Friday, July 07, 2006

Chi-Pitts Megalopolis

The Newsweek International article referenced in the previous post is one of many in an issue about the emerging urban trend of population migrating to second cities. Mr. Creative Class himself, Richard Florida, makes a guest appearance to discuss the new characteristics of the old megalopolis. Florida makes the argument that despite the dramatic growth of second cities, the traditional urban hierarchy is alive and well.

Dr. Florida has a point. Global cities anchor every giant urban corridor. Pittsburgh is the eastern end of a swath of light that stretches through Cleveland and Detroit, all the way to Chicago. I think I once read, or somebody passed along an anecdote, that Pittsburgh imagines itself competing with New York City, but really has much more in common with Chicago. Pittsburgh gazes to the East, but its soul belongs to the Midwest.

US Census data support this understanding of Pittsburgh's universe. If a Pittsburgher leaves home, she or he will most likely land in Chicago. That fact shouldn't surprise me, but it does. For whatever reason, the Pittsburgh-Chicago connection is not overwhelmingly apparent, yet Florida's simple observation is irrefutable. In some sense, a number of Pittsburghers have not left the region, they merely migrated to the other pole of the Chi-Pitts megalopolis.

In the latest Pittsburgh Quarterly, a good-looking magazine if you haven't seen a copy, John G. Craig Jr. reorients the city to the west when considering populations the regional airport might serve. Craig quotes the CEO of Dollar Bank and chair of American West Airlines, Stephen Hansen, who states that we "tend to overlook the large population residing in the 130 miles between Pittsburgh and Cleveland."

If Pittsburgh looks west, it goes all the way to San Diego or Phoenix. And if the locals aren't moving to Ohio in search of exurb living, they are going all the way to Florida for sun, fun and jobs. What second cities are booming in the urban corridor between Chicago and Pittsburgh?

When Dr. Florida corrects advocates of decentralization geography by saying that second cities do not emerge in the "middle of nowhere", he conveniently overlooks Las Vegas. Granted Vegas is tied to Los Angeles in a number of ways, but you could say similar things about Salt Lake City and other sites of "extreme commuting".

Pittsburgh's region is not as conveniently contiguous as Dr. Florida suggests. Like many other Pittsburghers, Dr. Florida left the area and moved to Washington, DC. If there is a connection-worthy region relatively nearby, it is DC. The exurbs of DC and Baltimore stretch westward, even over a mountain range, coming ever so close to the southern reaches of the Pittsburgh region.

I'm not suggesting that Pittsburgh blast a highway directly to the outer rings of the Beltway, but to build a different kind of infrastructure that connects the many talented Pittsburghers living in and around DC with their home. Rising gas prices may curtail the trend of extreme commuting, but skyrocketing real estate prices have proven to be a strong push factor, driving much of the second city boom.

Imagine a community roughly halfway between Pittsburgh and DC. The worker telecommutes on most days to a job closer to the nation's capital. She can easily make her way into town if the need for a face-to-face meeting arises. On weekends she heads to Pittsburgh to see friends and family. The cheaper mortgage allows her to afford a second residence in her hometown and the city comes alive with expatriates.

Counterintuitively, I'm suggesting that Pittsburgh encourage this pattern and intensify linkages with DC. Satellite offices will start popping up in the Golden Triangle and some businesses will even completely relocate if the opportunities are better than what they can find in the DC region. Pittsburgh should reach southward with development, not west.

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