Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Ironic Recovery Geography

If you haven't yet heard about Pittsburgh's post-recession boom, you will soon enough. There's a bigger story percolating, hiding under the mostly useless population numbers. This is no dead cat bounce:

Rebound in an unlikely place. According to Jennifer Mapes, a visiting assistant professor in the State University of New York—Plattsburgh's geography department, some of the best opportunities for workers looking for a change are in the Rust Belt, or the chain of once-industrial cities stretching across the Midwest.

Many people still view the Rust Belt as a symbol of economic failure. However, according to Mapes, this belief is exactly what makes these cities attractive to workers. "Cities that had no downside before the recession have nowhere to go but up," she says. "They now have to be aggressive, but the opportunity is there."

The key to this type of recovery is a willingness to accept risks, and deep pockets willing to take a chance. Take Pittsburgh, for example. The steel industry made many people there rich. When steel left town, these people were willing to make gambles on healthcare and technology. Those gambles are now paying off.

"I don't think you're going to be successful without this sort of a gamble," Mapes says. "Incremental changes in small towns aren't going to get you anywhere. The last few years have really shown me that you can enact change—you can push back against national and international forces."

Professor Mapes aptly describes the Rust Belt's urban frontier advantage. Typically, the civic cynics project the downward trend long into the future. What has always been bad will continue to get worse. The analysis is poor and ignores the rebound going on in plain sight. Border Guard Bob lives! Please stay in Pittsburgh and get a life.

Some of the gambles around the Rust Belt are beginning to pay off. Before jumping on the next cool city fad, take a longer look around to see what is already working. What you find might surprise you.

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