Editor’s note: The following column was published in the Spring issue of Pittsburgh Quarterly, just before the coronavirus changed the landscape across the world. It was part of an overall package entitled “Pittsburgh Today & Tomorrow” dedicated to considering changes that we in the Pittsburgh region might undertake in order to overcome consistently tepid economic growth and ensure a more dynamic and vibrant future. Because of the extreme period of uncertainty from early March through the end of May, we held off publishing many stories we had prepared looking at Pittsburgh’s future, deciding to wait until a time when our citizens might be better able to consider more than simply reacting to the virus crisis. It is still too soon to know how the virus and the aftermath of the state-mandated economic shutdown will alter the macro trends that will affect Pittsburgh’s future. But we publish these stories now, knowing that the world has changed in ways still unknown, but also confident that the issues facing Pittsburgh remain the same and await our addressing and solving them. —Douglas Heuck
I arrived in Pittsburgh on July 5, 1985, for a 12-week internship at the old Pittsburgh Press. I expected to stay that long. However, from my entry through the Fort Pitt Tunnel to my first front-page story on one of the last big steel strikes, Pittsburgh was a fascinating place. It was also a place that was in a state of shock, reeling from the collapse of heavy industry and the almost biblical exodus of a generation of young people.
Slowly, the shock and bitterness waned and efforts began to re-envision and rebuild Pittsburgh, accentuating quality of life and creating a more entrepreneurial and diversified, innovation-based economy. Changing a culture and an economy, however, is not for the faint of heart. Civic, business, government and philanthropic leaders tried many things. They crafted a social safety net. People started thinking regionally, creating the Regional Asset District to support amenities. Allegheny County instituted a new form of government. New stadiums were built. Our hospitals and universities spawned new businesses and brought new talent.
Many of us witnessed the changes, and many helped make them happen. That’s a great thing about Pittsburgh—it’s small enough that individuals can make a tangible difference. My front row seat as a journalist has been primarily through a project comparing Pittsburgh with other regions across the country. We started PG Benchmarks in 1995 at the Post-Gazette, and today, the same project is called Pittsburgh Today. When we started publishing our benchmarking reports, I felt a twinge. In category after category, Pittsburgh’s economy was the worst among competitor regions. The few bright spots were low crime, strong arts, and very little traffic congestion (because not much was happening).
Finally, by 2009, the gloomy reports had largely disappeared. Pittsburgh was comparatively stable during the Great Recession and emerged from it quicker than most. With the G-20, we became known across the country and world as the tenacious, resilient place that had reinvented itself. Press reports sang our praises, delegations came to learn our secret, and for the first time in decades, we Pittsburghers could feel justifiably proud in having fought back from the abyss and recreated our city.
Pittsburgh, we have a problem
Today, however, we face a problem unlike that of any other major U.S. region. Despite our efforts, diversified economy, great institutions, and celebrated quality of life, we’re continuing to lose population. That includes the city and every county of the seven-county metro area except Butler, where Allegheny County residents move for lower taxes. Concurrently, since October the Pittsburgh metro area actually has lost jobs—during a national economic boom.
It spells trouble for Pittsburgh. Specifically, it portends decline. Population loss creates a vicious cycle: fewer people paying higher taxes for fewer services—fewer people supporting regional assets and amenities of all kinds, from roads and bridges to the symphony and the Pirates. It exacerbates issues of equity. A smaller economic pie means less for everyone and increasingly bitter fighting over what remains.
Many find it hard to believe that we’re still losing population. There’s so much going on, they say. And in parts of the city, that’s true; many exciting things are happening. But the losses are continuing, and they add up. This trend is not our friend. The metro area’s outer counties are losing population more quickly, and the counties farther out, faster still. And those are the traditional feeder counties for Pittsburgh’s future.
Why are we losing population? More people are leaving than coming, a function of our job opportunities and relatively low wages. But the main reason is that we have one of America’s oldest metro populations, and we have more deaths than births—what’s called natural population decline. When those 200,000 people left 40 years ago, they took their future children with them. Almost overnight we became one of the country’s oldest regions, and now have a dearth of births.
We’re also the country’s whitest big metro area—85.3 percent white—and whites have lower birth rates. Our percentage of African Americans is relatively low at 7.9 percent, but four benchmark regions have lower percentages: Boston, Austin, Seattle and Denver. Only Cleveland has a lower percentage of Asians than our 2.3 percent. And our Hispanic percentage (1.7) is by far the lowest; the benchmark average is 9.5 percent. We also have the lowest percentage of foreign-born residents (3.2), which is way below the benchmark average of 10.2 percent. Why?
The answer is the same economic/demographic anomaly that makes us older. Pittsburgh entered its catastrophic period in the 1970s, ultimately losing some 150,000 manufacturing jobs (and countless downstream jobs). Unemployment exceeded 18 percent. It was between 1970 and 2010 that the U.S. Hispanic population grew fivefold to 50 million, and the Asian population increased tenfold to 15 million. Pittsburgh missed those huge waves of immigration. First, not being a coastal or border city, Pittsburgh was off the beaten path. Second and more important, during those 40 years when Hispanic and Asian immigration spiked, Pittsburgh, unlike the rest of the country, was largely out of business for jobs, staggering through an economic depression unparalleled among American cities.
What do we want?
If we don’t do anything to change our trajectory, this region likely will continue to shrink. Some argue that that’s not necessarily a bad thing, given that unbridled population growth may be the planet’s biggest threat. Others say there’s nothing we can do to change our demographic profile—and if we believe them and don’t make an effort, they’ll be right.
We have to ask ourselves: Do we want Pittsburgh to continue to shrink? Are we okay with losing the critical mass necessary to maintain our amenities? If we are, it should be a conscious decision, rather than something we simply allow to happen because we won’t face reality and come together to do something about it.
If we don’t want Pittsburgh to continue to decline, then we have to look beyond our own PR, which is growing long in the tooth, and face the facts. Then we have to ask ourselves whether we want to change. We have the power to change, but are we willing to put forth the effort? And if the answer is yes, then what should our goal be?
A unique, historic opportunity
How we view the situation is up to us. Some will see it as an insurmountable problem. Others will see it differently. Namely, if there is an upside to the problem—and there is an enormous upside—it’s that it gives us a unique and historic opportunity.
Other cities aren’t facing what we face. We’re the only major region that’s lost population over the past 40 years and continues to lose. Other regions don’t have our urgency; they can blithely drift along and let the vast currents of economics and demographics take their course. If we want to stem our decline, however, we can’t drift. We have to come together and forge a new and sustainable future.
Because of our unusual need—if our hearts and minds are fertile soil—we have ingredients for future success that no other region has: awareness of our need to change, impetus to create an ambitious goal, openness to take the risk, willingness to put forth the effort, and conviction that we must succeed. In short, we have the opportunity—if we choose to take it—to design our region’s destiny and become the city of the future, whatever we collectively decide that is.
The Pittsburgh moonshot
In May 1961, President Kennedy announced what seemed like an impossible goal: landing a man on the moon by decade’s end. No one knew how it could possibly happen. The technology wasn’t anywhere close to being ready. But it happened in eight years.
The experience also launched the phrase “moonshot thinking,” a term for aiming to achieve something that is generally believed to be impossible. As former Pittsburgher Astro Teller put it, “It’s often easier to make something 10 times better than to make it 10 percent better.” A moonshot is aiming 10 times higher than anyone else and bringing different thinking to bear. By thinking big, you get immeasurably better results than if you seek incremental improvement.
Is a Pittsburgh Moonshot possible? Why wouldn’t it be? At the beginning, it’s a matter of leadership—creating the belief and building the mythology that the seemingly undoable is not only doable, but undeniable and inevitable.
Imagine Pittsburgh being the city with the best quality of life—for all of its citizens—in the world. Impossible? How could Pittsburgh be greater than Paris and New York? It depends on your definition of greatness. We’ll never be the biggest city in the world, nor would we want to be. However, Pittsburgh could become the new Florence—the American Renaissance city, which eschews size for quality. A healthy, prosperous city that’s manageable in size and sustainable for the earth. A haven of beauty, inclusion and innovation that becomes a global model. Indeed, why not Pittsburgh?
Our Pittsburgh Moonshot needs specifics, however—a foundation of building block components to reach the overall goal. It’s not difficult to imagine such building blocks, but they’re an essential roadmap. Making that roadmap is the first big step, and it must involve input from the whole region.
Pittsburgh has proposed several such roadmaps in the past five years, including the Heinz Endowments’ P4 plan unveiled in April 2015; Mayor Bill Peduto’s ONEPGH in March 2017; and, in November, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development’s new 10-year plan, Next is Now. Each is ambitious and thoughtful, the result of well-conceived efforts for a better Pittsburgh. We can adopt one, merge them or add components. The key questions are: Are we being creative enough? Are we being ambitious enough? Are we getting the necessary constituencies on board? And are we actually getting anything off the ground?
The following is a broad outline of ideas to synthesize with and/or augment the plans mentioned above—examples of initiatives that require more commitment than capital and that, if executed concurrently, would truly make Pittsburgh the City of Renaissance.
A 10-point plan
- Make Pittsburgh a great center for innovative commerce. A sustainable economic engine must undergird any resurgence. Use public messaging to create a culture that understands and appreciates the needs of business. Cultivate enlightened, civic-minded business leadership and in return, deliver efficient public services and reasonable taxation. Help our great universities and hospitals flourish and leverage them to lead the world in computer and biotechnology. Use creative incentives to spur start-ups and fuel our culture of innovation. Help local businesses expand here and aggressively court others to relocate here. Make Pittsburgh a magnet for people of vision.
- Become a model of welcoming and inclusion. Build on our legacy with Fred Rogers and create a public education campaign to instill the benefits of embracing differences. Dramatically improve the Pittsburgh experience for African Americans, whose quality of life has significantly lagged that of whites for decades in health and economic outcomes. Make acts of racism culturally unacceptable. Perhaps build our version of a Statue of Liberty-type icon to symbolize our welcoming all people.
- Consolidate/merge the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. Allow municipalities within the county to remain independent if they wish and others to voluntarily disincorporate into the new, larger city. Pittsburgh would go from the 66th to the 10th biggest American city, with all the attention that would bring. Eliminate service duplication and reduce municipal disparities. In creating a new, modern government with the best in technology and efficiency, we would make Pittsburgh a public sector model.
- Increase immigration to Allegheny County and surrounding counties. Enlist our local, state and national political delegations to create an immigration pilot project for people looking for a pathway to citizenship in the United States—including jobs, housing, and support services. Change Pittsburgh from the least diverse region with the smallest population of foreign-born residents to a vibrant, multicultural center.
- Create the nation’s best birth-through-12 education system. We can’t afford to have young people drop out, have limited skills or go to jail. Create a Marshall Plan to intervene early and orient young children and their families toward school success. Be nimble. Tailor education services around student needs—on the low and high end—instead of around institutional habits and structures. We are small enough that if any region can solve the problems of educational attainment, achievement and equity, we can. Build the country’s best education system and become known as the place that takes care of its own.
- Become America’s greenest city. We need healthy air and water. “Better than it used to be” isn’t good enough. Welcome industry but require cleanness. Clean the Clairton Coke Works or close it. Accentuate outdoor amenities. Build a market-based eco village like Findhorn, Scotland on a former mill site as a model of sustainable living and symbolic antidote to Pittsburgh’s polluted past. Expand current programs to create a Pittsburgh Conservation Corps, a variation of FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, with high school kids building hometown affinity through eco-based public service.
- Defeat blight and beautify Pittsburgh. Move with urgency and purpose to return the tens of thousands of vacant and abandoned properties to productive reuse. Realize this is an asset we can’t afford to waste anymore. Use these properties as incentives to help immigrants, young people and low-income residents boost wealth-generating homeownership—i.e., if you improve the properties and stay there 10 years, they’re yours. Raise Pittsburgh’s aesthetic standards and expectations. Have a major, ongoing messaging campaign to Make Pittsburgh Beautiful and fund civic prizes for local beautification. Enlist an army of volunteers to clean up hillsides and streets strewn with garbage. Fine “Enemies of Pittsburgh” who litter and defile. Create public lighting projects to brighten the city. Become the city of art and design. Encourage imagination. Make Pittsburgh the city of charming surprises.
- Use public messaging campaigns, our hospitals and incentives to turn Pittsburgh into a capital of healthy living. Build on our outdoor amenities—bike lanes, trails, rivers, hills and mountains. Create signature outdoor events and competitions. Make Pittsburgh’s parks the nation’s best. Concentrate on healthy food—in schools, hospitals and local supermarkets. Make Pittsburgh the most plant-based-diet-friendly city in the country. Build the link between healthy living and the practices of a sustainable city.
- Create a city of youth. Do what’s necessary to create the atmosphere that attracts young people. Study Austin, Denver and Nashville. Lighten up Pittsburgh’s heavy feel and build an atmosphere of fun, vitality and excitement. Enhance/subsidize music, art and performance scenes. Hold national contests for mural painting and public art. Be creative. Build a laissez faire culture of beauty, freedom and exploration.
- Capitalize on internal marketing and public messaging. Harness the messaging capabilities of this media age and our media outlets—internet, social media, print, TV, radio, agencies, billboards and pro sports Jumbotrons—to create an ongoing public messaging engine that uses the power of persuasion to get our citizens behind and believing in the projects listed above. There is thundering latent power here that could change Pittsburgh almost overnight if the public’s imagination were captivated and its efforts unleashed through public messaging campaigns about what Pittsburgh can be. If we get the media companies on board, it doesn’t have to cost a thing. And once we have momentum on our projects, the national media will spread our story.
Why it’s doable here
Pittsburgh’s capacity to change is historic. We created America’s first great urban renaissance. Re-envisioning and rebirth are part of our DNA. No city in the world has overcome the industrial shocks Pittsburgh faced in the 1970s and 1980s. Since then, we’ve presided over an almost nonstop period of can-do resilience. Seeing a better future and making it happen is the signature element of Pittsburgh’s culture.
Our size is also a major advantage. We’re not a sprawling, unwieldy metroplex where massive political interest groups collide and battle to continual stalemate. We’re a place where the problems—whether industrial, environmental, political or social—are small enough that people can still come together, find common cause and solve them.
Finally, this time we’re starting from a position of strength. Look around. We have everything we need to build the sustainable city of the future: abundant water and energy and a moderate, temperate climate; universities and hospitals that lead the nation and world in innovation; a diversified economy; unmatched philanthropic wealth and commitment; arts and culture of a much bigger city; strong political leaders committed to civic improvement; and an historic public private partnership organization, the Allegheny Conference, designed for regional improvement. This abundance of civic infrastructure is just waiting to put its shoulder behind a vision and effort worthy of its might.
Mobilizing the key constituents
When FDR needed to mobilize America’s industrial behemoth and put it on a wartime footing, he sat around a table in Pittsburgh. After the war, when Richard King Mellon launched Pittsburgh’s famed Renaissance, he also gathered local business leaders around a Pittsburgh table. Mellon essentially said, “We’re going to clean Pittsburgh’s air and control its flooding.” He then went around the table. “Charlie, are you with me?” Mellon, so the apocryphal story goes, owned a majority of Charlie’s company, and Charlie said, “I’m with you, R.K.” And so it went around the table. The next step was the ostensibly unlikely but decisive partnership with Democratic Mayor David Lawrence.
Such things can’t be done today, people say. The world has changed. No one has that much power. Business leaders aren’t as committed to Pittsburgh because their businesses are global and their tenures shorter.
Yes, times have changed. And we can’t do things that way any more. Nor would we want to. Today, we have the capacity of expanding that Pittsburgh table to include everyone in the region. Can you imagine what FDR or R.K. Mellon would think if they had the power of the internet and social media at their disposal when trying to catalyze change? That’s what we have: a means of building consensus and momentum unsurpassed in history.
Clearly, convincing 2.3 million people to get involved and get to work has its daunting elements. Perhaps it will seem more doable if we break down the regional populace into five key constituencies that must be on board.
- Political leaders. There is no substitute for political leadership, and we are fortunate right now to have strong, committed political leaders—Bill Peduto and Rich Fitzgerald, among many others—dedicated to regional improvement. Those leaders, however, can’t do it alone.
- The business sector, including universities, hospitals, nonprofits and labor. Pittsburgh is America’s historic leader in public-private partnership for civic improvement. That relationship needs to be appreciated, renewed and harnessed. Business support and leadership is essential.
- The media. Their allegiance is to the truth, and good, accurate reporting to the public will be essential. Local media need a healthy Pittsburgh too, however, and part of their mission is dedicated to regional improvement. They (we) could contribute editorial and public service message support—setting a new national example of the decisive importance of media in framing and advancing civic progress.
- Philanthropic foundations. Pittsburgh has roughly $8 billion in philanthropic assets—a per capita vault of civic improvement capital unmatched in America. Foundations by their nature can take risks on new ideas to spur a better future, and our foundation executives are Pittsburgh’s most forward-thinking leaders.
- The public. Our citizens are Pittsburgh’s greatest power. To truly build the best place to live in the world, our citizens must become believers and the drivers of change. They must be engaged from the initial idea phase through execution.
There’s an old saying: good things take time, but great things happen all at once.
In a tremendous burst of intensity, Jonas Salk and his Pittsburgh team isolated the polio virus, created a vaccine and constructed the biggest field trial in history—with 20,000 doctors, 64,000 school personnel, 220,000 volunteers and more than 1.8 million children (just about the number of people in our region now). In less than seven years the vaccine was approved, and Salk was hailed as a miracle worker.
At a celebration of his 80th birthday, months before he died, Salk told me: “People say, ‘Where there’s a will there’s a way. I like to turn it around and say, ‘Where there’s a way, there isn’t always the will.’”
Do we in Pittsburgh have the will and the boldness to take advantage of opportunity and forge a great future for our city?
If we do, if we are to become miracle workers and accept the challenge of a Pittsburgh Moonshot—or whatever we want to call it—we’ll need a deadline: the end of this new decade. Ten years puts the urgency and onus of completion on the shoulders of those of us who are here now.
We also need a structure to coordinate the initiative. March 1995 saw the formation of the Committee to Prepare Allegheny County for the 21st Century (ComPAC 21). Within 10 months, the group issued its report, which led to a new Allegheny County government four years later. The structure we need—whether it exists currently or not—might oversee 10 such committee initiatives all vying to finish their component pieces of the overall project ahead of schedule.
And to get started, we will need Pittsburgh’s ideas for the city and region we want to build. About 10 years ago, the Power of 32 project gathered broad regional input and recently, so did the Allegheny Conference. We can build on these models. We need a plan, whether the mayor’s, the Allegheny Conference’s, or a hybrid combining strengths from both and new ideas.
The key will be to get our region’s citizens engaged and excited and build a coalition of the willing. If we don’t have buy-in, we don’t have anything. Like the March of Dimes, which funded Salk’s polio research, the Pittsburgh of Tomorrow will take shape through the efforts and contributions, large and small, of a multitude of Pittsburghers here and across the country. To succeed, we’ll need to catalyze a culture in which everyone sees and believes in the benefits and wants to be on the team.
Cities all like to be known for something. Some have famous festivals. Some win the Super Bowl. Some host presidential conventions or the G-20 or even the Olympics, putting them in the international spotlight until the next such event.
Similarly, people like to feel they’ve done something of note with their lives. We seek to be part of something bigger, something that will live beyond us.
Building America’s Renaissance City would fit that description. Imagine a city that innovates for a future we can’t yet comprehend. Imagine a green and healthy place that defines sustainability. Envision a region where everyone belongs and reaches their potential—a Pittsburgh where freedom of expression flourishes and creates a continuing cultural renaissance.
We have the raw materials. The next step is up to us.