Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Pittsburgh Regional Advantage

When I see or hear "Pittsburgh", regional cooperation doesn't come to mind. A "Balkanized" political geography dominates my thoughts. That perspective is a bit of a myth. While we wait for the day of reckoning concerning the City's pension crisis, a lot is being accomplished at the regional scale:

My downfall was that I like to peer out the window while the plane is landing. I also like the aisle seat, so this gives the person next to me the window of opportunity (brilliant pun, I know) he or she has been waiting for the whole time to get into the plane conversation. “So, are you from Pittsburgh?” my fellow passenger eagerly asked. This led to a brief conservation about where I’m from and learning about where he is from. “So, why are you going to Pittsburgh?” As I explain my research project about sustainable and technology-savvy regions, he looked puzzled. “Really? I don’t know why you’d pick Pittsburgh.”

Those types of responses are exactly why I’m here. People always think of Pittsburgh as the Steel City, but they need to pull back that steel curtain and look a little closer. There’s so much more behind it. As I traversed the red-foliaged hillsides and crossed the shimmering rivers during the two amazingly sunny autumn days I spent in the city, I found folks all over the place who are creating a region where sustainable and digital innovation thrives. Pittsburgh is a great example of how thinking regionally can help turn a steel city into a green city, which in turn is drawing people back to the town.

This isn't the first time I've encountered someone holding up Pittsburgh as a good example of regional thinking. We tend to focus on the dysfunction and ignore the opportunities.There is plenty that can be done regionally without the benefit of merging jurisdictions. Just so happens that Southwestern Pennsylvania is relatively adept at exploiting the work-around angle.

A transformation of the dominant policy geography would be ideal. But it is also extremely unlikely. You best just set about your business. The story about Pittsburgh's revitalization is proof of concept:

A film from the 1950s described the city this way:

“It was a grim city, a city you could taste in your mouth, a city that smarted in your eyes. Smoke blotted out the sun. It filled the lungs of every man, woman and child within its reach.”

“There was tremendous concern about the future of the city,” Tarr said.

Leaders from politics, business, universities and nonprofits all worried that the future of Pittsburgh was literally clouded by all the junk in the air. And, despite all their different interests and loyalties, these groups came together after the war to form the Allegheny Conference.

It’s unclear who created it, but Professor Tarr says this combination was immensely powerful and started tackling the city’s problems.

“I think that the Pittsburgh Renaissance, as it’s called, is the first major effort by an industrial city really, not just in this country, but in the world, to improve itself significantly,” said Tarr.

The Allegheny Conference was able to leverage the political space available. The federalist structure of government doesn't privilege urban/metro policymaking. Brookings is trying to change that. Ironically, the lack of structure informed Pittsburgh's success. The novelty of the partnership allowed a lot more to be accomplished.

Now the Allegheny Conference is a regional institution and emblematic of establishment thinking. Where are the new political frontiers? Right here in the world of social media.

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