Tag Archives: Pittsburgh

The Pros and Cons of “Triumph of the City”

Editor’s note: This book review was contributed by Rust Wire’s economics expert, Lewis Lehe. If you haven’t already done so, make sure you watch his hilarious and informative videos on congestion pricing. – KG

The last ten years have stoked a renaissance in the genre of “books that make social science research accesible to laypersons while additionally developing the author’s own theory.” The king of the genre is the journalist Malcolm Gladwell, who set airport bookstores ablaze with “The Tipping Point,” “Blink,” and “Outliers.”

Jonah Lehrer is a journalist who wrote “Proust Was a Neuroscientist” and “How We Decide.” Tom Vanderbilt is a journalist who wrote “Traffic.” People love these books. One of my ex-roommates has severe dyslexia and, last winter, he hadn’t read a book in five years. I gave him “Outliers,” and within a few months he had read everything Gladwell ever wrote. Now Victor is truly an outlier.

Unfortunately, the genre’s weak spot has been that all these books are written by journalists, rather than the equivocating career researchers behind the original findings. That’s why it’s refreshing to read a book like “Triumph of the City.” Ed Glaeser is a respected Harvard economist who rejuvenated the entire field of urban economics by doing lots of messy data collection and statistical analysis. “Triumph of the City” is a popular exposition of three of his primary findings and a few of his political opinions.

The findings are:
(1) Cities raise incomes because people are more productive when they interact face-to-face.
(2) Zoning, historic preservation, and pro-home-ownership policies engender sprawl.
(3) Urban dwellers emit less carbon.
The book’s policy prescriptions could be summarized by the following:
(1) Don’t do anything that might cause someone to move to Houston.

Pros:
Everyone should read this book, because it challenges conventional wisdom within the urbanist community. He argues powerfully that many activists’ attempts keep out evil developers just push development elsewhere or make cities more expensive. He’s critical of revitalization programs like light rail and convention centers. He’s critical of historic preservation. One of the most novel cases made is that northern California should allow vastly more sprawl, because Californians emit very little carbon into their perpetually temperate atmosphere.  A liberal Republican, Glaeser’s broader opinions figure frequently and honestly, and he has what I would call the “standard economist political belief”–free markets combined with generous social insurance (see Denmark, Australia, Singapore). If you are fundamentally suspicious of unplanned economic activity, then none of the arguments will move you.

I wouldn’t read the book solely for the arguments, however. “Triumph of the City” is also just a great repository of interesting little piece of stat-porn like:
–“If an area has January temperatures that are 5 degrees warmer, its prices go up by 3%”
–“In Los Angeles, construction costs are 25% higher than in Houston, but housing is over 350% more expensive”
–“More than 85% of people living in multifamily dwelling rent their living quarters. More than 85% of people in single-family detached dwellings own them.”

One of the book’s greatest strengths is the immense index at the end. I predict the books and articles there found will soon become heavily cited in college papers, simply because its hard to find such a great listing of so much research in one place. The index explains a lot of claims which, for brevity’s sake, come off as a little brash or far-fetched.

Cons:
The book has a few drawbacks: Glaeser sometimes vacillates on the scope of the word “city.” He compares the Houston metro to New York City proper too often, and he treats  Santa Clara County (Silicon Valley) as though it were a singular city. Glaeser also seems to really love Chicago for being pro-growth, but a recent census release showed its population declined over the past ten years. And Glaeser comes close to using Detroit as a synecdoche for the entire Rust Belt, which is a pete peeve of mine. Pittsburgh is 68% percent white, and a third of its adults have a bachelor’s degree. Detroit is 77% African American, and only 12% of its adults have bachelor’s degrees. Both places are solidly Rust Belt, yet their demographic differences mean each city faces entirely different day-to-day challenges, as readers of this web site know.

Finally, Glaeser ignores the influence of illicit Codeine cough syrup consumption, which, to me, is the most salient feature of life in Houston, aka “Syrup City”:

Conclusion:
The book will give you lots of food for thought on how you can save your city. But most importantly, you will walk away feeling that your city is worth saving…that there are pressing global issues we can only solve by clustering together amid sidewalks and bus routes…that we can and should  defeat the suburbs of Houston in pitched, hand-to-hand combat.

-Lewis Lehe

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Filed under Book review, Featured, Good Ideas, Real Estate, sprawl, The Media, Urban Planning

Come Live Here! Attracting Immigrants to the Rust Belt

Editor’s note: Attracting new immigrants is key for every Rust Belt city if they are to reverse decades of population decline. In this post, contributor Lewis Lehe examines why Pittsburgh has had a hard time attracting Hispanic newcomers. (If you enjoy this piece, make sure to check out Lehe’s last contribution to Rust Wire, these videos that explain congestion pricing.)-KG

Pittsburgh’s population has shrunk over the last decade, falling by 24,000 persons between 2000 and 2008. In the 2009 Democratic primary race for mayor, Councilman Patrick Dowd even made reversing population decline a signature issue of his campaign, (as you can see in this video).

We can get by without steel mills, but new residents are sorely needed to support the legacy costs of public servants employed when Pittsburgh had double the public to serve.

While Pittsburgh’s population dips, the U.S. Hispanic demographic drives American population growth and is projected to triple by 2050. Immigration accounts for recent trends, but projections also depend on higher Hispanic birth rates.

Last month, Bloomberg reported:

”Hispanic birth rates climbed 27 percent from 1990 through 2010, according to a Bloomberg analysis of yesterday’s Census Bureau estimates. That compares with a 7.5 percent decline in the birth rate of the overall population and an 8.3 percent decline for blacks.”

This could mean that Hispanic inflows to an area are also a good guarantee of future population growth. Already, Hispanics have transfused fresh blood into vacated corners of cities far from the Mexican border. In Birmingham, Alabama—the steel town where I grew up—a medley of Mexicans, Panamanians, and other recent arrivals peppered one stretch of blight with specialty groceries and flashy night clubs.

The University of Pittsburgh boasts a world-famous Center for Latin American Studies, so it always struck me as odd that Pitt students have to study abroad to actually meet Latin Americans. Pittsburgh slept through the last decade’s wave of Hispanic immigration like a drunk at a quinceanera. Of course, Pittsburgh won’t mirror El Paso, but even relative to nearby Rustbelt cities, the Steel City’s Latin flavor is pretty mild.

City Population Hispanic Pop Hispanic Share (%)
Pittsburgh 313,118 6,788 2.2
Erie 103,516 5,151 5.0
Cleveland 439,013 38,252 8.7
Buffalo 273,335 22,377 8.2
Toledo 316,725 20,399 6.4

(Source: American Community Survey 2009)

Compounding the sense of vacancy, Pittsburgh’s Hispanics don’t cluster in a neighborhood but rather occupy small pockets in Beechview, Brookline, Oakland, and the South Side. Saul Guerrero, owner of La Jimenez Mexican grocery stores in Beechview and Oakland, said most of his customers travel from surrounding counties.

It’s hard to say the City of Champions hasn’t made a good hustle, though. For a city with such a small Hispanic population, Pittsburgh hosts a large number of Hispanic organizations, including the Latin American Cultural Union, Pittsburgh Hispanic Center, Hispanic Family Center, Colombia in Pittsburgh, Salud Para los Ninos, Pittsburgh Hispanic Catholic Community, Pittsburgh Venezuelan Association, and Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The Hispanic Center, in fact, was founded with the goal of bringing Hispanics to Pittsburgh. (This 2007 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article chronicles some of the Hispanic Center’s challenges.)

The welcome mat is certainly welcome, but for many Hispanics an area’s strongest draw isn’t marketing so much as the presence of fellow countrymen. As part of my exhaustive research process for this post, I drank two pitchers of Yuengling with Cesar—a restaurant worker and occasional yard man—who has never been anywhere else in the United States except for Pittsburgh. He moved here directly from Mexico, because he knew someone who lived here. Hence, Pittsburgh faces a chicken-and-egg dilemma: you need Hispanics to attract Hispanics.

Plentiful jobs can ignite an upward cycle of immigration and growth, and Pittsburgh’s unemployment rate has stayed nearly 2% below the national average. But western PA lacks the poultry processing, endless suburban construction, and seasonal farm employment that often occupy Hispanic hands. The region’s flagship industries are health care, education and finance—not exactly promising lines of work for someone buttoning down a shaky grasp of English. Today’s trickle of Hispanic labor might continue to satiate the city’s restaurant, housekeeping, and landscaping industries.

I would like to believe Hispanics could reverse Pittsburgh’s population loss—partly because I like Latin cultures, but mainly because I like Pittsburgh. The evidence, however, suggests only slow growth in the Hispanic population. We can say gracias for what we have, though. The four Mexicans I interviewed for this piece all emphatically described Pittsburgh as refreshingly tranquilo. Samantha Guerrero commented, “One of the best things that can happen is that the [Hispanic] community remains scattered,” because exclusively-Hispanic neighborhoods can foster gangs and allow immigrants to procrastinate learning English.”

-Lewis Lehe

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Filed under Brain Drain, Economic Development, Good Ideas, Headline, Race Relations, regionalism

UPDATE: Jane’s Walks Happening in Pittsburgh, Cleveland

polish-hill-then-and-now

Exciting news: There will be Jane’s Walks (neighborhood tour/walks in the spirit of urbanist Jane Jacobs) in both Cleveland and Pittsburgh -along with dozens of other cities- on Saturday.

Click here for more information about the walk Saturday, May 1, in Pittsburgh in the Polish Hill neighborhood (pictured above).

Click here for more information about the walk Saturday, May 1, in Cleveland in the Ohio City neighborhood.

It looks like John Morris at Digging Pitt (a frequent RustWire  reader and commenter) helped organize and push for this in these communities, so thanks for your hard work!

Frequent Rust Wire readers will remember there was also a post about the idea on here that got a lot of response and enthusiasm, so I hope these events are well-attended.

I’m planning on going to the one in Pittsburgh. If anyone goes to the one in Cleveland, RustWire would love to hear about it/see your photos!

-KG

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Filed under architecture, Art, Economic Development, Featured, Good Ideas, Real Estate, regionalism, Rust Belt Blogs, The Big Urban Photography Project, The Media, Urban Planning

Urban/Suburban Affordability Index

Check out this neat site that shows the relative affordability of the city verses the suburbs by calculating housing plus transportation costs.

Here we have Cleveburg:

htcleveland2

Did you know that transportation costs represent the number two household expense for most Americans and that US homeowners consistently underestimate their transportation expenses?

This a timely post because the federal government recently began working to include transportation costs in its housing affordability index, according to  Streetsblog. This is part of the President’s Building Sustainable Communities initiative.

Pittsburgh:

htpittsburgh

Detroit:

htdetroit

-AS

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Filed under Headline, Public Transportation, Real Estate, sprawl, Urban Planning

Lessons on City Design

Rust Wire has previously highlighted Donald Carter, the David Lewis Director of the Remaking Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. (Take a look at our prior post on Carter’s efforts to trade the term “Rust Belt” for “Water Belt” and change “Sun Belt” into “Drought Belt.”)

Here’s a piece by Carter from Sunday’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette discussing The Mayors’ Institute on City Design, which took place last month with mayors from Springfield, Illinois; Elkhart, Indiana; Canton, Ohio; Charleston and Huntington, West Virginia; Kenosha and Racine, Wisconsin.

See if you agree with his 10 “lessons” from the meeting (#1- There is hope!). It’s also interesting to read about the projects highlighted from these cities.

-KG

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Filed under architecture, Art, Economic Development, Good Ideas, Public Transportation, regionalism, Rust Belt Blogs, Urban Planning

Why is Houston going to be the electric car capital?

Why not Detroit? Or Cleveland? Or a more compact, less-sprawled out city like Pittsburgh?

This Reuters story says Houston, the “petro metro” is aiming to be the electric car capital of America.

Stories like this make me so mad.

A city in the Great Lakes region would be much better suited to this, yet some folks in Houston are showing more leadership on this issue. For instance, Houston has signed a deal to build public charging stations. “Such agreements are key to easing skeptical consumers’ fears of running out of juice if their car batteries run low before they can reach their garage charging stations,” the story explains.

-KG

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Filed under Economic Development, Editorial, Good Ideas, Green Jobs, regionalism, sprawl, U.S. Auto Industry

Historic Iron City Brewery

brewery

The Pittsburgh City Council voted unanimously yesterday to approve landmark historic status for the Iron City Brewery in the Lawrenceville neighborhood.

Earlier in the month, the city’s Historic Review Commission voted in favor of the designation, as the Post-Gazette reported.

The brewery currently sits vacant. Last year, Iron City Brewing Co. closed this plant and moved all operations to Latrobe.

Planners hope this compound and collection of historic buildings will become the sight of a mixed-use development.

The timing of this designation comes just weeks after a developer announced plans to infill neighboring Doughboy Square with a mix of housing and retail. The project would be in collaboration with the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Lawrenceville Corp.

In addition to these plans, Bike Pittsburgh, the bicycling advocacy group of Pittsburgh, moved into a recently rennovated art-deco storefront at Doughboy Square.

–Andrew Moore

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Filed under architecture, Featured, Real Estate, Urban Planning