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History lessons: learning from Pittsburgh's G20 experience

So, what exactly will downtown Toronto look like when the G20 circus comes to town? At this point it’s still too hard to speculate, especially since summit officials are staying tight-lipped on security details.

But looking to Pittsburgh may offer a few insights. Last year, the Steel City hosted the G20 summit in its financial district, known locally as the Golden Triangle or Central Business District. The summit was held at Pittsburgh's David L. Lawrence Convention Center and ran over two days, from Thursday, Sept. 24th to Friday, Sept. 25th.

Of course, there are stark differences between downtown Pittsburgh and downtown Toronto — the former is bordered by two rivers, for instance, and has a significantly smaller population than Toronto — so the Pennsylvanian city's experience isn't the best mirror for what Toronto will look like come June 26-27.

Nevertheless, high-profile international events often follow similar templates when it comes to security measures so Pittsburgh’s experience may offer a few clues as to what Torontonians can expect. The Star chatted with Michael M. Edwards, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, to get his impressions of what it was like when Pittsburgh held court on the world stage.*

What did security in downtown Pittsburgh look like during the summit?

Well, they brought in about 4,000 people and they had to find them from, really, all around the eastern seaboard. There were folks from North Carolina and Ohio, New Jersey...

The security presence was very visible. It was people in the full complement, with the Kevlar vest and the helmet and the billy club. And I guess there were guns, tasers – you name it, they had it. They would actually march around town, in or around the security zone. There were also the same kind of folks on horses and these folks would walk in groups of 6 or 8 or 10. Sort of marching, almost.

They were very nice to folks who would say hi to them – they weren’t mean of anything. They were more there as a show of force.

We were also told there were sharp shooters on buildings, anything that had a view of the convention centre.

Describe the security perimeters that went up around downtown Pittsburgh during last year's summit.

Ours was around the convention centre and then there was another zone, maybe two blocks away… you could go inside (the second) perimeter but you would have to pass through a metal detector. There might have been two or three ways to get into that perimeter.

In Pittsburgh’s case, they prohibited motor vehicles from coming into the core, the Golden Triangle. It was effectively shut off unless you were a resident but you could come in on a bus; public transit still came into the core but we lost a lot of our work-day population.

Pittsburgh Security Perimters
This map was released by the U.S. Secret Service to illustrate security perimeters in downtown Pittsburgh for the G20 Summit last year.

When did security officials announce what Pittsburgh's security perimeters would be?

Secret Service here gave us about seven day’s notice; it might have been closer to ten.

When did the security fences start going up?

On Tuesday, stacks of fencing showed up downtown and on Wednesday night, it all started to go up. Certainly, when we woke up Thursday morning (Sept. 24, the first day of the 2009 summit) the fences were all up.

Was there any damage caused by protesters in downtown Pittsburgh?

We had very little. We had no damage downtown … you know, no broken windows, the damage was very light. I think with that broader perimeter there was some rioting or protesting activity but it turned out to be in an adjacent neighbourhood, up at a university. We found there was so much security force downtown that any protesting happened outside of that. Boundary areas might become more of a concern (for Toronto) — at least in our case, that’s how it happened.

Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle is bordered by rivers on two sides and your convention centre is right on the water. What was the security presence like offshore?

They had gunboats. The federal government took over the river — you couldn’t be on the rivers for three or four days. The Allegheny River (on the north side, closest to the summit site) was probably more patrolled.

What was the impact of the G20 summit on local businesses?

Well, everybody wanted to take advantage of (the summit) but everything really wasn’t clear. So everyone was encouraged to stay open, thinking there would be a lot of business coming off the event itself, and that turned out to be not quite true.

You know, from our perspective, and it’s all anecdotal, I think generally there was less business downtown during that week. Unfortunately, the media was not actually afforded the opportunity to see our city or see how it works; the media never left the venue because it was a nightmare to get out.

Hotels were all full, and were full in the weeks leading up to (the summit). Limo services and taxi services, as you would imagine, did very well. Of course, police were all on overtime, so there was some economic benefit…

(But) because they put the perimeter around the Golden Triangle, the usual crowd wasn’t here, like down 70 per cent.

*Note: Some answers have been condensed or edited down for length.


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