Pittsburgh is a glimmer of hope for cities managing industrial decline

The Pittsburgh skyline in 2009. Image: Getty.

“Pittsburgh’s Back”. “Pittsburgh’s Path to Recovery”. “Pittsburgh Rebuilds and Rebrands”. The last few years have seen glowing headlines for the rust belt city in western Pennsylvania.

Up until recently, its story was a depressingly familiar one of industrial decline and economic malaise. Once a thriving base for steel manufacturing, a combination of overseas competition and tech-driven automation beginning in the 1970s led to the decimation of jobs and output. Between 1981 and 1983 – two particularly tough years – the number of people out of work jumped from 89,000 to 212,000.

But 35 years later, Pittsburgh is a city with a skip in its step. The economy now revolves around the lucrative industries of health care, robotics and higher education. In place of steel plates, beams and wires, the city sells insurance packages, advanced medicine, legal services and virtual reality technology.

Dozens of successful companies have emerged in the last decade. Argo AI produces self-driving car software for Ford Motor Company, Duolingo has created a popular app to power language learning, and Nowait sells technology to aid bookings in restaurants. Each is valued in the tens of millions of dollars.

Unlike Detroit, which went bankrupt in 2013, Pittsburgh managed to bring itself back from the brink of financial ruin. How? Not solely because of good fortune, as some have suggested – but because of concerted leadership that relentlessly focused on the long-term.

The city is clearly fortunate to have two world class universities: Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh (UoP) pump out research and talent that are critical to high value industries. UoP alone spun out 23 start ups last year, while Carnegie Mellon has encouraged Uber and Google to set up collaborative outposts nearby.  

Pittsburgh is also blessed with rich family dynasties that have ploughed money into the city. Children read books in the Carnegie Library, oncologists study at the Hillman Cancer Center, while music lovers enjoy classical performances at Heinz Hall.

But political and civic leaders have played just as critical a role in Pittsburgh’s revival as established institutions and foundations.

Take the ex-governor of Pennsylvania, Dick Thornburgh. In 1982, he launched several technology centres in the state, with the aim of financing research, start-ups, workforce training and company incubation. One of these – Innovation Works – took root in Pittsburgh. Today it offers a 20-week business development programme for budding entrepreneurs, and in 2014 was ranked the sixth best accelerator in the country.

J. Kevin McMahon, President of The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust (PCT), is another local changemaker. Under his stewardship, the PCT turned the once dilapidated downtown area into a flourishing arts and entertainment district. His push for real estate transformation has helped to repopulate neighbourhoods that would otherwise be desolate. 


The current mayor, Bill Peduto, is a third pioneer. With 96 per cent of the public’s backing in the 2017 mayoral election, he has the mandate to be bold in his policies – and it shows. When Trump pulled out of the latest global climate deal by claiming he was “elected by the voters of Pittsburgh, not Paris”, Peduto was swift to reply that the city will stand by the commitments of the accord, regardless of the bluster from national politicians.

For city expert Bruce Katz, the leadership shown by Peduto and others in Pittsburgh is emblematic of the ‘new localism’ that cities need if they are to prosper in turbulent times. Speaking at a recent RSA summit in the city, Katz said the best leaders collaborate across sector boundaries, for example by orchestrating publicly-owned and privately-managed corporations and establishing philanthropic investment funds.

Pittsburgh has done just that. Back in 1985, the then mayor of Pittsburgh worked with the presidents of the two major universities to develop a joint strategy to invest in major projects, including the International Airport. More recently, city leaders have come together under the banner of OnePGH to tackle climate change, aging infrastructure and other grand challenges.

Pittsburgh’s revival is not spotless. The city’s population is still declining – albeit marginally – and some neighbourhoods and demographic groups remain side-lined. A Brookings study found that, between 2010-15, black workers in Pittsburgh saw their median wages drop by a shocking 19.6 per cent. The figure for white workers was a positive 8.1 per cent.

Yet for all its faults, the city’s rebirth remains astounding. Speak to Pittsburghers and it is hard not to be moved by their optimism for the future, bolstered by what their city had forged in the past. With national leadership in the US and UK at best mediocre and at worst chaotic, Pittsburgh’s rise is a reassuring tale that plenty can be achieved at city hall with sensible people at the helm.

Hull, Sheffield and Bradford may lack the same powers as Pittsburgh, but they have at least the same assets to exploit: civic pride in buckets, universities and talent on their doorsteps, and budding arts and cultural scenes. If Pittsburgh’s turnaround tells us anything, it is that our old industrial heartlands should never be written off lightly. Where Pittsburgh has led, others can follow.

Benedict Dellot is head of the RSA’s Future Works Centre.

 
 
 
 

In New Zealand, climate change is driving an eco-nationalist revival

The green and pleasant land of the South Island. Image: Getty.

“Ten years ago I would have called them settler f*****g land squatters,” Mike Smith, Maori-dom’s most tenacious activist, said last November as he reflected on the agriculture industry’s central role in driving climate change. “Now I have to try and get these people on board.”

Smith is infamous for taking a chainsaw to Auckland’s most prominent tree on a damp October night in 1994 in protest of the “Pākehā” – or white European –dominated government’s fiscal envelope restraining treaty settlements. Now he’s turned his hand to another cause close-to-home for the Maori, New Zealand’s indigenous population: the environment.

“We’re super vulnerable, like we are to anything,” Smith says. “When it comes to climate change it’s like the poorest people in the world are going to be hit the hardest first, and that’s a lot of us.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern appears, at least rhetorically, the most sympathetic leader to his cause in a decade. In her campaign launch speech late last year, she made the future government’s position clear: “Climate change is my generation’s nuclear free moment.”

This message should resonate with followers of her Labour party: the NZ left has long nurtured an environment-orientated “culture-of-protest”. So Ardern’s call to arms was bound to gain her loyal support among children of the 1960s and ‘70s, who led the march against nuclear ship visits, spurring on the government of the time to wriggle out from the US nuclear umbrella, and place a ban on foreign nuclear ship visits.

Now, it is to the tycoons of deep sea oil exploration they aim to close NZ’s ports.

In this, Smith is not short of support locally, with marches run by grassroots organisations and international animal welfare funds beginning to gain traction with every day New Zealanders. In this, Ardern’s prediction is correct: the Coal Action Network Aotearoa (CANA), is reminiscent of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), an earlier cluster of left-wing pacifists and nature lovers who drove the creation of the nuclear free zone.  

In December, 15,000 passionate protesters marched through the capital. And with the government’s recent ban of offshore oil exploration projects, Jeanette Fitzsimons, former Green party co-leader and the head of CANA, is optimistic about similar change to the energy and farming sectors.

The Labour-NZ First-Green party coalition seems focused on setting a new global precedent, weaning NZ away from a United States which has jettisoned the Paris Agreement. The move replicates another 20 years ago, when New Zealand’s anti-nuclear movement was central to an upsurge in New Zealand nationalism. Now, the same sense of going it alone on foreign policy is apparent both locally and in Parliament.

Dr. Gradon Diprose, a senior lecturer at Massey University, argues that this echoes an older expression of colonial nationalism, that saw “New Zealand as a land of natural abundance”. This: “eco-nationalism” is centered on “protecting certain visions of picturesque landscapes and unspoiled natural beauty”. The slogan “Clean, green New Zealand” is prevalent in popular culture and tourism marketing. The public seems to have latched onto it too, and ranked keeping NZ’s waterways “clean and green” top of a recent survey of of kiwis’ top concerns.

Three decades ago, it was the 10 July 1985 sinking of the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior that thrust local activists’ fears into the public eye, resulting in an almost nation-wide expression of climate-protectionism.


The bombing, a French intelligence operation sparked by Greenpeace’s calls for an end to foreign nuclear testing in the Pacific, galvanised a great deal of change to New Zealand’s overseas defence policies. A lack of censure from New Zealand’s Western allies drove Wellington to distance itself from the United States, while the shock of seeing a friendly nation violate NZ’s sovereignty left many at home seething.

Thirty years on, the foreign policy split throughout the Anglosphere, regarding Russian-Western relations, globalism, and the old international rules-based order, is becoming wider. Climate change is just the tip of the iceberg.

Most Kiwis you talk to will shake their heads in disapproval at US president Donald Trump’s scandalous outing last year in Helsinki. But US defiance of internationally brokered climate resolutions is something they can see clearly reflected in rural communities across the country.

The country saw records broken at both ends of the extreme weather spectrum last year. As 2018 kicked off, Kiwis sweltered through the hottest summer on record, while in Golden Bay, a small inlet near the northern tip of the South Island, residents endured the largest flood in 150 years. So, when President Trump tweets “So much for Global Warming”, the majority of New Zealanders look back fondly on NZ’s 1985 decision to boycott the “ANZUS” treaty, putting New Zealand at odds with its war-time ally America on defence legislation.

Public calls to take the same track on environmental regulation have become louder in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. The former US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, received a frosty “unwelcome” while on a flyby to the capital in 2017, with the New York Times’ Washington correspondent, Gardiner Harris remarking: “I’ve never seen so many people flip the bird at an American motorcade as I saw today”. Protests against President Trump’s stance on climate change are beginning to gain greater traction further still, with the hundred-strong “march for science” setting the tone for the new government later that year.

New Zealand certainly isn’t afraid of radicalism, and its activists are persistent. It’s already banned single use plastics in supermarkets. Plenty more is to come, Smith says.

And yes, reform is going to inhibit sometimes vital industries: “It doesn’t matter which way you spin the dice on this, whatever’s being done is going to hurt. People who are looking for a painless way of mitigating climate change, [but] I don’t think there is one.”

But among Smith’s troupe of climate agitators, the feeling is that, without drastic change, “the land”, the heart of the Maori ethos, is going to be hurt far more.

Back in Auckland, NZ’s financial hub, an electric scooter craze is gripping the city. This, too, has gained the support of local environmentalists. In New Zealand, a national sense of pride is always coupled with a certain eccentricity. In a country this size, change always starts small.