Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Cities - our greatest achievement and our greatest failure

When I was 10 years old, my parents took me on vacation to Cancun, Mexico. While on that trip, we took a rickety old bus tour (is there any other kind in Mexico) to Chichen Itza, a site of Mayan ruins.

I remember scrambling like a billy goat up the side of the main pyramid, much to my protective mom's chagrin. I even faintly remember being inside of it. Another memory that has always stuck with me about that trip is the "sporting arena" where the Mayans would play a form of soccer for sport, except with human heads. That makes an impression on a 10 year old boy...who played soccer.

At one time, Chichen Itza was a major epicenter of Mayan culture. It's been recognized as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. And now, aside from a pyramid or two, it is a pile of rubble...overgrown with weeds and filled in with silt, sand, and stones. A faded memory from a time we only read about in dusty books. And I wonder now, looking back on it nearly 24 years later...What must that place have been like during its peak?

Will that one day be the fate of our modern human culture?

With the human race engaging in competitive homicide as each day passes, it's not inconceivable that 500 years from now there will be tour groups passing through the once-towering canyons of Manhattan, now reduced to a much smaller size after the buildings have crumbled. People will explore the rotting husks of Tokyo, London, Mexico City, and even our fair Pittsburgh and wondered "What happened? And what must these places have been like during their peak?"

With the rise of Burj Khalifa in Dubai a couple of weeks ago, that 2600+ foot-high tower is probably literally and figuratively the peak of human society. It is an architectural and engineering marvel. It is the capstone of perhaps the greatest 20 years of architecture/engineering in modern history. We have pushed and pushed on the boundaries of what science, art, and technology can combine to do with regards to the building industry.

And now with the world struggling to pull out of the worldwide recession, it seems very realistic that no skyscraper will have the financial backing and audacity to challenge the Burj Khalifa anytime soon.

That's a good thing, though. Dubai is a symbol of how this world has lost its way. We build and build and strengthen our outer skins (the suburbs where the rich escape), while letting the inner core rot (our inner cities and the poor we have forgotten).

The building in Pittsburgh that I am in love with now is 3 PNC Tower, the green-hued skyscaper being completed next to Market Square. I'm in town semi-regularly for either business or pleasure and always try to pass by it. But as I walk past it, I'm reminded of how we need to re-commit ourselves to fixing what we already have instead of building new things. The smells of sewage that waft up from the grates that portend the pending overflow into the river, the roadways filled with cracks and dotted with potholes that the City does not have the money to fix, the homeless that have given up hope because society has given up on them.

You build from the inside out. Strengthen your core and then you can work on the window dressing. The early part of this new decade can be when Pittsburgh can show the rest of the world how it is done. Let's do things that are not sexy or will win votes. Let's re-pave our roads, fix our crumbling water and sewer infrastructure, re-develop new housing zones, and extend a hand to those who need it most.

Let's not end up as part of a 10-year old boy's tour in the year 2510.

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