Sunday, June 29, 2008

Bullish on Pittsburgh

Looking at the cast of Rust Belt cities, Pittsburgh looks strong. At least, I think the city looks strong. In accepting the Urbanophile Challenge, my goal is to convince you to see the region with the same optimism. My ammo is nothing more than the previous posts in this blog.

Pittsburgh has both net outmigration and natural decrease. The sum of this observation is that Pittsburgh's population is declining, which is an indication of a weak city. I've done my share of parsing the demographics and trying to understand the migration landscape. I wouldn't even consider net outmigration without disaggregating the data. I also wouldn't thumb my nose at population gains and robust replacement rates. However, I'm more concerned with projections and what a city will look like going forward. There are indicators and then there are predictors.

Pittsburgh has an inmigration problem, not a net outmigration problem. Over the two years of writing this blog I've learned that young and educated people leave all cities, weak or strong. I consider the lack of outmigration from Pittsburgh to be one of the region's greatest weaknesses. If more people left, then wages would increase. As a result, inmigration would increase. This assumes that there are enough jobs for knowledge workers. Pittsburgh does just fine on this count. The overall analysis of migration strikes me as too much rational choice and not enough appreciation of chain migration. People don't always go to the strongest cities and emerging opportunities do not drive relocation overnight.

My main worry is the lack of job creation. But even that dire prospect may be moot in the face of the retiring Baby Boomers. Pittsburgh is ahead of the curve when it comes to an aging demographic. However, the region has a glut of talent from local sources. If Indianapolis is starved for knowledge workers, then guess where they will look? Eventually, businesses will just relocate instead of compete with other cities for the shrinking pool of software engineers. The number of shrinking cities will continue to grow, but few of them are equipped to deal with it.

Despite all the listed weaknesses, Pittsburgh is weather the current economic recession relatively well. I would expect a downturn to punish weak cities. The best test of urban strength is a turbulent global market. Thanks to the exodus of the 1980s, Pittsburgh diversified and restructured. The municipal government is still a mess, but the region is remarkably resilient. The worst of the demographic storm is long past and the shakeout of globalization leaves Pittsburgh well positioned for the coming decade.

1 comment:

The Urbanophile said...

Thank you for the posting. In my view, the biggest thing in Pittsburgh's favor is that its traditional industries were completely destroyed years ago. (At least it seems that way). Many cities like Detroit, Cleveland, etc. are hurting today because they never lost all of what they had, and spent their energies trying to retain the dying industries of the past, or were outright in denial. Pittsburgh knows its historic industries aren't coming back.

The other thing for Pittsburgh is that at some point natural decrease will end.