The Congressmen: Understanding the Audience of the Remaking Cities Conference

by Wesley Swanson

At the Remaking Cities Congress, delegates came not just to learn about the Pittsburgh approach to urban development—they also came to consider possible solutions to their own cities’ difficulties, or even just contribute to the discussion. They came from around the world, from two blocks away to the country of Israel. And they each had their own reasons for attendance. I interviewed a few willing audience members to get a general picture of what kind of person has a stake in attending such an event.

David Feehan has lived in Pittsburgh on and off for decades. A resident in the late 60’s, he saw the way the city was before its renewal and described the change as “amazing. It’s been incredible.” He gave me the example that one morning, you could wash your car, and the next it would be covered in soot.” Feehan came because he is president of CIVITAS, an urban planning firm. For Feehan, it’s more than a job—he says that helping battle the problems that urban environments face is “the most satisfying thing” he could think to do.

Michael Sobkowiak is also a Pittsburgher, and Vice President of a branch of the Green Building Alliance. GBA’s goal is eponymous—it aims to “green” buildings using innovations in planning and architecture. Discussion of this goal led Sobkowiak to the conference, and also gave him particular interest in listening to a planned presentation by Professor Richard Florida. Florida’s theories, he said, provided much of the inspiration for GBA’s ideas on what makes a city livable.

Eleni Katrini lives here in Pittsburgh, but is originally from Greece, having moved for a Ph.D. in community planning. Ms. Katrini was the first person with a foreign background that I had met at the Congress, but she assured me that her reasons for coming were similar to any other academic’s—an opportunity to see the latest contributions to the field. Ms. Katrini was also especially interested in  heating Richard Florida.

Dennis Keating is a professor at Cleveland State, and having worked frequently in neighborhood urban development, Keating was eager to attend. Cleveland, Keating said, is on the decline, and the Congress could provide a good source of ideas. Keating was especially interested in planned studies of post-industrial cities like Milwaukee which bear a similarity to Cleveland.

Wil Gorr is a professor at the Heinz College of Carnegie Mellon University. Gorr had a special interest in the event’s focus on “smart cities,” as a researcher in public policy forecasting and crime mapping. Gorr describes planning as “a system of systems,” and as a result was very interested in any speaker who took into account the growing usefulness of big data to urbanization.

Though many of those I interviewed were natives to Pittsburgh, I encountered many people both from out-of-state and from across international borders. But it seemed to me that each attendee had two things in common: they were all passionate about their field, and they all were here to learn something that could help them help others. Regardless of background, if the Congress achieved that for all its participants, then it was a terrific success.

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