Energy Innovation Center, site of Thrival's Ed Tech Day. Photo by Brian Cohen.

It was all about France today.

As President Macron took the stage at The White House, a group of French visitors started their first ever “urban exploration,” right here in Pittsburgh.

Why Pittsburgh? Because no city in the world has our comeback story — and because Mayor Peduto went to Nice a few years ago and put Pittsburgh on the group’s radar.

It helps to get the word out.

La Fabrique de la Cité, meaning City Factory, is a French think tank comprised of architects, urban planners, builders, directors of institutes — enough people in the know to create a city, as their chair, Cécile Maisonneuve, put it.

Their work revolves around five key topics: mobility, urban development and construction, energy, digital revolution and new practices.

Their goal during their three-day visit? To better understand Pittsburgh’s transition to a post-industrial economy and meet the movers and shakers at the forefront today.

First up was a morning at the Energy Innovation Center, a shining example of collaboration and innovation, with Bill Flanagan of the Allegheny Conference telling the story of the public/private partnerships that rebuilt the city.

Just when you think you’ve heard this story enough to recite it verbatim, you learn something new — especially if you’re trying to hear it as a French person, newly arrived in Pittsburgh.

So don’t stop if you’ve heard this before:

Back in the day, and we’re talking World War II, “Pittsburgh had an enormously successful economy with a terrible, terrible environment,” said Flanagan.

Cue the “hell with the lid off” photos. It was about as bad as it could get. Pittsburgh built the bridges and buildings of the country, yes, but paid a huge toll.

After the war ended, Pittsburghers wondered: who in the hell (with the lid off) would want to live here?

At the meeting yesterday at the Energy Innovation Center with La Fabrique de la Cité. Bill Flanagan on the left, with Sidney Florey from Vinci Concessions and Cécile Maisonneuve. Image from Twitter.

From that very low point, Richard King Mellon called together 30 business leaders to form a committee for post-war planning. “They were there as private citizens who had the capacity to make change,” said Flanagan.

They had to do something about the air, which was turning everyone’s shirts black by noon, and the water, which was awash in raw sewage from industry.

Out of this merde, however, came some remarkable things. “Pittsburgh was the first place in America to do air quality,” said Flanagan.

(The night earlier, Peduto made a similar remark as he spoke at Monterey Bay Fish Grotto. Long before the Clean Air Act, Pittsburgh had its own clean air act.)

It took 30 years to achieve these big goals of clean water and air because no one had done the things Pittsburgh set out to do. There was no model to follow.

And then?

Well, then the bottom fell out. (First the lid. Then the bottom. We know.)

Cue “The Steel Bust” slide with its bullet points of regional economic depression, population loss of 250,000 people and an unemployment rate of 18.3 percent.

It was a decimation that was unprecedented, but here’s where it gets interesting. Once again the business and other leaders devised a strategy to revive the region based on the then Carnegie Mellon University president Robert Mehrabian’s White Paper.

Through a Working Together consortium (it seems they spent their time on action items, not on naming organizations), they created regional structures for the 10-county area such as the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance and the SWPA Growth Alliance in a sweeping strategy for economic growth.

Ever since then, the local partnerships have become more complex, noted Flanagan, involving businesses, government and universities, and they accomplished great things.

Another item of interest, he said, that boosted the local economy: The tax laws changed in the 1930s to encourage wealthy families to form foundations. Mellon, Heinz, Benedum and others in town created foundations that have become a real force in shaping the region.

As a result, Pittsburgh is number two or three in the country in foundation funding and almost all of the foundations are required to invest in the region, not outside of it.

We’re talking social venture capital. Gobs of it.

Pittsburgh’s very impressive revitalization was based in sectors that continue today as advanced manufacturing, energy, financial and business services, healthcare and life science and Information Technology, said Flanagan. And it focused on quality of life areas such as arts and culture, brownfield remediation, green building and outdoor recreation.

Here, Flanagan paused to note that our impressive waterfront trails with their gentle two percent grade are likely the most accessible trails in the world. Also, Pittsburgh, a pioneer in green building, figured out early on that sustainable building wasn’t just a good thing to do but it was also a business opportunity, resulting in energy savings and health benefits.

There was more. He talked about the Strengthening Communities initiative and why Amazon chose Pittsburgh in their top 20 list (diverse population, great universities, walkable neighborhoods and abundant outdoor recreation, to name a few).

He mentioned how they created the Martin Luther King, Jr. East Busway on a railroad line in the ’80s because it was available, not stopping to consider that one day it would be a magnet for businesses and residents who wanted to locate nearby.

And, he pointed out, in Pittsburgh there is a personal responsibility as a business leader to get engaged.

“The business leaders in the ‘40s who were running these giant corporations were largely sons and grandsons of people who created the corporations. More than anything else, they were Pittsburghers.”

Much credit goes to the long-term and ongoing collaboration between the University of Pittsburgh, CMU and UPMC whose next-door location to each other was “a fortunate accident.”

At the end of the session, in answer to a question, Flanagan summed up quite neatly by quoting author David McCullough, a local hero for whom a Pittsburgh bridge was named. “None of this change just happened. People made it happen.”

NEXTpittsburgh will be reporting on more of the Fabrique de la Cité visit tomorrow. 

Tracy Certo

Tracy is the founder and Editor at Large of NEXTpittsburgh which she started in March 2014 and sold in December 2020. She is passionate about making Pittsburgh a better place for all and connecting people...