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You can’t Google to get these answers

Written by Diana Nelson Jones on .

 
Mitchell Silver speaks internationally about global population changes that should be compelling planners to study trends the way stockbrokers follow the stock market, and he spoke today to an almost-full ballroom of people at the Community Development Summit at the William Penn Hotel Downtown.
 
His message was so challenging, so informative, inspiring and entertaining that I am posting  long here to share as much as I think you might want to read. He's all over YouTube and Vimeo if you Google his name, so check out some keynotes and interviews. If you ever get the chance to hear him speak, especially if you care about the vibrancy and future of your city, do it. It might make you feel charged up to become a more active citizen.
 
The chief planning and development officer for the city of Raleigh, he said the cities that stay or become vibrant are already planning to meet the needs of a very different country by 2050. "The smart cities understand the sense of urgency 10 years before it is urgent."
 
The summit is an annual exercise of the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, a non-profit planning organization, to bring together community development specialists and advocates to share strategies that move cities forward. They came from throughout the region, including Cleveland and Baltimore, to discuss how they do transit, bust-up poverty pockets, manage stormwater, employ innovative housing strategies and maintain community in the face of population shrinkage.
 
PCRG  has dozens of member groups and is based in the Hill District.
 
As if Mr. Silver  knows how things have always been done in Pittsburgh -- and maybe he does-- he said, “Plan making is not deal making,” eliciting chuckles from the crowd. “I have no problem with the deal but it must work with the plan.” A smattering of applause broke out. “A development’s life cycle is 20 years. We are not a commodity, we are a community, which is generational.”
 
Mr. Silver said the resistance to planning that he hears as a city official and a consultant is resistance to change that is already happening and means no harm. It just is.
 
"When you say no to something," he said, "you’re saying yes to something else. If you say no to multi-family housing, you might be saying no to old people and children." To say no is to bear the consequences when your city is not equipped to handle the realities of 2025, 2030 and 2050, he said. 
 
Although Pittsburgh is in the top 10 cities with the greatest population losses since 1950 — St. Louis and Detroit are #1 and #2 — we are in the top in another category: “the comeback kid” cities.
 
“People have been paying attention to you, so you’re on the map,” he said. “The question is: How do you keep the momentum going? The regional approach will be the driver in the coming years.”
 
Remarking on the number of Allegheny County mayors and school districts, he said, "130 mayors and 41 school districts? Lord, how do you deal with that?”
 
I will pause here so you can digest his astonishment, maybe register your own and update his number: There are 43 school districts in the county.
 
Connections between a city, its inner ring “suburbs,” outer suburbs and rural areas have to do with transit, infrastructure and investment corridors. On a national level, young people are seeking the amenities of the city and more people are choosing not to drive alone every morning from home to work and back, so regional planning and collaboration “is the way to move forward. You rise and fall as a region, so you focus on what connects you.” 
 
The nation’s future will depend on smaller houses and millions more of them, more density to get greater return on investment, more and better transit options and opportunities for young people to be part of the planning process.
 
“One in three children born today will live to see the 22nd century, when we will have half a billion people. For planners, the time horizons should be 50-100 years,” he said.
 
The bulk of growth continues to trend south while trending away from the west. Climate change “could be a game changer,” he said. And a trend changer. This is me talking now: Pittsburgh is a good city to be in when coasts are inundated and water becomes scarcer.
 
Other trends he cited include one he called “the silver tsunami”: By 2030, one in five Americans will be older than 65. Today, one in five in that age group is disabled and that number is likely to grow. Because people will be living longer, the age group over 85 will triple by 2050, he said. 
 
Family make-up is dramatically changing and has been for several years. His presentation included a graph of the marriage rates from 1965 to 2010. They look like a slope for an experienced skiier. By 2025, the number of households with one person will equal family homes.
 
“If you are a developer,” he said, “what kind of housing will you be building in 2025?”
 
Mr. Silver said trend-watching is critical to planning for the future of any city that people want to live in.
 
Raleigh has updated old zoning codes and built a comprehensive city plan using social media to engage Generations XYZ,  whose century the current one belongs to.
 
Finally, the big S word: “Sustainability,” he said. “Don’t tell me you are sustainable if you are working on the environment and the economy but not equity. People ask me what that means. It’s this: Are you being fair?” It’s about race, ethnicity, culture, age, sexual orientation, housing choices, access to jobs.” 
 
He said the graying and browning of America, which will have no majority race by 2043, the changes in family structure, urban sprawl and aging suburbs, climate change, antiquated zoning and obesity are among the challenges that will need solutions and answers that you can’t get by Googling.
 
The people who will be solving these challenges are the best generation to come along since our grandfathers and grandmothers sacrificed in the Depression, served in World War II and saved today for our tomorrow, he said. Of Generation Y — those born between 1982 and 1995 — he said, “We have never seen such a purposeful generation. I am confident that we will be served well by this group.”
 
But cities need to plan for them because they don’t just want choice they demand it. They demand bike lanes, they demand flexibility, they care more about finding the right place before finding the right job and they are environmentally conscious, he said. 
 
After his talk, he was swarmed by people who wanted copies of his presentation or to say how much they appreciated this point or that one. As the staff were taking the table linens up and moving tables, he was one of three people still in the room talking to a member of Gen Y.
 
 

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