The following was published at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in May 2020, under the headline “Shaping the Pittsburgh region post-pandemic.” My co-author, Chris Briem, is an economist at the University of Pittsburgh’s University Center for Social and Urban Research and long-time host of the Null Space blog. I’m reproducing it here in the interests of digital permanence, of a sort, and collecting as much of my Pittsburgh-ish writing in one place as I can.
By Mike Madison and Chris Briem
Change is far from new for Southwestern Pennsylvania. In recent memory, the region was forced to endure existential economic shifts as the heavy industries the region had long relied on for prosperity contracted beyond recognition. Concentrated job losses begat a regional loss of workers, their families and their future families that had a far longer-lasting impact.
What turnaround Pittsburgh has engineered in recent years, much has been the result of new workers and new residents who have been drawn here, bringing new investment but, more importantly, new ideas.
The Pittsburgh region will again face deep challenges as it navigates a post-pandemic world. Any vision of a prosperous and successful Pittsburgh in the future will depend on the region’s ability to be a place where both businesses and workers want to locate.
But both workers and firms face a wide range of choices as regions compete for new investment. Prognostication has only begun for how the competitiveness of regions will shift as a result of the current crisis, but Pittsburgh will eventually again be faced with a choice between relying on, and reinforcing its economic legacies, or accepting the risk that comes with pursuing a far deeper transformation.
Moving ahead, that means three things, in practical terms. None are easy or simple, but the magnitude of the current crisis justifies imaginative re-thinking and new planning on a dramatic scale — perhaps a scale not seen in the region since the end of World War II.
The first is how things get done in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh’s fortunes over the last 60 years have flowed and ebbed and flowed again largely via the efforts of a relatively small cohort of government, industry and philanthropic leaders, concentrated in Downtown Pittsburgh and knit together mostly behind closed doors via the work of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, founded in 1944. Our call for openness to change means that the era of senior leaders meeting in Downtown conference rooms and deciding what’s best for the region needs to come to an end.
The transparency and accountability of decision-making processes should be transformed. Collaboration, coordination and effective communication must increase not only among the “big players” on Pittsburgh’s stage, the communities, industries and enterprises that have long dominated Pittsburgh’s public eye, but also among the smaller players, marginalized and excluded populations, and the emerging communities both in economic and social senses.
The second is who does things in Pittsburgh. Whether or not “the conference” in its current form continues to play an active role in economic development efforts in Pittsburgh, the number and breadth of the stakeholders who should sit at the table should expand — dramatically. Pittsburgh’s direction has been set by government leaders in partnership with CEOs, presidents and chancellors, who serve not only as stewards of Pittsburgh’s present but too often as ambassadors for its glorious history.
A call for openness to change means that circle needs to expand, to include broad networks of new and different community leaders, especially those who are just beginning to step into responsibilities and roles that mark them as the keys to Pittsburgh’s future.
The third is what gets done in Pittsburgh. This is where the embrace of openness is most critical, because it means thinking differently about what Pittsburgh and Pittsburghers can and should do to prepare for the future. Pittsburgh, particularly with public resources, should focus on investments in infrastructure — including physical infrastructure (roads, bridges, water, sewer, health and environment); social infrastructure (education, health, public transit); and cultural infrastructure (communities and neighborhoods).
Those infrastructural investments will pay off over time in terms of regional and community resilience: Come what may in national and international economic cycles, Pittsburgh will be better equipped to handle opportunity and disruption. And those infrastructural investments will position Pittsburgh finally to address its present, critical gaps and needs: health, income and employment equity and opportunity across the region
Change may seem the norm for a region that defines itself by multiple iterations of renaissance spanning across multiple generations. But change was never as easy as we portray in retrospect and Pittsburgh has always been shaken by the dissonance between its economic past and its economic future. That choice may be far starker than at any point in the past and Pittsburgh can no longer rely on past patterns and practices.
More than anything else, greater Pittsburgh must be willing to embrace the changes that will inevitably be forced upon it. All of southwestern Pennsylvania once suffered from its persistence in clinging to an industrial heritage long in decline.
The economic opportunities that emerge will likely be as unrecognized at the beginning as they will be unanticipated. The region must collectively work to ensure it can adapt and change at a pace much faster than the region has ever transformed itself in the past.