You’ve come a long way, city

A look at Pittsburgh’s recent rankings and evolution from the smoky city to the most livable
Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania You've come a long way, city
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The 2009 Mercer Quality of Living Survey ranks Pittsburgh 52nd in the world. This annual report aims at an international business audience and compares 215 cities based on 39 criteria. Among the most important are: Political/​economic stability, safety, education, hygiene, recreation and transportation.

Each city is indexed against New York (100). The top five cities are Vienna (108. 6), Zurich (108), Geneva (107.9), Vancouver and Auckland, (both 107.4). Also scoring ahead of New York, which is 48th on the list, are Honolulu (103.3), San Francisco (103.2), Boston (101.9), Chicago and Washington, D.C. (both 100.4). The next U.S. cities after New York are Seattle (99.9), Lexington, Ky., (99.8) and Pittsburgh (99.7).

A bit of history: Since 1988, University of Pittsburgh scholars Frank Giarratani, Vijai Singh and Christopher Briem have often noted what they describe as the region’s resilience, evidenced by modest but steady growth in employment and output since the late 1980s. The transition has been painful, but the regional economy and social fabric have been radically diversified over the past 30 years. The universities have played a major role, in partnership with state and local government, business leaders and private foundations. The primary focuses of attention have been exploiting the region’s unique cultural and energy assets, as well as investing in infrastructure improvement, brownfield redevelopment, worker retraining and technology promotion.

Manufacturing, including steel, still plays a major regional role with 89,200 jobs in June. Today, however, Pittsburgh’s main source of employment by a wide margin is educational and health services (figure 1). The 230,700 jobs in this sector exceed totals in Baltimore and St. Louis, two of the nation’s centers of higher education, health care and research. Only the much larger cities of Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit and Minneapolis have as many people employed in this sector as does Pittsburgh.

Relevant pitts​burghto​day​.org indicators: Under the most recent ACCRA cost of living composite index, Pittsburgh scores 92.8. This is well below the 103.5 average for the 14 benchmark cities against which it is measured. The national rate, which is a market-​basket average and recalculated every quarter, is always 100 — the higher the score, the higher the cost of living. Pittsburgh Indicators measures annual pay in 18 occupations in 15 benchmark regions. Physicians and family practitioners are the region’s high-​paying jobs in this measurement, at $184,320. That 2008 number topped all benchmark regions but four (Boston, Kansas City, Charlotte and Milwaukee), as well as the nation at $161,490. Registered nurses, the region’s largest medical jobs category, has lower annual pay, at $59,200, than all benchmark regions except St. Louis and Charlotte. The U.S. average is $65,130.

The economy

Forbes magazine ranks Pittsburgh 10th best in its “livability” measures for 379 U.S. metro areas with a population of 500,000 or more. Not surprisingly, three of Forbes’ five measures concern financial well-​being: unemployment rate, personal income growth and cost of living. The other two are crime and cultural opportunity. The only cities of significant size in Forbes’ top 15 are No. 8 Baltimore, No. 9 Denver and No. 10 Pittsburgh. Forbes’ top three in order are Portland, Maine; Bethesda, Md.; and Des Moines, Iowa.

A bit of history: In the early 1980s, a significant national recession pushed Pittsburgh to the economic brink. The local steel industry, which had been in slow but steady decline for 30 years, went off the cliff as inflation reached a high of 20 percent in June 1981. Federal Reserve Chief Paul Volcker’s tight money policies took immediate hold; the prime interest rate had reached 21.5 percent in June 1982, and housing, steel and auto production slid into a decline that took the rest of the decade to overcome.

Between 1979 and 1983, Pittsburgh lost 44,800 steel jobs — 51 percent of the region’s total — along with an equal loss of related industrial employment. By 1983, 192,700 people were out of work, and when the hemorrhaging stopped in 1986 there was a permanent loss of 120,000 manufacturing jobs. The pain was particularly acute in Beaver County, where the unemployment rate in February 1983 was a staggering 28 percent. Getting beyond those momentous events was a challenge that continues to this day.

Relevant pitts​burghto​day​.org indicators In July 2008, regional employment was 1,176,895, the highest monthly number since July 1999’s 1,178,319, which was a record. The most recent monthly total was a preliminary figure of 1,144,058 in June, which reflects the current recession.

Pittsburgh’s unemployment rate and rate of job loss in 2009 have been high, but much lower than numbers recorded in other benchmark regions. The region’s unemployment rate in June was 7.7 percent, lower than the rate in all of the 14 benchmark regions against which Pittsburgh measures itself. The benchmark average in June was 9.8 percent, the national rate was 9.5 percent, and Detroit’s rate was 17.1 percent (figure 3).

Older and less crowded

The Economist magazine’s Intelligence Unit annually rates 140 international cities on 40 indicators in five categories: stability, health care, culture and environment, education and infrastructure. Pittsburgh was the top-​rated U.S. city in 29th place overall, followed by Cleveland. The top 10 cites, 1 to 10, are Vancouver, Melbourne, Vienna, Perth, Toronto, Adelaide, Sydney, Copenhagen, Geneva and Zurich. London is 51st and New York 56th.

Canada, with low crime, little threat from instability or terrorism and a highly developed infrastructure, is the most livable destination in the world,” according to the editors. “High scoring cities tend to be mid-​sized and located in developed counties with a low population density,” they explain. “This means they can benefit from the availability of both cultural and recreational attractions, but with low crime levels and fewer infrastructure problems than are found among larger populations.”

A bit of history: In the decade before the steel collapse, the Pittsburgh region experienced a 1.9 percent population loss. In the 1980s, the loss was 7.4 percent, as hard times produced net annual population losses as high as 50,000 people per year. By mid-​decade, the massive emigration had ceased. However, annual population losses averaging 1.5 percent continued through the 1990s, establishing demographic norms that persist. In a 2002 paper, Robert Gradeck of Carnegie Mellon University explained the consequences: “On a net basis, 389,000 people who left the region between 1970 and 2000 were estimated to still be alive in 2000. Children and grandchildren born to these out-​migrants number an estimated 205,000 in 2000. Had the Pittsburgh region had neutral net migration rate between 1970 and 2000, the year 2000 population would have been nearly 3 million, as opposed to the actual figure of 2.35 million.” In the years since Gradeck wrote, small declines have continued, with the result that Pittsburgh is unique among the nation’s population centers with three decades of loss, going on four (figure 4).

A related consequence is that Pittsburghers of different age groups have significantly different social profiles. For example, adults (age 25 to 64) with a college degree or higher total 24 percent of the population, putting Pittsburgh in the bottom third of the nation’s regions. When only Pittsburghers between 25 and 34 are considered, the percentage with a college degree or higher is greater (41.9 percent) and tops all but eight U.S. regions. When the same calculation is limited to post-​graduate degrees, only Boston, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco have a higher percentage than Pittsburgh.

Relevant pitts​burghto​day​.org indicators: Burglary is the principal property crime in the U.S. In 2007, the Pittsburgh burglary rate was 456 per 100,000 residents. That’s the lowest among the benchmark regions, which average 734. Only Boston and Minneapolis had a lower murder rate than Pittsburgh, and only Denver had a lower robbery rate.

In the five years ending March 31, 2009, the average price of a single family house in Pittsburgh has appreciated 17.6 percent. This compares with a national average of 23.4 percent and 15.5 percent for benchmark regions. Among that group, the high was Baltimore at 41.8 percent, and the low was Detroit at minus 18.8 percent (figure 5).

The Texas Traffic Institute publishes a traffic congestion index of delays on major roads during peak travel hours. Among benchmark regions, only Cleveland had less congestion than Pittsburgh, with Cleveland drivers losing 12 hours a year in traffic, compared with Pittsburghers’ annual loss of 15 hours. Washington, D.C. (62 hours) and Detroit (52 hours) had the most congestion among benchmark regions.


Places Rated Almanac again declared Pittsburgh America’s most livable city in its latest edition (2007), leading San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and Philadelphia, in that order. The measure ranks 379 metro areas in housing, cost of living, transportation, jobs, education, climate, crime, health care, recreation, performing arts, restaurants and historic districts.

There is so much different material aggregated that it is difficult to identify this index’s point of view. The editors say they favor places with low housing costs, little crime and “things to do.” The result is that a city such as Pittsburgh scores well because it is not characterized by dramatic highs and lows. (Pittsburgh’s highest category is recreation, where it ranks 21st, and its lowest is climate, at 135th.) There have been seven versions of the index since 1981, and Pittsburgh is the only city to be among the top 20 cities in each.

A bit of history: Much has been made over the years about the large number of local governments in the Pittsburgh region. This reality is a product, in large part, of the region’s topography, which was and remains determinative in its development. The confluence of a major national river system at The Point created the center of the metropolis. But hundreds of miles of navigable water drove industrial and communal development far from that urban core and sustained a vibrant and relatively far-​flung industrial and social life.

The coal mining of Appalachia was a related and significant factor in how and where communities were established. Dozens and dozens of small towns and boroughs in 22 counties were part of that system that remains to this day. The great bulk of them were impacted negatively by the highways and automobiles that replaced railroads following the Great Depression. Poverty and abandonment are well-​publicized aspects of life in the region’s urban core, but the same realities exist in equal measure in small towns tucked in green valleys and tree-​banked river communities. In many places, however, it is largely a matter of out of sight, out of mind.

Relevant pitts​burghto​day​.org indicators: Of the Pittsburgh adult population, 53 percent have taken music lessons or classes at some time in their life. This compares with 48.5 percent for the nation, according to the latest data from the National Endowment for the Arts.

According to the last U.S. census (2000), 14.8 percent of Pittsburgh children lived in poverty. This was the highest rate among the benchmark regions, which averaged 12.8 percent, but lower than the national average of 16.6 percent. African Americans accounted for 6.8 percent of the Pittsburgh population in that same census. Boston, Denver and Minneapolis, all under 5 percent, were the only benchmark regions with lower black population rates.

John G. Craig, Jr.

Before his death in 2010, John edited daily newspapers for 33 years, his final 27 as editor of the Pittsburgh Post-​Gazette until 2003. He was president of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Regional Indicators Consortium and former co-​chairman and executive committee member of the Riverlife Task Force.

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