Saturday, February 28, 2009

Understanding Pittsburgh Resiliency

Demography is destiny. Age, along with a healthy dose of eds and meds, can explain the geography of the economic crisis in California. The Economist explains:

California’s youngest regions are in its hot interior. In the middle years of this decade hundreds of thousands of families moved there in search of big, affordable houses. Unfortunately, many took on big, unaffordable mortgages to do it. Last month one in every 87 households in youthful, formerly fast-growing San Bernardino County received a foreclosure filing, according to California-based RealtyTrac. The housing crash has led such areas into an economic tailspin.

Santa Barbara has watched all this from the sidelines. In this slow-growth stronghold, anything other than a glacial pace of development is anathema. Mr Cushman says that only one block of flats for rent has been built in the region in the past 30 years. And some want to curtail growth further. Later this year the city will decide whether to reduce the maximum height of downtown buildings from 60ft to 40ft (18 metres to 12 metres). “We like Santa Barbara the way it is,” says Marty Blum, the mayor.

This stuffy attitude has saved the city, together with others along the Pacific coast. Last month Santa Barbara County’s foreclosure rate was just one in 298, well below the state average. Nor did the city build huge office parks which might now be vacant. As for industry, there was never much in the first place, “so there’s just not much to lose,” says Bill Watkins, an economist at the local branch of the University of California.

The diciest part of Santa Barbara’s economy is the tourism business. Hotel receipts have dipped slightly this fiscal year as day-trippers from Los Angeles fasten their wallets. But much of the local economy is recession-proof. As well as the university, Santa Barbara has a large community college. It also has Cottage Hospital, which is being rebuilt—a job that will eventually employ up to 500 workers.

Health care is the only private-sector industry in California that accounted for job growth in 2008. Here, too, places benefit from having a fairly old population. The median age of people admitted to Santa Barbara’s Cottage Hospital is 55—eight years older than UCLA Hospital in Los Angeles. Although hospitals complain it is too stingy, few sources of revenue are more stable than Medicare, which paid for 44% of Santa Barbara’s patients in 2008.

In the past ten years, obedient to the findings of urban sociologists, American cities have tripped over themselves vying for young, creative people. They have revitalised downtowns and sponsored gay-pride parades. They might have been better off building retirement homes.

The Santa Barbara story reminds me of Pittsburgh. There is the history of modest growth and, of course, a population much older than the rest of the country. I picture the more mature tortoise winning the economic race.

While the similarities are striking, the demographic picture of Southwestern PA is poised to get younger. Pittsburgh is in perfect position to streak out of the downturn and become one of the urban engines driving the country's economic recovery. While Santa Barbara continues its steady plodding, I'm hoping that the Tech Belt can embrace a new way of doing things and take full advantage of the opportunity.

Update: New Geography offers a compelling counterpoint to the Economist narrative:

High concentrations of older people and declining incomes are often associated with deteriorating schools, amenities and increasing crime. The aged wealthy are not in Ventura County to invest in its future. They are there to consume it. They will not invest in the future – particularly if their children and relatives have gone elsewhere.

Ventura County is not unique. It is fairly representative of Coastal California. Communities like Ventura, Goleta, and San Luis Obispo used to be middle-class communities that valued opportunity. Things are even more extreme in California’s elite playgrounds: Monterey, Malibu, and Santa Barbara. Populations in Monterey and Santa Barbara have actually declined over the past several years. Similar phenomena may be noticeable in other formerly elite suburbs within our most favored metropolitan areas.

I highly recommend reading the entire article.

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