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Back From the Dead, Pittsburgh Strives for Equitable Future Growth

Written by Liz Holden

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto told attendees at a recent CEOs for Cities Workshop, “In 1979, Pittsburgh died.” This was the last year the Pirates won a World Series, the last year the Steelers would win a Super Bowl until 2005 and the beginning of a decade of what would seem like constant job losses and steel mill closures.

Over three decades later, Pittsburgh is not only alive but thriving, and city leaders are working to ensure that this vitality extends to residents at all economic levels. Throughout the two-day “The Innovative and Inclusive City” Workshop, Pittsburgh not only played host but also provided an example of a city that is working diligently to discover what works in fostering both innovation and inclusive economic growth.

Pittsburgh is now seen as a model for the economic transformation of post-industrial cities. Thanks in part to strong anchor institutions – including renowned universities such as Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh – and a dedicated philanthropic community that includes three of the nation’s largest private foundations, the city has gained ground as a vibrant hub of culture, science and technology. With companies like Uber setting up research and development facilities in the city, Pittsburgh has earned attention as a destination for innovation. Unemployment is lower than the national average, according to BLS statistics, and the city is regularly ranked as one of the most livable in the country. Pittsburgh is at a critical turning point, and as the city’s reputation grows, its leaders will be faced with the same decisions many other cities have grappled with – how do you rebuild a city in an inclusive manner, maximizing economic growth while minimizing inequality? Rather than waiting to apply solutions to inequality after problems have arisen, Pittsburgh’s leaders are working proactively to create an equitable economy from the start.

Cities’ revitalization stories are often told in terms of new amenities. New stadiums, beer gardens and restaurants can increase a city’s livability and cachet, but they are only part of the equation, and they may not provide jobs and benefits for inner city residents. Workshop attendees and panelists from around the country spoke of the difficulty of ensuring that economic progress benefits those at all income levels. One panelist from a Portland, Oregon, university spoke to this problem: while Portland is frequently lauded for its livability and outdoor access, she lamented that the city still struggles to meaningfully address economic inclusion and ensure that lower-income residents and the city’s growing minority population have equal access to economic opportunity.

Pittsburgh indeed has many of these cultural amenities, including a thriving restaurant scene and a new stadium, that are visible benchmarks of its economic recovery. But as Workshop attendees discovered, Pittsburgh’s civic leaders are not resting on these successes – they are working to ensure that the Pittsburgh model is one of inclusion and equality.

Earlier this year, the City of Pittsburgh and the Heinz Foundation announced a new effort, P4 Pittsburgh: The four P’s stand for People, Planet, Place and Performance. P4 aims to redevelop 500 acres in the heart of Pittsburgh, transforming vacant and polluted lots into centers for sustainable and accessible jobs. The first focus area for the project has been the Almono neighborhood, the site of a former steel plant that recently underwent environmental remediation. The goal for the project is to create an environmentally sustainable mixed-use development that will attract new residents without pricing out current ones. The P4 effort will also involve Pittsburgh’s first comprehensive development plan. Although the initiative launched recently and its results have yet to be seen, the level of proactive planning involved shows the city’s dedication to sustainable and equitable development as it continues to grow.

Environmentally sustainable technologies can be expensive and difficult to integrate into public works projects, but Carnegie Mellon’s presence has helped to alleviate this issue. One project, mentioned frequently at the Workshop, and funded by several local foundations, paired the city and the university to upgrade the city’s traffic signals in the low-income East Liberty neighborhood. The university reported a 40 percent reduction in vehicle wait time, dramatically lessening vehicle emissions and improving traffic conditions for local residents. The project is illustrative of the city’s approach to public-private partnerships that integrate technology, are environmentally sustainable and improve safety and quality of life for low-income residents.

Under Mayor Peduto’s administration, the city is also working to build a more sustainable and inclusive technology industry. Although technology companies bring jobs to cities, these jobs may not always be accessible to low-income residents, an issue ICIC has previously studied. Deborah Lam, Pittsburgh’s first-ever Chief Innovation and Performance Officer, works to address this disparity. Speaking at the Workshop, Lam emphasized that her office’s goal is not just growth of the technology industry but growth that is environmentally sustainable and beneficial to residents of all backgrounds and income levels. One of the first projects her office undertook was to create an Innovation Roadmap to answer two questions: “How do we take innovation to the next level in Pittsburgh?” and “How do we make innovation more inclusive?” To create this roadmap, which is still in progress, the City has hosted public roundtable sessions to solicit input on topics including the maker movement, clean technology, and co-working and accelerators. Through this public process, this new office hopes to proactively address some of the issues other cities are facing.

Pittsburgh has not found a magic bullet method for ensuring inclusive economic growth. But by working toward this goal as the city grows and evolves, rather than waiting until after that growth and evolution have already taken place, Pittsburgh serves to demonstrate the deliberate yet experimental approach necessary for becoming the truly “innovative and inclusive” city the workshop’s participants all hope to achieve.

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