Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Mesofacts And Shrinking Cities

The good news for the Pittsburgh economy keeps on coming. Unemployment is down and the region is doing much better than the US average. However, the more dominant narrative is the Census. Pittsburgh is running out of people:

Known as the “Steel City,” Pittsburgh was once the forge for the American industrial engine from the late 1800′s through the late 1970′s. At its peak, the city was home to more than 1,000 factories, including the mills owned by Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel, which by itself employed over 340,000 workers during World War II. As the American steel industry collapsed in the 19 80′s Pittsburgh suffered severe unemployment problems. In the past few decades, the city changed to a technology-based economy, but the population is still on the decline. Since 1950, Pittsburgh’s population has declined by more than 50%.

The obsession with population numbers clouds analysis. If a city is shrinking, then it can't be doing well economically. The same holds true at the megaregional scale. The Rust Belt is faring poorly and the Sun Belt is booming. Edward Glaeser offers a policy solution for population-centric economic development:

Housing regulations, more than those that bind standard businesses, explain the Sun Belt’s population growth. If New York and Massachusetts want to stop losing Congressional seats, then they must revisit the rules that make it so difficult to build. High prices show that the demand would be there if the supply is unleashed.

I suspect Glaeser is being flip. Lax regulations built a house of cards in cities such as Las Vegas. I doubt such an approach would work in the economy that is emerging from the Great Recession. What matters most are the places where talent can best be developed. That hasn't shown up well in the aggregate population numbers, which is why Pittsburgh is still on a list of losers.

Pittsburgh is still a well kept secret.

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