“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.