How Will the Crash Reshape Pittsburgh?

Former Pittsburgher and CMU professor Richard Florida, of "Rise of the Creative Class" fame, has an essay in The Atlantic titled "How the Crash Will Reshape America." He doesn't address Pittsburgh much (thus the title of the post), so I'm curious about how Pittsblog readers think that the Floridian theme reads on the future of the Steel City. Is he right? Wrong? Much more important than a yes/no answer to each of these question is the "how?" and "why?" that should follow.

Excerpts from Florida's article:

No place in the United States is likely to escape a long and deep recession. Nonetheless, as the crisis continues to spread outward from New York, through industrial centers like Detroit, and into the Sun Belt, it will undoubtedly settle much more heavily on some places than on others. Some cities and regions will eventually spring back stronger than before. Others may never come back at all. As the crisis deepens, it will permanently and profoundly alter the country’s economic landscape. I believe it marks the end of a chapter in American economic history, and indeed, the end of a whole way of life.
...

How might various cities and regions fare as the crash of 2008 reverberates into 2009, 2010, and beyond? Which places will be spared the worst pain, and which left permanently scarred?...

Big, talent-attracting places benefit from accelerated rates of “urban metabolism,” according to a pioneering theory of urban evolution developed by a multidisciplinary team of researchers affiliated with the SantaFe Institute. The rate at which living things convert food into energy—their metabolic rate—tends to slow as organisms increase in size. But when the Santa Fe team examined trends in innovation, patent activity, wages, and GDP, they found that successful cities, unlike biological organisms, actually get faster as they grow. In order to grow bigger and overcome diseconomies of scale like congestion and rising housing and business costs, cities must become more efficient, innovative, and productive. The researchers dubbed the extraordinarily rapid metabolic rate that successful cities are able to achieve “super-linear” scaling. “By almost any measure,” they wrote, “the larger a city’s population, the greater the innovation and wealth creation per person.” Places like New York with finance and media, Los Angeles with film and music, and Silicon Valley with hightech are all examples of high-metabolism places.

Metabolism and talent-clustering are important to the fortunes of U.S. city-regions in good times, but they’re even more so when times get tough. It’s not that “fast” cities are immune to the failure of businesses, large or small. (One of the great lessons of the 1873 crisis—and of this one so far—is that when credit freezes up and a long slump follows, companies can fail unpredictably, no matter where they are.) It’s that unlike many other places, they can overcome business failures with relative ease, reabsorbing their talented workers, growing nascent businesses, founding new ones.

Economic crises tend to reinforce and accelerate the underlying, long-term trends within an economy. Our economy is in the midst of a fundamental long-term transformation—similar to that of the late 19th century, when people streamed off farms and into new and rising industrial cities. In this case, the economy is shifting away from manufacturing and toward idea-driven creative industries—and that, too, favors America’s talent-rich, fast-metabolizing places.

Sadly and unjustly, the places likely to suffer most from the crash—especially in the long run—are the ones least associated with high finance. While the crisis may have begun in New York, it will likely find its fullest bloom in the interior of the country—in older, manufacturing regions whose heydays are long past and in newer, shallow-rooted Sun Belt communities whose recent booms have been fueled in part by real-estate speculation, overdevelopment, and fictitious housing wealth. These typically less affluent places are likely to become less wealthy still in the coming years, and will continue to struggle long after the mega-regional hubs and creative cities have put the crisis behind them.

The Rust Belt in particular looks likely to shed vast numbers of jobs, and some of its cities and towns, from Cleveland to St. Louis to Buffalo to Detroit, will have a hard time recovering. Since 1950, the manufacturing sector has shrunk from 32 percent of nonfarm employment to just 10 percent. This decline is the result of long-term trends—increasing foreign competition and, especially, the relentless replacement of people with machines—that look unlikely to abate. But the job losses themselves have proceeded not steadily, but rather in sharp bursts, as recessions have killed off older plants and resulted in mass layoffs that are never fully reversed during subsequent upswings. ...

Many second-tier midwestern cities have tried to reinvent themselves in different ways, with varying degrees of success. Pittsburgh, for instance, has sought to reimagine itself as a high-tech center, and has met with more success than just about anywhere else. Still, its population has declined from a high of almost 700,000 in the mid-20th century to roughly 300,000 today. There will be fewer manufacturing jobs on the other side of the crisis, and the U.S. economic landscape will be more uneven—“spikier”—as a result. Many of the old industrial centers will be further diminished, perhaps permanently so. ...

But another crucial aspect of the crisis has been largely overlooked, and it might ultimately prove more important. Because America’s tendency to overconsume and under-save has been intimately intertwined with our postwar spatial fix—that is, with housing and suburbanization—the shape of the economy has been badly distorted, from where people live, to where investment flows, to what’s produced. Unless we make fundamental policy changes to eliminate these distortions, the economy is likely to face worsening handicaps in the years ahead.

Suburbanization—and the sprawling growth it propelled—made sense for a time. The cities of the early and mid-20th century were dirty, sooty, smelly, and crowded, and commuting from the first, close-in suburbs was fast and easy. And as manufacturing became more technologically stable and product lines matured during the postwar boom, suburban growth dovetailed nicely with the pattern of industrial growth. Businesses began opening new plants in green-field locations that featured cheaper land and labor; management saw no reason to continue making now-standardized products in the expensive urban locations where they’d first been developed and sold. Work was outsourced to then-new suburbs and the emerging areas of the Sun Belt, whose connections to bigger cities by the highway system afforded rapid, low-cost distribution. This process brought the Sun Belt economies (which had lagged since the Civil War) into modern times, and sustained a long boom for the United States as a whole.

But that was then; the economy is different now. It no longer revolves around simply making and moving things. Instead, it depends on generating and transporting ideas. The places that thrive today are those with the highest velocity of ideas, the highest density of talented and creative people, the highest rate of metabolism. Velocity and density are not words that many people use when describing the suburbs. The economy is driven by key urban areas; a different geography is required. ...

So how do we move past the bubble, the crash, and an aging, obsolescent model of economic life? What’s the right spatial fix for the economy today, and how do we achieve it?

The solution begins with the removal of homeownership from its long-privileged place at the center of the U.S. economy. Substantial incentives for homeownership (from tax breaks to artificially low mortgage-interest rates) distort demand, encouraging people to buy bigger houses than they otherwise would. That means less spending on medical technology, or software, or alternative energy—the sectors and products that could drive U.S. growth and exports in the coming years. Artificial demand for bigger houses also skews residential patterns, leading to excessive low-density suburban growth. The measures that prop up this demand should be eliminated.

If anything, our government policies should encourage renting, not buying. Homeownership occupies a central place in the American Dream primarily because decades of policy have put it there. A recent study by Grace Wong, an economist at the Wharton School of Business, shows that, controlling for income and demographics, homeowners are no happier than renters, nor do they report lower levels of stress or higher levels of self-esteem.

And while homeownership has some social benefits—a higher level of civic engagement is one—it is costly to the economy. The economist Andrew Oswald
has demonstrated that in both the United States and Europe, those places with
higher homeownership rates also suffer from higher unemployment. Homeownership, Oswald found, is a more important predictor of unemployment than rates of unionization or the generosity of welfare benefits. Too often, it ties people to
declining or blighted locations, and forces them into work—if they can find it—that is a poor match for their interests and abilities.

As homeownership rates have risen, our society has become less nimble: in the 1950s and 1960s, Americans were nearly twice as likely to move in a given year as they are today. Last year fewer Americans moved, as a percentage of the population, than in any year since the Census Bureau started tracking address changes, in the late 1940s. This sort of creeping rigidity in the labor market is a bad sign for the economy, particularly in a time when businesses, industries, and regions are rising and falling quickly.

The foreclosure crisis creates a real opportunity here. Instead of resisting foreclosures, the government should seek to facilitate them in ways that can minimize pain and disruption. Banks that take back homes, for instance, could be required to offer to rent each home to the previous homeowner, at market rates—which are typically lower than mortgage payments—for some number of years. (At the end of that period, the former homeowner could be given the option to repurchase the home at the prevailing market price.) A bigger, healthier rental market, with more choices, would make renting a more attractive option for many people; it would also make the economy as a whole more flexible and responsive.

Next, we need to encourage growth in the regions and cities that are best positioned to compete in the coming decades: the great mega-regions that already power the economy, and the smaller, talent-attracting innovation centers inside them—places like Silicon Valley, Boulder, Austin, and the North Carolina Research Triangle.

Whatever our government policies, the coming decades will likely see a further clustering of output, jobs, and innovation in a smaller number of bigger cities and city-regions. But properly shaping that growth will be one of the government’s biggest challenges. In part, we need to ensure that key cities and regions continue to circulate people, goods, and ideas quickly and efficiently. This in itself will be no small task; increasing congestion threatens to slowly sap some of these city-regions of their vitality.

Just as important, though, we need to make elite cities and key mega-regions more attractive and affordable for all of America’s classes, not just the upper crust. High housing costs in these cities and in the more convenient suburbs around them, along with congested sprawl farther afield, have conspired to drive lower-income Americans away from these places over the past 30 years. This is profoundly unhealthy for our society. ...

Finally, we need to be clear that ultimately, we can’t stop the decline of some places, and that we would be foolish to try. Places like Pittsburgh have shown that a city can stay vibrant as it shrinks, by redeveloping its core to attract young professionals and creative types, and by cultivating high-growth services and industries. And in limited ways, we can help faltering cities to manage their decline better, and to sustain better lives for the people who stay in them.

But different eras favor different places, along with the industries and lifestyles those places embody. Band-Aids and bailouts cannot change that. Neither auto-company rescue packages nor policies designed to artificially prop up housing prices will position the country for renewed growth, at least not of the sustainable variety. We need to let demand for the key products and lifestyles of the old order fall, and begin building a new economy, based on a new geography.

Comments

5 Responses to "How Will the Crash Reshape Pittsburgh?"

Anonymous said... 2/18/2009 9:07 AM

Let’s assume for the moment that the economic contraction does heavily affect all industries and areas that are not part of the knowledge economy. What should we do about that? I get the impression from the article that Rich feels a sense of justice in the decline of traditional industries and, in particular, the suburbs. But what would that mean for the majority of the country?

Pittsburgh is used as a rare example of an older industrial city that has transitioned to the knowledge economy, although it is debatable if that has occurred at a scale that is either defining or sustainable. In the current recession, “not bad” is the new “vibrant”. So who can blame a few civic boosters and newspaper reporters looking for hope that want to promote Pittsburgh as a positive role model?

But are new economic circumstances outrunning our sense of a desirable and efficient urban form? Will talent really need to congregate in a limited number of spaces in order to be effectively engaged? Los Angeles is already the densest city in the U.S. It’s hard to imagine it doubling in size without commutes becoming unbearable. Rents rise enormously in the thick of big central cities, with respite only in the ghettos that trade unlivability for shelter at non-living wages. And unfortunately, this can get worse.

In the more recent past, well-run small and mid-sized cities have filled an important niche, providing convenience and livability that work for hipsters and middle-class family types alike. Granted these cities don’t work for the high rollers, but that is what the big cities are for.

I think we’d all agree with Rich that the future of our economic competitiveness depends upon our ability to most effectively utilize the talents and intellect of all of our citizens. But it’s hard to imagine doing that if it can only happen in a few urban spaces. Perhaps the challenge is to figure out how to better align urban form with economic competitiveness. Maybe Pittsburgh really can be a bellwether, if the right things are understood.

Mike Madison said... 2/18/2009 9:12 AM

Wait - you mean that commutes in L.A. aren't already unbearable?

Jefferson Provost said... 2/20/2009 1:40 AM

BTW, L.A. isn't even close to the densest city. L.A. has around 8K/mi^2. NYC has 24,000/mi^2.

For reference, Dormont has about 12K/mi^2.

[Link]

kentropic said... 2/23/2009 12:41 PM

The Economist made some rosy predictions about Pgh.'s future back in Sept. 2006 (http://tinyurl.com/economist-pgh, may req. subscription).

Our exceptionally high concentration of college and grad-school degree holders was one of the more "Floridian" factors of this optimistic view. There's also a growing awareness that smaller cities like Pgh. can be a better place for creative pros to ply their trade than traditional "design capitals" like NYC, SFO, etc. (cf., http://tinyurl.com/small-pond-smart-fish).

The best and fastest way to make sure we stay connected to the wider world -- and stay attractive to the world's top talent -- is to build high-speed rail connections eastward through Harrisburg to Phila. and the Boston/NYC/DC corridor, and westward through Cleveland to Chicago. In an (even more) ideal world, there's also be an easy way to connect northward to Toronto.

If we're lucky, our children may live to see it.

C. Briem said... 2/23/2009 8:26 PM

No subscription required. How now brown town?, The Economist, September 14, 2006.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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