An international audience of nearly 300 urban planners gathered to share examples of best practices in post-industrial city developments at the Remaking Cities Congress, an event held in mid-October in Pittsburgh, the US. The congress focused upon soft factors, such as public spaces and festivals, as key to creating a scenario where community-building can lead to the successful transformation of urban areas.

Delegates at the event also discussed the evolving role of the cities and their leaders. “Our mayors are becoming more visible, [particularly] outside of city borders, while cities, rather than central authorities, are playing much more important roles in the modernisation processes,” Rob de Vos, consul general of the Netherlands, told the conference, giving examples of the Dutch cities of Eindhoven, Rotterdam and the Hague.

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The event marked only the second Remaking Cities Congress, with the first being held in 1988, also in Pittsburgh. “In 1988, Pittsburgh was coming out of disastrous [decade] and the collapse of its steel industry. But it became a classic example of the transformation to a city-based on knowledge and service employment. Now with representatives from other cities both from the US and overseas, we want to look forward on how cities might look in the next 25 years,” said Donald K Carter, director of the Remaking Cities Institute, an urban design research centre at Carnegie Mellon University, and co-chair of the conference. Apart from Pittsburgh, the delegates focused on case studies of Milwaukee, Buffalo, New Orleans and Detroit in the US, Toronto and the Waterloo-Kitchener region in Canada, Turin in Italy, Bilbao in Spain, Rotterdam in the Netherlands as well as the Ruhr Valley region in Germany.

As was the case in 1988, the honorary chair of the event was Prince Charles, the heir apparent to the British throne and a known champion of sustainable urban spaces. “My hope is that this conference might succeed in building a common agenda that speaks not just about problems of post-industrial cities, but also about the challenge of city building in the post-industrial era,” said Prince Charles during a video keynote speech. “To do this there is an urgent need to rediscover the principles of urban design and planning that withstood the test of time.” 

Among the conference speakers was George Ferguson, the former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, who in November 2012 was elected as the first mayor of Bristol in the UK. “I see conferences such as this as a great opportunity for sharing ideas and learning what works in other cities. I have spent a lifetime 'stealing' ideas of other cities and that is what we all should do,” said Mr Ferguson, adding that bike storages created out of converted shipping containers that have been operating in central Pittsburgh since 2010 is one of the ideas he is planning 'steal' for Bristol.