La Fabrique de la Cite president Cecile Maisonneuve speaking at CMU on the third day of the group's visit. Photo courtesy of Rivers of Steel.

The French think tank La Fabrique de la Cité brought a delegation to our city this week to learn about Pittsburgh’s progress. They explored our industrial past, including a visit to the former Carrie Furnace steel mill. And they saw our high-tech present and future on display at the Energy Innovation Center and the Google offices at Bakery Square.

On their final day in Pittsburgh they chose to share their own discoveries. In two panel discussions held this morning at CMU’s Gates Hillman complex, the visitors took time to educate their hosts on some of the innovative ideas used in French cities to battle two issues Pittsburgh faces: a lack of affordable housing and the struggle to resiliently handle social and infrastructure challenges.

To kick off the first session, the think tank‘s president, Cécile Maisonneuve, introduced the first topic with a blunt assessment: “There is a worldwide affordable housing crisis in cities,” she said, and “cities alone can’t solve the issue.”

Councilman Daniel Lavelle and City Planning Director Ray Gastil spoke about Pittsburgh’s efforts to create more affordable housing, including the Affordable Housing Task Force, Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh and the 2030 District.

Lavelle also shared a valuable tip: Although you can’t tell private landowners what they must build on their land, you can write zoning laws that mandate affordable housing.

The French responded with valuable advice of their own: When building housing, reverse your perspective. Instead of focusing on what you want to build, focus on the needs of the people who will live there.

Armelle Langlois, deputy director of sustainable building at VINCI Construction France, spoke about reexamining construction costs and reinventing the building process. In a project called Primmea, VINCI has been able to lower construction costs, optimize designs and use innovative materials in order to sell condos below market price and make them more energy efficient.

As Langlois explained the Primmea project, Lavelle told the group: “We haven’t had builders, who are willing to figure out how to be more streamlined in their delivery, and more efficient.”

Taking the energy efficiency even further, Langlois said that at one Primmea complex they have designed a system for capturing heat generated by a nearby traffic tunnel and selling that energy affordably to homeowners there.

A project like that could be especially meaningful in Pittsburgh, where Gastil said our lower-income households have a very high ratio of heating costs because the city has older housing stock.

During the second session, which focused on how cities can be more resilient, Grant Ervin, chief resilience officer and assistant director for the Department of City Planning, and Karina Ricks, director of mobility and infrastructure for the city, spoke of Pittsburgh’s challenges.

They discussed the pros and cons of a city that has experienced population decline, and with aging infrastructure — including 440 bridges and 770 sets of stairs.

Among the newest, Ricks said, climate change is turning this city of hills into a place with landslides. The French visitors heard surprising statistics: The city has already had 14 landslides this year.

But as serious as the challenges may be, the session ended on a positive note:  Cynthia Ghorra-Gobin, research director at Paris III Sorbonne Nouvelle University, said that one of the most valuable things “second cities” such as Pittsburgh can do is collaborate with others on developing a regional identity.

“‘Second cities’ are connected and are part of the global community,” she said. “If they want to survive, they have to build a regional voice.” Here in our region, she sees that meaningful collaboration happening.

Ervin agreed, and said that growing that regional voice and getting the population more involved in embracing it is one key to Pittsburgh’s future success.

Developing as a region is “not a day-to-day, kitchen table conversation” yet, he said, but he agreed with Ghorra-Gobin that it must become one.

Melissa Rayworth

Kidsburgh Editor Melissa Rayworth specializes in stories about culture, gender, design and parenting. She has written for a variety of outlets in the U.S. and Asia, and is a frequent contributor to The...