The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Pittsburgh is Rust Belt, But the Rust Belt Is Not Pittsburgh

View of Downtown Pittsburgh.  Source:
So, one day last week I did my regular reading on planning and urban-related themes, and I finally got a better sense and clearer understanding of Jim Russell’s take on Pittsburgh’s turnaround and his broader theory on the replicability of the Pittsburgh model in other Rust Belt cities.  Honestly, Jim’s staccato writing style and sarcastic or sardonic tone often makes it difficult for me to determine if he’s serious or not.  But that’s just me.
Anyway, I understand his point better now.  For years he’s been saying that Rust Belt cities should “do the decline” – don’t try to hold on to something that will never come back, and accept the fact that larger global forces work against the status quo:
“Do the fail. For decades, Detroit staved off rapid decline. The city has finally imploded. It should have pulled a Pittsburgh long before the exodus from SW PA. As (writer Ben) Schulman argues, fearing the fail only serves to kick the renewal can down the road.

In the magic of failure, I see an indicator of resounding success. Brain drain. Getting your shrink on. These days, one needs a lot of courage and a college degree to flee. The better educated your workforce, the more likely to leave. That’s the Pittsburgh Paradox, the reason for this blog’s being.

The grand irony, as I soon discovered after starting Burgh Diaspora, is that Rust Belt cities have unusually low outmigration rates. The population problem typically concerns anemic inmigration. The Great Lakes states suffer from lousy mesofacts. The best and brightest leave every community. However, none of them were moving to the Rust Belt. Thus, the Industrial Heartland was a prolific net exporter of world class talent.

Brain drain is a leading indicator of economic vitality.”

I believe there is a valid lesson within Pittsburgh’s experience that should be taken to heart.  However, in reality, a boiled-down Pittsburgh had many assets upon which it could build, and it did.  Once Pittsburgh finally shed its steel base, it found that not only did the city have hard-scrabble neighborhoods that would appeal to a younger set seeking community authenticity, it had a fantastic mix of top-notch universities that could be a catalyst for a nascent technology economy.  In that way, Pittsburgh, with Carnegie-Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne University and others, has much in common with Boston and its academic treasures.  Jim notes the similarities in another post:
Pittsburgh is more eds than meds. Meds would seem to better define Philadelphia…
Pittsburgh and Boston are the only two metros “dominated” by the higher education industry. I’d characterize them as talent production centers. Other metros may produce more talent. But that doesn’t define them like it does Pittsburgh and Boston. Talent production activities should continue to agglomerate in both regions.

Pittsburgh is incredibly lucky in one respect.  While the steel industry collapsed, the city’s major institutions doubled down and stayed put.
The Boston parallel is appropriate.  Boston became one of the earliest and largest American industrial centers in the mid-19th Century, with numerous mills and factories scattered throughout the region devoted to the production of garments, leather goods, and other products.  Boston’s preeminence in the industrial sector, ironically, fell with the rise of cities like Pittsburgh that were, for a variety of reasons, better suited to sectors like steel production.  Boston recovered as it recognized that it had an enviable collection of academic treasures that could form a new economic foundation.
It was because of their academic assets that Boston and Pittsburgh were able to reintroduce “flow” to their regions.  Even as the middle class merchants and working class factory workers were abandoning Beantown and the Steel City, they maintained a steady inflow of high-level students and talented faculty, until their numbers reached a critical mass.  Once that number was reached, the cities were transformed.
But what if a city has no mechanism to recapture its “flow”?
I’m not migration expert, but I think I better understand where Jim is coming from.  Moreso than the number-padding exercise of counting heads to determine population growth, the constant and consistent flow of people into your city is crucial to its sustainability.  Flow is essential.  I view it like water in a river.  Inflow can sustain a city even if it has a substantial outflow, just like the biological diversity that can be found surrounding a waterfall.  When the inflow slows to a trickle or stops altogether, or the lack of outflow impedes movement, cities should become worried.
In fact, I can envision a flow hierarchy that goes against the grain of population growth conventional wisdom:
Representative City
New York City
Pittsburgh for decades was often compared with Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Louis, the other large Midwestern Rust Belt anchors.  Among that group, only Chicago and St. Louis have the academic chops to do the same thing as Pittsburgh, and only in St. Louis, a metro of similar size as Pittsburgh, could it be expected to have the same impact; Chicago’s much larger size likely dilutes much of the impact of its academic anchors.  And that says nothing of smaller Rust Belt cities, such as Youngstown, Akron, Toledo, Flint, Saginaw, Lansing, South Bend, Gary and others, which in general lack similar academic assets. 
Pittsburgh’s model is not available to most other cities that suffered the same type of economic collapse.  Why?  Many of the Rust Belt’s preeminent universities are located in smaller cities, not in large metro areas, and generally contributing to the positive well-being in their surrounding communities.  Examples abound – Champaign, IL; Madison, WI; Iowa City, IA; Bloomington, IN; Lafayette, IN, to name those in the Big Ten – all mini-centers of education and technology that are excellent talent attractors and developers.  I can envision a mosaic of small Rust Belt educational centers that grow in prominence, but becoming or anchoring a major metro area?  Not yet.

I still maintain that the Rust Belt’s greatest hope may lie in its relative water security in an era of growing water scarcity.  It’s definitely not an immediate panacea, but may be the surest path to future growth and sustainability.  I’ll explore how another time.

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