pittsburgh skyline mt. washington

April 16: See this conference broadcast live here.

Today 250 national and international leaders will converge in Pittsburgh around sustainable urban design and development—including a delegation from Nordic countries who carry star status in this field.

The p4 conference–which stands for people, planet, place and performance–expresses “the elements that we think actually define a great urban environment in the context of the 21st century,” says Grant Oliphant, president of the Heinz Endowments.

“The cities that are prospering today are the ones that are putting together the elements that are represented in p4,” says Oliphant. “We’re staking Pittsburgh’s future on the idea that these four pillars are that model.”

The summit will take place April 16-17 at the Energy Innovation Center and will include the study of several Pittsburgh sites such as the 178-acre Almono site, The Oakland/Uptown EcoInnovation District and the Envision Downtown project.

The conversation will include “the 28 acres (the former Civic Arena site), the Terminal building, the redevelopment of downtown, the accessibility of affordable housing, the sustainability of initiatives like direct energy, building energy districts and creating a city that is going to become the innovation zone for global companies,” says Peduto.

The idea is to “enhance the unique urban industrial grid that is Pgh—not try to erase it, but enhance it,” says Peduto.

“It goes so much beyond being just a city that was able to transform from an industrial age into a new age of industry and innovation,” says Peduto. We will be the “model city of the 21st century.”

“We’re going to be that city that defines urban excellence for the future,” says Oliphant. “Not just for the future of Pittsburgh or the future of Pennsylvania or the future of North America, we want to define urban excellence on a global scale.

“We have leadership that is willing to take on these sorts of grand ambitions, and I think we have an alignment of forces that I haven’t seen in the 20-plus years that I’ve been in Pittsburgh,” says Oliphant. “We have a mayor with a global vision, we have a county executive who shares that, we have a group of corporate leaders and foundation leaders who are on board for it—it’s probably the most exciting time to be in Pittsburgh that I could imagine.”

Building a model for the 21st century

Peduto and Oliphant skate to where the puck is going to be.

“We’ve seen ourselves be on a whole host of best of lists but … those are yesterday’s laurels and they only matter in that they’ve gotten us to this place,” says Oliphant. “The real critical question is: what do we do with them now?”

He believes the cities of the future, which will attract young innovators, will care about the environment and will boast an authentic urban environment.

“Innovators want to be in cities because they’re authentic environments where they can interact in a real way. Pittsburgh has that,” says Oliphant.

“We’re going to be that city that steps up on issues of sustainability but also on issues of social inclusion. We can create a city that actually works and performs at a high level and that has a robust, authentic sense of place that makes people want to be a part of it,” he adds.

“Over the course of the next five to ten years, we’re going to see the single largest wave of development to happen in Pittsburgh in a generation,” Oliphant says. “One of the things we don’t want to see in a Pittsburgh context is that we build this shiny new city for knowledge workers from elsewhere and that the people in our community who most ought to benefit most from that growth don’t get connected to it.

“We can learn a lot from the Nordic country zone because they have been the best at wrestling with this question of how do you create a sustainable society that is inclusive and doesn’t close people out as it develops.”

Almono can be the template

“If we wanted to, ten years ago, we could’ve begun to develop that property (Almono) as surface parking and big box stores—and today we’d all be sitting wondering about the squandered opportunity,” says Oliphant. “This is an opportunity to model a new kind of urban development.”

“It’s not just about redeveloping an old industrial site along the river,” says Peduto, “it’s how does that redevelopment set a standard that then other developments will see—and then ask to replicate around the city.”

To the naysayers who say it can’t be done, we’ll be able to point to the Almono site and say, “Yes it can,” says Peduto.

“You’re going to hear, ‘that doesn’t work in Pittsburgh,’” says Oliphant. “But 20 years ago, when my boss, Teresa Heinz, started talking about Pittsburgh being a green building leader, people laughed—not to her face because she was Teresa Heinz—because Pittsburgh—in everybody’s mind—was a down-on-its heels, rust belt city known as hell with the lid off.

“But 20 years later, we are known nationally and internationally as a city that cares about sustainability and green design and green building,” he adds, “because people got behind the idea that we can get there.”

Skating to the puck

Peduto told this story: 70 years ago, Mayor Lawrence stood with Richard King Mellon and they decided it was their mission to clean up the air and water. “People said it couldn’t be done,” he says.

They had all the forces aligned and were not only able to do that—they also transformed downtown from an industrial area to a corporate area, says Peduto.

“Today, as people come through the Fort Pitt Tunnels, they don’t even think twice, they just think that it happened by happenstance—that all of the sudden, this beautiful skyline and this beautiful city appear—but it was because people were willing to take bold steps 70 years ago and were able to have partnerships to make it happen, and that’s where we stand today.”

Oliphant adds, “I always think about Wayne Gretzky’s famous quote, ‘you gotta skate toward where the puck is going to be.’ The naysayers “want to skate where the puck is—we want to skate to where the puck is going to be.”

“I’m very serious when I say in the next ten years, Pittsburgh will be a global innovation center,” says Peduto. “Large, international corporations will move to Pgh in order to have their North American innovation centers here—we’re already talking with companies from Europe and Asia and other places.

“What we’re doing with p4 is building the ecosystem,” says Peduto. Learn more about this ecosystem with this video about p4.

“The devil is in the details,” says Oliphant, “but we’re confident that there’s a willingness in Pittsburgh to go down this path.”

Woods wanderer who was an an editor at New England’s regional magazine, the research director of a Colorado newspaper and a farm hand in Vermont before returning to Pittsburgh to write about and explore her hometown.