Monday, June 23, 2008

The Urbanophile Challenge

Weak or strong player? The blogger behind the The Urbanophile and I were discussing the prospects of Pittsburgh over the weekend. The challenge is for me to explain why I'm so bullish on Pittsburgh. The Urbanophile notes the dire indicators such as anemic job creation, net out-migration, and educational attainment. I must admit, Pittsburgh does look relatively weak on paper.

My charge is to review my own blog posts and cobble together my rationale for a strong Pittsburgh. Perhaps I'll get around to providing an answer this week, but the work involved makes this weekend the better prospect. Meanwhile, I'll leave the quantitatively inclined with some numbers to chew on:

From Null Space: For those of you not in the know, Chris Briem's blog is a wealth of data analysis and helpful visuals. I've learned from Chris that one should drill down into the data (usually disaggregate) before hitting the economic panic button. The example I reference describes how depressed wages and the obsession with young adults leaving the region are difficult to reconcile. If Pittsburghers want to fret about something, then city debt would be worthy of all the hand wringing.

The second website/blog that any critic of Pittsburgh should peruse is Pittsburgh Today. How does Pittsburgh compare to other US regions? Primarily the work of John Craig, the host of regional indicators paints a sophisticated picture of the economic landscape. Digesting the wealth of data, I find it difficult to decide if Pittsburgh is a weak or strong player. There are assets to be leveraged and liabilities to be addressed. The companion blog also reveals both good and bad, but I leave The Urbanophile with a glimpse of why I think Pittsburgh is a good bet to emerge as one of the strongest cities in the Rust Belt.

I accept this challenge with some trepidation. I tend to be overly optimistic and I'm sure a strong case against Pittsburgh could be constructed. However, I haven't ignored the negative harbingers. If anything, the lack of in-migration and immigration has forced Pittsburgh to get lean and mean. The deck has been stacked against Pittsburgh for some time and I think a lot of the restructuring is positioning the region for a strong run into the future.


The Urbanophile said...

Thanks for posting. I'll look forward to more. I'm not too proud to learn from Pittsburgh, if there's something operationalizeable I could take away.

The Pittsburgh Today site is good. It seems to, at first glance, to real analysis, not marketing analysis.

I'm curious to know what attracted you to Pittsburgh of all cities, if you didn't have a particular personal connection there. What process brought you to this?

Jim Russell said...

There is a personal connection of sorts, my passion for the Pittsburgh Steelers. My encounters with Steelers Nation got me to thinking about domestic applications of diaspora networks. Turns out that there isn't much economic opportunity among Steelers fans (weak connections that typically don't extend beyond shared game watching), but the Pittsburgh Diaspora looks to be a different story.

Some diaspora networks are successful, many others fail to do much more than bring a few like-minded together. While studying differences between urban diasporas, I came to know more about economic landscape of Pittsburgh and the plight of all shrinking cities. I wondered about the variance between these cities when considering how to make a successful transition from the industrial economy to the knowledge economy.

Could what is particularly bad in Pittsburgh (relative to other Rust Belt cities) become an asset, a comparative advantage?

I now see evidence that the answer to this question is in the affirmative and this conclusion might summarize my 2-year blog journey to date. However, I think Pittsburgh could do a lot more to operationalize this advantage.

The Urbanophile said...

Have you read The New Argonauts by Annalee Saxenean? She's also the author of Regional Advantage, which is a must read.

I read it to get her take on how the diaspora communities of Taiwan, China, Indian, and Israel were able to stimulate economic growth in those countries. I plan a full writeup for my blog, but the case studies she gave left me skeptical that the same model would work for US cities. It isn't that the diaspora concept is a bad one, but it won't work in the same way those places did.

Jim Russell said...

I did read The New Argonauts. If you you look at her formal research, you will see her interest in social capital and its role in entrepreneurial culture. The key is understanding how social capital can break free of the proximity rule and travel long distances.

The World Bank published a study of different diaspora networks, trying to tease out why some work and others do not. After reading that report, I started keeping tabs on various intentional diaspora networks (such as Globalscot, which is cited as a success) and trying to understand best practices.

Probably most salient to the approach I'm advocating are the differences between the Chinese and Indian Diasporas. China aggressively promoted out-migration as an economic strategy. On the other hand, India wanted nothing to do with its expatriates. Only very recently has India started reaching out to its Diaspora and engineer more brain circulation.

My own research points to Pittsburgh as being the base case scenario for an American urban diaspora. The Burgh Diaspora is quite similar to the Scottish Diaspora and I'm confident that the Globalscot model (cited as a best practice) could and would work for Pittsburgh.

The Urbanophile said...

Can you post a link to the World Bank report? I'd be very interested to read it.

The one thing that strikes me about these traditional diaspora networks is that they are based on racial/ethnic background. And the strength of those ties would be difficult to achieve for people who have only a secondary or tertiary association to a city.

My thinking has evolved to viewing urban diasporas more like a college or company alumni network. I'll admit to not having really invested huge amounts of thinking here yet. Hence my interest in your site.

Jim Russell said...

Unfortunately, the World Bank report isn't available online. You can find out about the reference here.

I think the alumni metaphor is a good one. That's how Globalscot works.