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.

 
 
 
 

What’s behind the rise of the ornamental restaurant toilet?

Toilets at Sketch restaurant, London. Image: Nik Stanbridge/Flickr.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the toilets of a zeitgeisty new Italian restaurant in east London called Gloria. As with so many contemporary restaurant toilets, those in question were an aesthetic extension of the establishment’s soul. The inventive menu was matched by two-way mirrored toilet doors.

The setup was this: cubicle occupants could see out while the unisex crowd milling around the taps could check their outfits on the exterior mirrors. All fun and games, I thought. But then I found myself mid toilet with a guy peering into my door to change his contact lens. Either he had spectacularly bad manners or he was unaware of the two-way door thing. (Let’s hope it’s the latter.)

Gloria’s toilets aren’t unique in their attempt to be distinctive. The loos at nearby Mr Fogg’s Maritime Club & Distillery are adorned with specimen boards of dead spiders. Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s The Sun Inn invites patrons to pee in buckets, and trumpets double as urinals in The Bell Inn in East Sussex. Men can wee into the vista if they’re dining in the Shard. And Sketch’s ovum shaped loos are the stuff of urban legend.

Further afield, transparent doors become frosted only after they’re locked at Brussels’ Belga Queen. In Otto’s Bierhalle in Toronto, diners can press a button to activate their own private rave. And the toilets in Robot Restaurant in Tokyo have gold-plated interiors and dancing robots.

What’s behind this trend? Are quirky toilets just a bit of fun – or an unnecessary complication to the simple act of going for a wee and checking you don’t have tomato sauce on your chin?

Yotam Ottolenghi’s London flagship restaurant Nopi crops up often in conversations about restaurant bathrooms. A hall of mirrors glitters enticingly ahead of loo-bound diners. “The bathroom needs to be the nicest part [of] the whole place because that’s where you’re on your own,” says Alex Meitlis, the designer behind the space.

But no one is truly alone in 2019. If surveys are to be believed, nearly 65 per cent of millennials take their phone to the bathroom with them. Mike Gibson, who edits the London food and drink magazine Foodism agrees that the bathroom selfie – searches for which, incidentally, yield over 1.5m results on Instagram – is part of the reason that contemporary lavatory design is so attention seeking.


“Any new venue that's opening will be super aware that there's probably not an inch of their restaurant that won't be photographed or filmed at some point”, he says. But bathrooms like Nopi’s predate this trend. Indeed, Meitlis believes he has created a haven from the smartphone obsession; Nopi’s mirrors are angled in such a way that means you have to seek out your reflection. “You can choose whether to look for yourself in the mirror or not.”

Another driving force is the increasingly competitive restaurant landscape. “It’s almost like there’s some sort of ever-escalating competition going on amongst new openings, which makes every visit a faintly terrifying experience”, says food writer and New Statesman contributor Felicity Cloake. Gibson agrees. “Restaurants want an edge wherever possible, and design definitely comes into that.”

So novelty bathrooms get you noticed, promote social media engagement and entertain diners who are momentarily without the distraction of company. (Although, it must be said, quirky bathrooms tend to make the loo trip a more sociable experience; a Gloria spokesperson described the restaurant’s toilets as somewhere you can “have a good laugh and meet people along the way.”)

Nevertheless, I’m not the only one who finds bathroom surprises disconcerting.  One TripAdvisor user thought the Belga Queen loos were “scary”. And a friend reports that her wonderment at the Nopi bathroom was laced with mirror maze induced nausea – and mild panic when she realised she didn’t know the way out. Should restaurants save the thrills for the food?

“I think it's important not to be too snarky about these things – restaurants are meant to playful,” says Gibson. Cloake agrees that novelty is fine, but adds: “my favourite are places like Zelman Meats in Soho that have somewhere in the dining room where you can easily wash your hands before sitting down and tucking in.”

So perhaps we should leave toilets unadorned and instead ramp up the ornamentation elsewhere. Until then, I’ll be erecting a makeshift curtain in all mirrored toilets I encounter in future. An extreme reaction, you might say. But, as I wish I could have told the rogue contact lens inserter, it’s not nice to pry into someone else’s business.