Is Pittsburgh America's Most Livable City?

Sean Posey I Urban Issues I Commentary I February 8th, 2014

American news coverage of the meteoric rise of Chinese industrial might invariably focuses on the soot and smog ridden manufacturing cities of the Middle Kingdom. Photographs of cities like Shenzen and Harbin flash across televisions screens looking like stills from some level of Dante's Inferno. While this might promote some smugness among Americans, it was only a few generations ago that American manufacturing cities resembled hellish nightmares, where the environment and the working class were abused in equal measure. Most notable among those was Pittsburgh, America's "steel city."

In a little over a hundred years, Pittsburgh went from "hell with the lid off," to a symbol of America's collapsing steel sector in the 1980s, to today - where the "Burgh" has been rebranded "America's most livable city." But is it? What's behind this Rust Belt "success story"?

The day when Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was shrouded in haze and surrounded by towering steel mills is long over. Today, "eds and meds," a robust non-profit sector, biotech, and robotics are part of a diversified economy that is light years away from the economic monoculture of a few decades ago. Especially in the last ten years, Pittsburgh has weathered the recent economic downturn far better than most cities. Along with that, the city has successfully - almost miraculously - rebranded itself, with a large dose of help from the media.

Pittsburgh has recently been branded the "miracle city," "America's smartest city," and "America's most livable city" - the latter by Forbes and The Economist.[1] The accolades have come in droves, but the city's renaissance is both decades in the making and highly uneven.

Already by 1940, population growth had flat-lined in the city. Pittsburgh's job growth also trailed other major metropolitan areas. [2] The city fathers began to plan for a post-war physical renewal of the city and for a transition to a much more diversified economy. This included urban renewal projects for the downtown area, the first real efforts at environmental remediation, and the creation of new skyscrapers and underground parking garages. Known as "Renaissance," this was the first of two post-war renewal plans. In the 1970s, a second more informal plan known as Renaissance II got under way. One of the most important outcomes of Renaissance II was the creation of a civic coalition that helped galvanize the initial plans for a Pittsburgh beyond steel, something that never happened during Renaissance I. According to social historian Roy Lubove, "Renaissance II was an extraordinary episode in American urban history. It marked a widespread commitment on the part of a city's public and private leaders to abandon its industrial past and create a new economy and cultural identity."[3]

Despite a forward thinking civic and business coalition, the demise of the local steel industry in the 1980s utterly devastated the city. By 2000, the city had lost eighty percent of its peak steel workforce.[4] The collapse of the steel industry essentially drove an entire generation from the city. By the eighties, over ninety percent of the city's neighborhoods had lost population. [5] The city went from a peak population of 676,806 in 1950 to 305,704 in 2010. Yet, after over three decades of investment and restructuring, Pittsburgh's fortunes began to change in the new century.

Compared to its Rust Belt compatriots, the city does indeed look good. Pittsburgh's downtown weathered deindustrialization far better than almost any other similar city, and it retains a large daytime workforce. Some of the most prestigious Fortune 500 companies are headquartered in the city. Aside from Pittsburgh's well-known "eds and meds sector," a robust energy sector, a steel technology cluster, and a vibrant biotechnology industry are all part of the city's new economy.

Pittsburgh also retains its enormous cultural offerings, including a theater scene, dance and ballet, first-rate museums like the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Andy Warhol Museum, and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History-one of the top-ranked natural history museums in the nation. The city also boasts an impressive number of historic landmarks, including the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden, which includes the world's only Platinum-certified LEED greenhouse.

Despite its enormous population loss, Pittsburgh's neighborhoods on the whole are stronger and more intact than those of cities that have suffered similar population declines like Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, and Youngstown. The city's incredible gains in education are undeniable. In 1970, Pittsburgh ranked fifty-fifth in high school graduation rates out of 120 metro areas, but in 2006 they were number three. In 1970, Pittsburgh ranked sixty-nine among metro areas in percentages of people with college degrees, by 2006, it was number thirty-six.[6] In 2009, the city was chosen as the host site for the G-20 summit. Pittsburgh had truly arrived.

The question of whether or not Pittsburgh is the most "livable" city is hard to answer. Forbes loves its "most" lists, especially when they convey something negative. Cities of course either tout their high rankings or question the entire system when they rank lowly on one or another list. However, examining Pittsburgh's merits is certainly fair game. "Livable for whom?" might be the better question.

Make no mistake: Pittsburgh's still has notable problems. For over a decade, the city has been an Act 47 city-classified as a financially distressed municipality. Despite immense progress, the city still has a large pension shortfall. Considering Pittsburgh's size, it has an extremely small foreign-born population-below six percent-typical for a Rust Belt city. From the 2012 Census estimates it appears the city finally has stopped shrinking, though it gained only about 150 people between 2010 and 2012. As the Pittsburgh Post Gazette put it, "If the city of Pittsburgh is no longer the anchor dragging down the county's and region's population, it's hardly the engine driving a resurgence, either."[7]

Pittsburgh's "invisible communities," as I refer to them, are suffering from a variety of socioeconomic problems that essentially are part of an entirely different city than the one described by Forbes or The Economist. While the city might be the "next big food town," according tobon appétit, it is already a city with enormous problems for low-income communities trying to access healthy food. [8] Pittsburgh leads the nation in percentage of residents living in neighborhoods with "low supermarket access."[9] The problem extends to the region as a whole. Pittsburgh's "Just Harvest," an anti-hunger advocacy and organizing group, refers to statistics that "depict a region in which access to healthy food appears to be more of a privilege than a right of all citizens."[10]

Pittsburgh's invisible communities are also disproportionately affected by crime. As a whole, the city has lower violent crime rates than most Rust Belt cities of its size. Violent crime is concentrated in more distressed neighborhoods like Homewood, the Hill District, and in neighborhoods on the north side. Pittsburgh's overall murder rate is around 5 per 100,000, but the murder rate for black men is 284 per 100,000-that's 50 times the national average. [11]

While Pittsburgh diverges from Cleveland in many ways, its dismal African American infant mortality rate mirrors its neighbor to the north. In the U.S. as a whole, black children are twice as likely to die in infancy than white children. In Pittsburgh, that number is five times. For Allegheny County as whole, the infant mortality rate for blacks is worse than infant mortality rates in Mexico or China.[12] And this is happening in a city with a robust health care sector and some of the best hospitals in the region-University of Pittsburgh Medical Center is the number one ranked hospital in the state.

The aforementioned problems are of course connected to Pittsburgh's extreme poverty problem. While The Economist and Forbes rolled out their most livable columns, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that Pittsburgh led the nation in poverty rates among African Americans ages 18-64, and also has the highest percentage of black children under the age of five living in poverty.[13]

Pittsburgh's recent history is in many ways a mix of remarkable success and remarkable failure. The city's title of "America's most livable city" seems to be a story of haves and have-nots. Pittsburgh's initial experience with deindustrialization is comparable to many other Rust Belt cities, but the city's political, business, and non-profit communities managed to make organized and thoughtful plans for a post-industrial Pittsburgh. There is much for other cities to learn from here. However, it took Pittsburgh decades to bring the city to the position it is today, and clearly it has a long way to go. The city's different demographics also make it hard to compare to places like Detroit, Cleveland, or St. Louis. The "Burgh," both hobbled and hopeful, has moved to the head of the pack of America's former industrial giants-but not everyone is coming along for the ride.


[1] "Pittsburgh Ranked Smartest City in America," Pittsburgh Magazine, June 25, 2013 (Accessed January 25, 2014).

[2] E.M. Hoover, Economic Study of the Pittsburgh Region. Vol. 1, Region in Transition. (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1963).

[3] Roy Lubove, Twentieth Century Pittsburgh, Volume Two: The Post-Steel Era (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996), IX.

[4] David J. Lynch, "Pittsburgh's Heart of Steel Still Beats Among Transformed City," USA Today, September 29, 2009. (Accessed January 26, 2014).

[5] Sabina Deitrick, "Case Study: Pittsburgh Goes High Tech," in Rebuilding America's Legacy Cities: New Directions for the Industrial Heartland, ed. Allan Mallach (New York, NY: The American Assembly, 2012), 82.

[6] Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. "Growth and Great Lakes Cities," (Accessed January 27, 2014).

[7] Gary Rotstein, "Pittsburgh's Population Moves Upward-by 152," Pittsburgh Post Gazette, May 23, 2013. (Accessed January 26, 2014).

[8] Andrew Knowlton, The Foodist, "The Foodist Predicts the Next Big Ingredients in 2014," bon appétit, December 18, 2013. (Accessed January 28, 2014).

[9] U.S. Department of the Treasury, CDFI Fund, Searching for Markets: The Geography of Inequitable Access to Healthy and Affordable Food in the United States. 2012. . (Accessed January 29, 2014).

[10] Zachary Murray, A Menu for Food Justice: Strategies for Improving Access to Healthy Foods in Allegheny Pittsburgh, PA: Just Harvest, 2013).

[11] Allegheny County Department of Human Services, Violence in Allegheny County and Pittsburgh. (Pittsburgh, 2008),2.

[12] Timothy Williams, "Tackling Infant Mortality Rates Among Blacks," New York Times, October 14, 2011. (Accessed January 30, 2014).

[13] Harold D. Miller, "Regional Insights: High Black Poverty a Shame," Pittsburgh Post Gazette, July 4, 2010. (Accessed January 29, 2014).