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The 'burgh and the Motor City: On Sprawl and Cities

Paul Krugman is smarter than I’ll ever be, but his take the other week on the causes of the divergence between bankrupt Detroit and my awesome ancestral hometown of Pittsburgh strikes me as a little off.  To Krugman, suburban sprawl – specifically, job sprawl – jumps out as a potential cause of Detroit’s collapse, one not present in resurgent Pittsburgh.

I’m sympathetic to Krugman’s argument – maintaining a strong urban core is critical to a city’s economic vitality in the 21st century (and a good idea for all sorts of environmental and quality of life reasons). But, like anything, a closer look yields more complexity than immediately meets the eye.

First, while I’m as proud as any member of the diaspora of Pittsburgh’s resurgence, it’s important not to get too triumphalist. In many ways, Pittsburgh was Detroit before Detroit was Detroit. There are fewer than half as many people living within Pittsburgh’s city limits as lived there in 1950. Pittsburgh’s municipal finances are not quite the omnishambles of Detroit, but the difference is one of degree, rather than kind. The city still finds itself having to deal with obligations – pensions, infrastructure repair, etc. – of a city twice its size. And while the city’s downtown is more vibrant than it’s been in decades, the Pittsburgh area is pockmarked with mini-Detroits – former mill towns in the Ohio and Monongahela valleys, depressed neighborhoods within the city itself – where hope pulled up stakes and left decades ago.

Moreover, despite a metropolitan population that pretty much held steady for the last half of the 20th century, Pittsburgh sprawled like a bat out of hell. By some measures (albeit somewhat flawed ones), it was the sprawlingest metro in the United States. So a lack of sprawl is probably not the determining factor in Pittsburgh’s relative success.

Since many others seem to be giving their unscientific takes on why things in Pittsburgh are looking up while Detroit’s prospects are so gloomy, I can’t help but take the opportunity to add my own.

First, as Matthew Yglesias argues, Pittsburgh was fortunate to have some of the seeds of economic regeneration already planted by the time the steel industry went kablooey. Cutting-edge research institutions such as Carnegie Mellon University, a big public university in the University of Pittsburgh, and already thriving financial and corporate headquarters sectors provided a foundation on which a new economy could be built, even as hundreds of thousands of people moved elsewhere in the 1970s and 1980s.

Second, Pittsburgh invested in the environment and quality of life. More than two decades before the federal Clean Air Act, Pittsburgh’s Smoke Control ordinance took the first step toward cleaning the city’s notoriously foul air. The clearance of industrial land at the confluence of the three rivers resulted in the creation of a beautiful and much-used urban park. (The restoration of those rivers to health as a result of the Clean Water Act certainly helped, too.) The city also maintained a vibrant arts and culture scene that has played an important role in fueling the city’s resurgence. When Pittsburgh was named America’s “Most Livable City” in 1985, immediately after the collapse of the steel industry, much of the nation scoffed, but local residents knew what they meant.

Third, Krugman is right that Pittsburgh did maintain a vibrant urban core, but its continued vitality is the result of luck as much as skill. The region’s leaders bought into most of the failed urban economic development fads of the last half-century hook, line and sinker. But Pittsburgh’s urban core survived in spite of those decisions due to its natural advantages. Given the region’s mountainous terrain, most of the development in Pittsburgh happens along winding corridors defined by creeks and rivers, which are surrounded by steep, often un-developable hills. Downtown Pittsburgh sits at a sort of natural center where major roads, transit lines and development corridors meet, making downtown a logical place for all of those strands to come together.

Lastly, there is the ‘burgh’s civic culture, which is practical, fiercely loyal, and surprisingly open to change. It’s a place where small-scale innovation of many kinds is respected, hard work is prized, and pretention of any kind is frowned upon.

A large part of why Pittsburgh is rebounding, IMHO, is because what Pittsburgh is selling – a dramatic and beautiful natural setting, high quality of life, a strong downtown, abundant arts and culture, cheap housing in walkable neighborhoods, friendly (but not too friendly!) people – is something that people increasingly desire and is in very short supply. Some of that is due to the actions of city and regional leaders, whose best moves over the decades have been those that have sought to build on the city’s innate strengths. But part of it is due to the spirit and energy of rank-and-file Pittsburghers and a healthy dollop of good fortune.

So, while many of the observations about the causes of Detroit’s downfall have validity, the most important lessons of Pittsburgh’s rebound may not be easily transferable. Rebuilding the urban core, strengthening neighborhoods, improving governance and diversifying the economy are, of course, important. But the greatest lesson Pittsburgh may offer to Detroit is to follow the words of Shakespeare: to thine own self be true.