Pittsburgh shares a border with 35 other communities, all with their own separate governments. If you ask each one what the main problems facing their communities are, you’d get a lot of different answers. It stands to reason, then, that getting them all rowing in the same direction—or, at least, not rowing in opposite directions—on issues of mutual importance, is daunting.
CONNECT, or Congress of Neighboring Communities, was founded to see if this was possible. So far, it seems to be working. All 35 communities have signed on to participate—as have four other neighboring communities that don’t physically touch Pittsburgh, for a total of 39. Or 40, including Pittsburgh.
“They don’t have to work together,” says Kristen Maser Michaels, Executive Director of CONNECT. “But they’re choosing to come together, once a month, to work on common issues. This fragmentation can cause all kinds of issues—we want everybody to be able to move forward, and not be stuck doing the same thing 40 different times. To learn from their neighbors, see best practices, and get better together.”
From Shaler to West Mifflin, McKees Rocks to Aspinwall to Pittsburgh itself, these communities can be geographically, topographically and demographically very different. For some, flooding is the main concern. For others, it’s crime, or development, or trash pickup.
In practice, though, Michaels has been surprised at the level of engagement from community leaders.
“They don’t get the credit. They hear complaints all day, every day,” says Michaels. “Nobody knows what goes into keeping the lights on, roads paved.”
CONNECT was started in 2009 by Dr. David Miller, Director of the Center for Metropolitan Studies at the Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. He invited Pittsburgh and its immediate neighbors to see if there was a willingness to address issues that crossed their boundaries.
There are 690,000 people in the CONNECT communities, and two-thirds of the region’s jobs. The city of Pittsburgh has been a member since the beginning. Mayors Ravenstahl and Peduto have each been CONNECT chair.
“The biggest obstacle as I see it is we all want the best for our own communities—that is a given, and is our responsibility to our residents,” says Etna Borough Manager Mary Ellen Ramage, a longtime participant in CONNECT. “That can breed competition, especially with federal, state and county dollars stretched thinner all the time.”
As a riverside community, one issue looms large for residents, and potential residents and businesses. “Simply put, we are at the bottom of our watershed and water runs downhill,” says Ramage.
They’ve been working with their neighbors in the Pine Creek Watershed for years, through the North Hills Council of Governments.
“We can’t solve the issues ourselves,” says Ramage. “CONNECT helps build that [rapport] with our largest neighbor, the City of Pittsburgh, and those communities surrounding it.”
Sustainability, in this case, isn’t something you address when you’re free from more pressing needs. Managing water in Etna—where it comes from, and where it goes—is a necessity.
“While it is easy to say the problems start somewhere else, some of them are regional in nature and can only be truly solved through partnerships and everyone doing their part,” says Ramage.
Another thing that keeps everyone moving in the same direction is the fact that CONNECT is nonpartisan, by design.
“In this politically-charged time, all these places with widely diverging politics are coming together to serve their constituents the best way they can,” says Michaels.
“No one realizes how connected everyone is. The city needs its neighbors. Its neighbors need the city.”