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 South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.