Pittsburgh’s Impending Demographic Turnaround and the Challenges That Await its Mayor

April 22, 2014 at 6:56 am EDT

Recently I had the opportunity to walk through one of America’s great cities (Chicago) with the mayor of another great city: Pittsburgh. Bill Peduto, still in the early months of his mayorship, was in town for a Politico.com event, and Livability did a walk-and-talk interview while his phone’s GPS directed us back to his hotel. It was a quick trip, and he had pressing business – a council vote he was quarterbacking via text message while we talked – to get back to. On our way, we were stopped by a couple from Detroit, and they discussed how the foundations are doing great work in that city. Mayor Peduto has great hope for Detroit and likened it to Pittsburgh 30 years ago. He said that the investment in Pittsburgh is now paying its dividends.

Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto

“During the 1980s [non-profit foundations] kept our heads above the water. What they were doing was investing in long-term approaches, and at the same time, our 'eds and meds' were just beginning their process of coming to the forefront,” he said. For Detroit, another flailing Midwestern metropolis coping with its somewhat post-industrial present, the work is still getting started. Mayor Peduto thinks it’s a fascinating time, but he sounds glad to be taking office in his city as the payoffs are taking place.

One of the challenges he faces is a decades-long decline in population. “I’ve never lived in a town that’s growing,” he said. “In the last 10 years in my council district, we grew by 10 percent, largely fueled by the 'eds and meds.' So the model is there for how the city can grow, and we want to be able to replicate that city-wide.”

As he talked about developing bike lanes and the importance of strong neighborhood businesses, I suggested he’s of the new school of mayors. “You mean the old school?” he countered. “How do we get back to 1950 with urban neighborhood functions? It’s unique businesses; family-owned businesses; a walkable, accessible business district where everything is right outside your door …  Access to public transit so if you won’t want to own a car you don’t have …  Affordable housing and access to jobs. It’s all those components from 1950 urban America.”

He knows that keeping young families in town – something that didn’t happen with previous generations – is key. A program called the Pittsburgh Promise offers $40,000 scholarships to high school graduates. But it’s not enough to make up for the allure of suburban schools or opportunities in other cities. “What happens is that I lose them at 35 when they have the 6-year-old. I need to be able to get them to hold their kid's hand and walk to the neighborhood school and take advantage of that scholarship program,” he said. Peduto himself grew up in the suburbs, and all but one of his friends moved out of the area.

“The older generation is passing away. My generation is gone – they left. What’s then left is this younger generation. So in the next 15 years, we’ll see the demographic shift from one of the oldest cities in the U.S. to one of the youngest. The other thing that’s been missing from the last 40 years is immigrants. We need the immigrants to help rebuild, but they won’t come until we have the jobs. It’s a Catch-22.”

He feels that Pittsburgh, with copious affordable housing and an overall high quality of life, is in a great position to attract immigration, and the immigrants who have come to the city are prospering. His hope is that the jobs to attract their friends and relatives will materialize.

Affordable housing is both a problem and a promise for Pittsburgh. On one hand, there is an issue of blight and abandoned properties in some neighborhoods, which he’s trying to address through a new land bank program. “As people would pass away, the family would come back and take the couch and the TV and drop the keys off at the local community development center and say ‘We're not going to pay the back taxes. It’s yours.’ The next part of Pittsburgh’s renaissance isn’t in glittery skyscrapers or tech or biomed, but it’s in re-establishing neighborhoods and walkable business districts and neighborhood schools and building the neighborhoods from within.”

One solution in many cities it to focus on the high-end resident. Mayor Peduto doesn’t want to take that approach. “The largest apartment developer in the Midwest is starting two developments in Pittsburgh. There’s a demand right now for 5,000 high-end apartments. I have no problem getting the affluent to move into the city. But my goal is to keep it something that’s available for everyone. With neighborhoods that have seen up to 80 percent population loss, we have the opportunity to become a model – not a San Francisco, not a New York, not a city that prices its people out, but one that has opportunities for everyone.”

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