Donald Bonk interviews Chris Watts, Vice President of Mobility for the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, on the Pittsburgh Tomorrow podcast series. This interview was conducted before COVID-19. The transcript is shortened and edited for the sake of clarity.
View the episode archive here. View Chris Watts’ profile here.
“Working closer together as a unit can help us move forward. The voices of the 2.3 million people who represent this metropolitan area and care about what happens in the city of Pittsburgh really matter. “—Chris Watts, Vice President, Mobility, Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership
Donald Bonk: Can you briefly give us your background and what are you doing here in the partnership?
Chris Watts: I grew up in Shaler Township, got my bachelor’s degree from Carnegie Mellon University and, like many others, moved away for about 10 years to explore career opportunities, but I was amazed by the dynamism and progress that came about I had read and heard withdrawn and that friends and family told me about it. I have been Vice President here at PDP for two years.
Bonk: What do you think would make Pittsburgh the best city in the world or one of the best cities in the world?
Watts: I think we’re already there. It’s a great place. We love being in the neighborhood. We love this small city charm with the great city opportunities and the neighborhoods that make up the city and really the entire region.
We need to make sure that in everything we do, we think about investing in communities and what makes communities great – the amenities, the simple things. These don’t have to be big, long-term projects, just make sure the little things are done right and think about how we can connect neighborhoods.
Bonk: When you say some of the little things, can you give us a few examples of your thoughts?
Watts: Pittsburgh is a place where it’s easy to go to churches and meet in each other’s neighborhood. The walkability and experience as a pedestrian, seeing other people and connecting with your neighbors is really important to building and strengthening communities.
As transport habits changed and resources became scarce, many parts of the city are no longer as accessible as they could or should be. That’s what we love about the city center. Recent surveys we conducted at PDP have shown that people love to be in interesting places with interesting people. Some communities in the area may have interesting people and things to see, but walking is not safe. It is not comfortable there. And you lose touch with this place.
Bonk: Were there any other cities that you have been to or have seen that have ideas that you would like to import into Pittsburgh? Things that would take us to the next level?
Watts: I lived in Washington DC for about 10 years. The sidewalks are huge; The street scene is beautiful. It has the feel of a big city, but has the charm of a small town in terms of the convenience of the street scene. Simple things like planters and street lights and various mobility options that we have in certain neighborhoods of course, but not on the scale that Washington has.
Here you see the North Shore and the South Shore and Station Square, as well as the Strip District and Uptown developments and the new 28 acre development – this has all the bones to be an incredible walkable core. But at the moment there are limiting factors for connections in these parts of the city that do not make it convenient for everyone. It’s an opportunity for us to really think about how we can make this great place even better.
Bonk: If you could do an amazing, transformative thing and a blank sheet of paper, no speed bumps or barriers. What would the Moonshot idea be, the total game changer for Pittsburgh?
Watts: One of the things I noticed recently about the PDP is that the majority of downtown visitors are not from Pittsburgh. They are from the wider county. Pittsburgh is one of the smallest of the 50 largest subway areas in the country, measured by square miles. However, when you think of the region as a whole, we are competitive with some of the larger regions in the country. Unfortunately, our decisions are not always made from a city, district, and regional perspective.
Working closer together as a unit can help us move forward. The voices of the 2.3 million people who represent this metropolitan area and care about what happens in the city of Pittsburgh really matter.
I want to urge our citizens to examine some common ideas that can bring us together, such as public transport and shared facilities that require substantial funding and tradeoffs between opportunities, but also allow for long-term future growth. It’s not easy and requires strong leadership and a commitment to big change as compared to sometimes opposition. However, if our political and civic leaders are committed to a long-term vision, it is up to you to actively communicate to communities in the area why different investments are important.
This is a commitment from our leaders to be effective in communicating with people who may not go downtown every day but who use it for some of the amenities and entertainment options.
Bonk: Whether it’s a trip to see bricolage (theater) or a pirate or steelers game.
Watt: An important downtown area is the beacon of what people consider the city of Pittsburgh: a beautiful skyline, the amenities, the vibrancy. That must come from a regional commitment that is difficult to organize. But I think we have the bones to make this happen, and we have leaders who can stand up for it.
Bonk: So it requires a broader representation of what Pittsburgh is
Watt: Total. Check out the history of how things were done in Pittsburgh. When decisions were made to purify our air and water, it was a tough political decision. But we had hired leaders willing to overcome differences to make these big changes, and those changes required huge external investments.
Right now politics is challenging and people sometimes rely on their differences. It takes collaboration and communication between our leaders in both the private and public sectors to advance this path and make significant progress for a common future for the region. Some of this common future may be pushed back by citizens or committed citizens, but commitment to that future, from leadership, is vital.
Bonk: If you’ve been a mayor, district manager, or a position of authority, what three practical things do you think could be transformative or help Pittsburgh achieve some of the visions you share with us in less time?
Watt: It is very important that the city is on the cutting edge of technology and continues to monitor how things like autonomous technology or AI can help improve everyday life. However, when you think about what is having the greatest impact on our citizens today, invest in infrastructures like improved sidewalks, better transit shelters, and better lighting to make you feel safe at night. These things make an immediate, quantifiable difference to everyone’s lifestyle and can improve the quality of life for anyone involved in the city.
My first recommendation would be to make a commitment to ensure everyone can comfortably walk to destinations in their neighborhood. This means an obligation to find out how to fund the maintenance of sidewalks and street lights and how to ensure that transit shelters are of dignified quality for people who need transit access to use. These aren’t the sexiest choices, but these are things that the community can really pull together to enhance that daily experience.
Bonk: Are there any other thoughts you’d like to share?
Watts: What we think of downtown every day is the quality of the place. Given the quality of downtown, is it worth visiting? Keeping an eye on the ball with these ideas will ensure our region continues to move forward.
We knew what constitutes the quality of the place. We see the best cities in the world that we love to be in. And there are simple things: the character of buildings, the history, the streets you can walk and the interesting street life. These are things Pittsburgh already has. We need to evaluate them in such a way that we prepare to benefit from the future.
Bonk: Well, it basically looks fresh-eyed. We have many advantages that we sometimes forget. They also say that there are so many great things that many other cities want and don’t have.
Watt: We appreciate and love our three rivers, but we don’t yet have the best access to the riverfront as a community facility. This is a great opportunity for us to part with some other cities that don’t have the natural resources and historical beauty that we have in Pittsburgh.