September 18, 2015

Steel was once the lifeblood of Pittsburgh. It didn’t just run through the city’s downtown buildings and bridges — the steel industry shaped the city itself, out of the nearby coal fields and local steel mills that sprang up in the late 1800s.

When the steel mills collapsed in the early 1980s, it wasn’t clear how the city’s economy would recover. The unemployment rate soared to all-time highs. Between 1970 and 1990,  nearly a third of residents headed elsewhere..

Author Richard Florida came to Pittsburgh to teach at Carnegie Mellon University in the late 1980s, shortly after most of the steel mills had shuttered.

“People my age at the time, in their 30s and 40s, didn’t exist. There were college students and there were elderly people, but most of the people in that middle age range left to find work in other places,” he explains.

What the city was missing, in Florida’s view, was what he calls the “creative class”: people working in fields like science, engineering, design, and the arts. They’re often young, value individuality, and are looking for a diverse place to live. Florida argues they also drive economic development.

In the 1980s, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh attracted the “creative class,” but they had trouble keeping them: “When they had a start-up, those start-up companies were leaving and those people were leaving… For some reason they couldn’t hold on to these people.”

He set out to understand what attracts and keeps people in a certain city. He came up with three keys:

  • Talent - talented people want to live and work in cities with other talented people
  • Technology - a healthy technology industry creates jobs and opportunities
  • Tolerance - a culture of acceptance and inclusion

Universities, like the ones in Pittsburgh, are often at the heart of attracting the “creative class.”

“[They] act as this catalyst or hub for attracting talent, generating talent, retaining talent, becoming more open-minded, and ultimately producing more disruptive technology which creates another growth round.”

But change doesn’t happen quickly.

“We wish for immediate turnarounds,” Florida says. “But, I think when we’re looking at these kinds of shifts from older industrial economies to knowledge and technology and creative driven economies, it’s really a generational process.”

Pittsburgh has answered the question of how to recover. Innovative research at CMU and the University of Pittsburgh is attracting talented people and investment dollars.

But other cities are also going after the same talent, including established tech hubs like Silicon Valley, New York, and Boston.

“This is not a kind of share and share alike, kumbaya, hug and kiss. There is [a] real competitive dynamic, and there are real winners and losers.”

Pittsburgh has an advantage that those other cities don’t though: the cost of living. The median rent for a one-bedroom in San Francisco is $3,530. In Pittsburgh? $865.

“This crisis of affordability and the gaping, gnawing inequality in what I like to call the superstar cities works in favor of other places.”

That’s a good thing, says Florida.

“If we had all the talented and creative people in America packed into three cities, it wouldn’t be a very fun or interesting place. I think we end up as a better country when many of those things are spread across a wider array of cities and places to be.”

But, Florida says, there’s still a long way to go.

“I do think it’s beginning to happen in the Rust Belt, but it’s concentrated and clustered. It’s not transforming the entire region.”

university, tech, Culture, cities, Pittsburgh

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