Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Cincinnati Does The Pittsburgh

Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are two cities that have a lot in common. Both places are under-appreciated urban gems, sporting dramatic topography and oozing Rust Belt charm. Via Aaron Renn, UrbanOut has noticed Cincinnati "following in Pittsburgh's footsteps":

When you study the economics on how well a region is doing, job growth, net in-migration, and population growth tend to be key indicators that are referenced and drawn upon. While these figures are important in understanding what is happening to your region from the outside-in, I believe they miss a bigger picture of what is occurring from the inside-out. Certainly, for the past 30 years Pittsburgh has been toward the bottom of the pile in terms of job growth, net in-migration, and population growth. And yet, few would disagree that the Pittsburgh of today is poised to become an a lead economic performer for years to come. This success is due to its ‘work with what you have’ and ‘build off existing assets’ attitude. Essentially, this is an inside-out approach to planning and economic development that doesn’t wait on the next big company or thing to come in and save the day. Instead, a city or region pools together existing resources and makes change happen from within. This is what Pittsburgh has done (eds’ and meds’ will be shouted on end from years to come) and in doing so, has provided a great example of how a region can turn itself around from economic collapse.

I emphasized the bit about Pittsburgh's weak indicators of economic health. I argue that the relative success demonstrates the low utility of our metrics. This is the main point I tried to communicate in a guest post at The Urbanophile:

Concerning the 1970 baseline, we would expect Columbus and the Twin Cities to do well over the next four decades. Smart cities tend to get smarter. Pittsburgh bucks the trend, unique among large metros (and not just Rust Belt cities). The result is some of the highest concentrations of college educated young adults in the entire country. As the Boomers leave the workforce, Pittsburgh will emerge on par with Boston, Austin, San Francisco, and Washington, DC In terms of the availability of talent.

The strong performance numbers have been there all along, for anyone who cared to look past the shrinking city title. The fallacy is that population growth indicates economic growth. This is industrial era thinking. New metrics track educational attainment and the migration of the college educated. Pittsburgh does very well on both counts.

Whether or not Pittsburgh offers a unique approach to regional economic development is open to debate. One of the key lessons to be learned from the Great Recession is that our understanding of success needs to change:

Call it the migration bust: Many of the fast-growing U.S. areas during the housing boom are now yielding some of the biggest income drops in the economic downturn. ...

... Whites and blacks have taken big hits since 2007 in once-torrid Sunbelt regions offering warm climates and open spaces, including Florida, Colorado, Arizona and Nevada, according to 2009 census data. Hispanics suffered paycheck losses in many "new immigrant" destinations in the interior U.S., which previously offered construction jobs and affordable housing, such as Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina.

Substantial inmigration and population gains masked fundamentally weak regional economies. As for Pittsburgh and other Rust Belt cities that have done relatively well during the downtown, decline dominated the headlines. Now, UrbanOut is calling Pittsburgh a "boomtown" and figuring that Cincinnati is next in line.

Pittsburgh. Boomtown. Rust Belt rising.

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