• Credit: William Stewart

I had the privilege of attending last month’s Remaking Cities Congress in Pittsburgh, where more than 300 global leaders from North America, the U.K., and Europe gathered to collaborate on an agenda for the healthy, sustainable, and prosperous future of cities. The event, chaired by Charles, Prince of Wales, represented a historic moment: This broad group of international participants discussed and shared ideas for the post-industrial challenges facing cities on both sides of the Atlantic—places as diverse as Bilbao, Spain; Germany’s Ruhr Valley; Manchester and Liverpool; Rotterdam; and Turin, Italy. Case studies in the United States included Detroit, New Orleans, Milwaukee, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh.

The decision to host this event in Pittsburgh was no accident. This year’s congress marked the 25th anniversary of the groundbreaking Remaking Cities Conference in 1988, which was held in Pittsburgh and also chaired by Prince Charles. One of the greatest legacies of that conference was the replication and adaptation of a bold idea pioneered by the AIA, the innovative Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team (R/UDAT) process.

Begun in 1967, the R/UDAT process was built on a simple but powerful idea: Architects and other design professionals should be invited into a community not to dictate, but to listen. In this act of listening, they should lead a forum for ideas generated by the people of the community. With R/UDAT, the AIA did something no other professional body had ever done—we affected the way citizens perceived their capacity to generate change from within.

The first Remaking Cities event included an unprecedented R/UDAT project featuring a binational team of architects and designers from the United States and the U.K. who were focused on the shuttered industrial communities clustered along the Monongahela River—specifically the small town of Homestead, Pa. When the R/UDAT team arrived, they met a community that found it difficult to look beyond the prosperity of a vanished past. After a presentation of the team’s findings, based on their intensive engagement with the community, something extraordinary happened: Engaged citizens, inspired by the collaborative process, enthusiastically explored new ideas. Homestead then took charge of its own future.

As a result of this Remaking Cities Conference experience, international participants began to implement the R/UDAT process when they returned home. Called “Community Planning Events” or “Planning Weekends,” these events took place in more than 100 communities across the U.K., Germany, and other European countries, leading to a host of publicly driven community transformations.

And like that gathering in Pittsburgh 25 years ago, last month’s congress was defined by an era of shrinking public resources and thus was focused on strategies that leverage a whole community’s assets with the realities of having to “do more with less.” Delegates shared an urgency to build practical solutions to the pressing issues that are facing our cities, with architects needing to take a leading role in convening communities and developing innovative strategies that are place-based. Delegates found much to be optimistic about, particularly the hope that comes from designers and citizens working together to reimagine the future of their communities.

And there was more than talk; there was action. The spirit of partnership during the congress was captured in the signing of a formal agreement between the AIA and HUD to collaborate on efforts to promote and support the vision to design and build more-sustainable cities. Two decades from now, when we look back at this Remaking Cities Congress, I hope it offers a similarly inspirational legacy: Citizens, in partnership with architects, charting a better, more-sustainable, healthy, and productive future for their communities—all because of the bold vision of architects who dared to be leaders.

Mickey Jacob, FAIA, 2013 President