A wise woman once observed: "The problem is, they keep trying to make Pittsburgh what it ain't!" Later, an elder gentleman who was eavesdropping nearby remarked on leaving, "You said it all with that one statement."
Our region's leaders keep saying, "It's not that we've been doing the wrong things, it's that we haven't been doing enough of the wrong things," and they're determined to do more, faster, and on a larger scale than ever before.
How this has come to be can best be understood by looking at our region's guiding question.* Ask the wrong question, get a bad answer!
In the mid 1990s, the City of Pittsburgh hosted the annual meeting of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), Regional and Urban Design Committee. A national meeting, the three day conference had mutiple sessions divided into sections and ended with a plenary session. The City of Pittsburgh Planning Department had people at each.
As the attendees gathered together and shared their conference experiences at its end, someone from City Planning asked in plaintive desperation: "But who do we want to attract and what do we need to do to get them to come here?"
A visiting architect erupted: "For three days now you and your colleagues have been brow beating us over the head with that question, asking it during each and every session. Well, you're asking the wrong question! Chattanooga's answers
"Chattanooga, Tennessee used to be called the little Pittsburgh of the South because of its heavy steel industry," he said. "They were hit harder by the collapse of steel than you were here in Pittsburgh. But they didn't ask your question, they asked, 'Who do we have here and what do we need to do to take care of us?'
"They've been using it for their guiding question as a matter of official policy, and it has affected everything their government does. When they started answering it, people elsewhere said, 'that must be a neat place to be,' and started moving there." He went on to explain that Chattanoogans applied their guiding question to their entire community, including not only its people but its buildings and even its bridges, too.
When the Tennessee Department of Transportation decided to replace a much loved historic bridge across the Tennessee River with a new one, the people rallied and succeeded in having the old bridge repaired and restored. They didn't just tear down all their old buildings, either. Instead, even the industrial buildings were put to adaptive reuses. Rather than being leveled to create barren waste land, they became major assets to their community.
As people moved there to become "one of us," their population grew and the area prospered. In a matter of a few years, Chattanooga was able to shake off its Little Pittsburgh of the South moniker and became known as the Little Atlanta, because of its booming economy. Sustainability
Throughout, Chattanoogans have championed the principal of sustainability. In Pittsburgh our leadership has taken the term to mean continuing to throw away our past while consuming the potential for our future. In Chattanooga it meant husbanding their resources -- human and natural; maintaining their built environment -- architecture and infrastructure; protecting and preserving their cultural and historic assets; and assuring their ability to provide excellent public services and an improving quality of life for generations yet to come.
Chattanooga has used its quiding question and its implications of sustainability for future generations as the yard stick against which all proposals are measured and guaged. Their resuts have been exactly the opposite of what we have suffered in Pittsburgh during the same two decades since the collapse of steel. The question is ours to choose
We in Pittsburgh can continue going down the same road, or we can choose a different direction. If we are to break with the status quo, the first step is to change Pittsburgh's guiding question. Whether that happens or not, depends upon who is elected mayor on November 8th.
By asking, "who do we have here and what do we need to do to take care of us," we can most effectively reorganize and restructure our City government. As we begin to answer it, we will turn our city around and we won't need to worry about getting people to come here. By asking and answering it we can once again make Pittsburgh the city that works!
A guiding question effectively underlies all decision making, whether it is expressly stated or vaguely conceptualized and unspoken. Asking a guiding question helps to frame a person's perspective and can help set or adjust one's focus when evaluating problems. It is a way of defining the parameters and can even set the specifications for proposed solutions.
If you ask the wrong question, either explicitly or implicitly, you'll almost certainly get a wrong answer and bad results.