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This summer, out of the blue, I received an invitation to attend the Remaking Cities Congress in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I could only surmise how the invitation had found me. On the face of it, it appeared to be very much about buildings and the urban post-industrial environment and that, of course, concerned me. I am an enthusiast of bold, good and brave design – like that of Pittsburgh’s twin city, Sheffield – and appreciate how it can transform the fortunes and spirits of a place. But it is also CDF’s mantra and my personal experience that local people have to be, and often are, at the centre of successful change in the built environment.

But I shouldn’t have been so concerned; digging deeper I found that there were four common themes threading through the event:

1. Sustainability (physical, economic, and social)

2. Wise allocation of increasingly scarce public and private financial resources (“doing more with less”)

3. Equity (social, economic, and environmental)

4. Public engagement (inclusion, transparency, and accountability)

I thought it would be good to turn up and find out what other countries are doing to integrate people with the places they live in. I particularly wanted to make sure that the last theme, public engagement, was planted firmly at the centre of discussions. And the fact that the event itself was free was a big incentive, given the challenging financial circumstances we all find ourselves in.

From 15th – 18th October 300 delegates are arriving in Pittsburgh from across the world, bringing with them their own experience of so-called phoenix cities: places that have seen huge regeneration and have now ‘risen from the ashes’. Delegates are from countries across Europe, Brazil, many US states and, of course, Pittsburgh itself.

I arrived in Pittsburgh early and spent much of the first day walking around to get my bearings. Yet the most important insight I’ve had (so far) took place in the taxi on the way in from the airport. The guy who drove me in was in his 30s and had only moved to Pittsburgh from Brooklyn in January. Friendly and interested, he asked me why I was in the city and my explanation of the congress unleashed his stream of consciousness on the state of the city, through his fresh – and clearly entrepreneurial – pair of eyes.

His focus was the ‘hood’; his frustration was the lack of interest and aspiration of people in Section 8 housing* to take an interest in, take care of, own and transform their neighbourhood. The ‘hood’ I assumed, was largely a black neighbourhood as he was black himself, and he was frustrated at the passivity of Pittsburghers, particularly compared with the attitude he was used to in Brooklyn. He was deeply interested in real estate and had many ideas about how to motivate people to take a greater interest in where they live, such as reducing rent for a well-maintained property or group of houses, or involving people in co-operative ownership of apartment spaces. , He wanted to invest in real estate too and lucidly explained that he had the best possible job to scope out potential investments, seeing as he was driving around the city, night and day.

As we pulled up to the hotel I felt as if I was an interloper – that it should have been him and not me attending the congress. But it was also very grounding. I knew that I mustn’t fail to communicate this individual perspective whilst I have the ear of the conference delegates and advocate keeping citizens and people at the centre of discussions.

I will let you know what happened in part two…

*Section 8 of the Housing Act of 1937 (42 U.S.C§ 1437f), often simply known as Section 8, because it is repeatedly amended, authorises the payment of rental housing assistance to private landlords on behalf of approximately 3.1 million low-income households.

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