Christine Mondor on Bruce Willis, urban imagination and being too provincial

     Bruce Willis stars as Tom Hardy, a police officer demoted to river patrol with the Pittsburgh Police Department  in the 1993 movie “Striking Distance.” (Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.)

    Bruce Willis stars as Tom Hardy, a police officer demoted to river patrol with the Pittsburgh Police Department in the 1993 movie “Striking Distance.” (Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.)

    “Five Questions with …” is a regular Keystone Crossroads feature where we seek to glean wisdom and ideas from some of Pennsylvania’s top urban thinkers and doers. Christine Mondor is an architect, educator, and activist. She is strategic principal of evolveEa based in Pittsburgh, Pa.

    “Five Questions with …” is a regular Keystone Crossroads feature where we seek to glean wisdom and ideas from some of Pennsylvania’s top urban thinkers and doers. Christine Mondor is an architect, educator, and activist. She is strategic principal of evolveEa based in Pittsburgh, Pa.

    Q: Tell us about an amenity or service that you’ve seen in your travels to other places that you wish you could bring back to your city/community.

    A: A beach and year round sunshine? Not possible? Ok, my wish list would include things that catalyze change in larger systems. Here are three examples:

    Network connections. I would wish for more flights and more funding. “You can’t get there from here!” could be the motto for Pittsburgh International Airport. Ease of access is incredibly important for connecting to national and international markets and could boost our regional economic system. Similarly, I would wish for more funding for start up ventures to enrich the regional feedstock and our entrepreneurial network. This would give people courage and the means to pursue their ideas and would be a big boost for our regional economy.

    Urban systems.  If everything above seems ephemeral, I would wish for some fantastic physical infrastructure that would change the way we see our environment. We have made great strides in our bike trails and parks, but a networked park and green space system for the region, similar to the Metroparks system in Ohio, would connect our open spaces for recreation and improve our ecology. I would also wish for the amazing storm water system from the Western Harbor in Malmo, Sweden. The Western Harbor development is on a brownfield site where infiltrating water would do more harm than good. Without an opportunity for infiltration, they created an amazingly artful celebration of storm water with channels, fountains, and waterways. Around every corner is a surprise — a fountain, a drainage channel, a pond. It puts you in touch with water, plants and wildlife within a very urban context.

    Urban imagination. Tactical urbanism installations like Park(ing) Day and shared economy services like Uber are quick and agile and tell you a lot about what a community values; they are relatively low risk interventions that improve our cities. These rapid urban prototypes stretch our minds as to how things could be, and with them, we have been able make change in our communities. Although I don’t have numbers on this, they typically seem to evolve from certain educated demographics and less likely to emanate from disadvantaged communities. I would wish for Pittsburgh a culture where all communities feel empowered to make their voice and vision heard through rapid urban prototypes and spark our collective urban imagination.

    Q: What’s one urban improvement idea that you could categorize as “nice try but didn’t work”?

    A: Even the most creative ideas can fail when they treat the symptom and not the cause. We have vestiges of urban improvements that, while valiant, generally failed because they were unable to affect the root problems. People leaving for the suburbs? Make the business district into a mall (1960s)! House torn down and now have a vacant lot? Build a playground (1970’s)! Town centers being vacated? Redo the street scape (1980s)! Increasing number of vacant lots? Install a picket fence (1990s)!

    It is inevitable that these ideas would fail as they were never meant to affect the core problems. But conversely, perhaps they weren’t really failures at all. Doing nothing is worse than doing something. Maybe these ideas weren’t solutions at all, but acts of faith.

    Q: Describe a person in your community who is a “spark” — someone who seems to get things done and inspire people. (This does not need to be an elected official.)

    A: I am lucky to know many “spark” people and they are all passionate about their communities and their causes and are selflessly unaware of how much they actually give. They inspire people around them by setting a standard that everyone else can strive for and appear to be having fun while doing it. You just know that something is going to happen when you get involved with them. Nina Barbuto is doing amazing things by empowering young people with STEAM learning at Assemble Gallery in Garfield. Brian Wolovich is a seventh grade teacher by day, but managed to create Millvale’s first public library, lead ecodistrict planning, and spark the town center development. His efforts are at the heart of an emerging identity for Millvale as a progressive community of opportunity.  Lastly, Fred Brown pairs the Larimer community’s ambitions with respected and effective efforts to green the community. His work is helping to transform Larimer into a welcoming community of choice.

    Q: What flaw or habit does your city/community have that you would like to see it change?

    A: We often criticize our region for being too provincial, which is a double whammy of “lacking refinement” and “having restricted interests or outlook.” We understand that being provincial or inward looking can stifle needed changes and prevent us from benchmarking against others’ progress.

    Conversely, provincialism preserves what makes us unique. It may be less a result of ignorance than being comfortable in our own skin. Can we look outside and better ourselves by measuring against others’ standards? Yes we can. Can we maintain our sense of authenticity that results from not being overly self-conscious? I certainly hope so.

    Q: Tell us about a movie or book that depicts, in a way that grabbed your attention, how a city can thrive or fail.

    A: You would probably expect a book by Jane Jacobs or maybe Richard Florida to be on top of the list, but strangely enough a very bad movie starring Bruce Willis was the first thing that came to mind. “Striking Distance” was a thoroughly forgettable movie from 1993 that featured the city of Pittsburgh as the modest leading lady supporting Willis’ predictable bravado and hubris. Although the movie was about crime and murder, it showed Willis living on a houseboat on the Allegheny and using the rivers in a way that few of us had imagined. For a moment in time, the city was unrecognizable and courageously beautiful. We suspended our disbelief and imagined ourselves there, foreshadowing many of the riverfront improvements we have today.

    A city needs many things to thrive. Belief in a better future is at the top of the list.

     Is there someone you know who thinks hard about cities and knows how to get things done? Someone whom Keystone Crossroads should spend “Five Questions with …” Please let us know in the comment sections below or via Facebook or Twitter @Pacrossroads.

     

     

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