Mortice
Managing Editor

In 1988, an influential group of urbanists gathered in Pittsburgh, Pa., to ask a very simple question: Can the post-industrial city survive? Alan Mallach, now a senior fellow at the National Housing Institute and the Center for American Progress, was at that landmark event and participated in its seminal discussions.

Twenty-five years later, he returned to Pittsburgh as a speaker for the second “Remaking Cities Conference” and had good news to share: Post-industrial cities will survive, and, in fact, some will thrive. But the question for our day, he said, is one even more complex: For whom?

“We are not only creating a society with vast inequalities, we are institutionalizing these inequalities into the very fabric of American society,” he said last week. “That is part and parcel of the revitalization story. Can we somehow change [this] progressive institutionalization of inequality?”

In the past two and a half decades, the most pressing needs of cities has transitioned from managing scarce and dwindling resources to dealing with the tidal waves of redevelopment displacing and excluding wide swaths of populations. Understanding the social and resource equities of this shift was the primary theme of this year’s Remaking Cities Congress, held Oct. 15-18 and hosted by the AIA and Carnegie Mellon University. At the event, 340 invited delegates (academics, civic leaders, designers, developers, non-profits—many from the Pittsburgh area) convened to create recommendations for remaking post-industrial cities for the 21st century.

HRH Prince Charles, co-chairman of the 1988 Congress with Carnegie Mellon professor David Lewis, FAIA, addressed the 2013 Congress by videotape “My hope is that this conference might succeed in building a common agenda that speaks not just to the challenge of building post-industrial cities, but to the challenge of city-building in a post-industrial era,” he said. The Prince received an AIA Presidential Citation from AIA President Mickey Jacob, FAIA, for his community development foundation.

“The search for lasting solutions to the challenge cities face of dying traditional industries, urban decay, and decline in population cannot and must not be left solely to the professionals,” Jacob said in prepared remarks for the conference. “We must expand this search to include the ideas and vision of those who live in our cities, not just the privileged, but also those citizens in most need of hope and positive action. Because in the end, it’s people who make great cities.”

Joel Mills, of the AIA’s Center for Communities by Design, and co-chair of the Congress with Donald Carter of the Remaking Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, reminded delegates of the cross-pollination between the 1988 Congress and the AIA’s R/UDAT and S/DAT programs. This year’s Congress loosely took the form of a community-based, expert-directed design charrette like an R/UDAT, with an urban typology--the post-industrial city--standing in for a specific locality.

Another featured speaker, author and urbanist Richard Florida, who also attended the original Congress, said that the city forces cooperation, collaboration, and empathy about people from wildly different social, ethnic, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds. A new round of urban infrastructure investment and city-building could bring untold demographics to the city, creating an era of city-based consensus. “Cities are our containers of diversity and creativity,” he said. “The great public spaces we built force us to come together.”

The way cities are being redeveloped has taken a darker turn, however, growing and institutionalizing social and economic inequalities. “Our cities are splitting into two,” said Florida. Left unchecked, cities will move towards areas of “concentrated advantage on the one hand and concentrated disadvantage on the other,” he said.

A key challenge is to “build cities that include everyone,” offering their advantages and vibrancy to all people, said Dr. Mindy Fullilove, a social psychologist and thought leader invited to present her work at the conference. Fullilove’s work focuses on how urban structure and function can both exacerbate social fractures or improve community cohesion. For example: How mid-20th century urban renewal mega-projects tore through historically African-American inner-city neighborhoods with forms of top-down planning, paving the way for dysfunctional urban pathologies to emerge and “paralyzing the social organism,” said Fullilove, who also is a Public Director on the AIA National Board.

Fullilove said she sees American society retreating into increasingly isolated corners both through bricks, mortar, and concrete superblocks (as many poor communities were forced to decades ago), but also through the continued segmentation and mirco-targeting of contemporary media. “We don’t read the same books, we don’t listen to the same music, we don’t have the same ideas, we don’t talk to each other,” she said. “Cities are places [where] everyone comes back together. [They] are now highly fractured as well, but our society needs them to be places where people can mingle and get to know one another."

Tours of Pittsburgh’s civic and industrial icons, as well as a panel discussion between local civic leaders, grounded this year’s Congress in a specific success story and way forward: Pittsburgh’s re-emergence from shuttered steel town to regional “meds and eds” powerhouse. Another panel discussion centered on governance in the post-industrial city, reaffirming that to make a difference, any design intervention has to be coupled with civic activism and political will.

Much of the Congress took delegates away from the convention center hotel. One morning, all delegates were divided into five groups of about 60 people, and each was assigned a theme for the redevelopment of post-industrial cities to explore, complete with geographic case studies: Buffalo and Germany’s Ruhr Valley for the physical, built city; Detroit and Turin, Italy for urban planning; Milwaukee and Bilbao, Spain for post-industrial cities’ place in the globalized economy; Toronto and Manchester/Liverpool, UK, for cities as innovation hubs; and New Orleans and Rotterdam, Netherlands for infrastructure.

After these case study presentations, each theme group broke into even smaller working groups, to discuss a specific topic related to their theme: energy and sustainability, housing and neighborhoods, demographic shifts, social infrastructure, and more. On the conference’s final day, theme workshop leaders combined and revised each small working group’s final “propositions” and presented them to the full Congress for voting.

An emerging theme? The need to make cities more equitable, inclusive, and attractive to new demographics, not just out of any moral commitment, but with the recognition that moving impoverished service-sector residents to Florida’s prized “creative class” is the best strategy for for igniting urban economies. A wide range of tools must be applied to this goal: civic leadership, entrepreneurial innovation, and of course, design, focusing not just on how cities look and are built, but on how they are run and governed.

Design-centric suggestions included developing housing that is more flexible and adaptive to current market needs and redefining libraries as “infotechques” or information-centered community centers. More broad economic and social prescriptions included growing urban entrepreneurial capacity and doing more to cultivate the cultural identities that make cities unique.

If the first Congress 25 years ago was convened to get cities off life support, last week’s Congress was all about preventative medicine: making sure that cities are growing in the right direction and looking proactively for future risks. And, in another 25 years? More than one delegate speculated that the next urbanist rescue mission might have moved completely away from cities. In its place? The Remaking Suburbs Congress.


Donald Carter (left), Remaking Cities Congress co-chair and director of the Remaking Cities Institute with Hank Dittmar, special adviser to HRH The Prince of Wales for Global Urbanization. Dittmar accepted an AIA Presidential  Citation on behalf of Prince Charles. Image courtesy of Erica Dilcer, Carnegie Mellon University.

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