Why Pittsburgh: An Interview with the City's Mayor in Advance of the G-20 Summit

By Min, Xiong | Nation's Cities Weekly, September 28, 2009 | Go to article overview

Why Pittsburgh: An Interview with the City's Mayor in Advance of the G-20 Summit


Min, Xiong, Nation's Cities Weekly


In many people's eyes, Pittsburgh is still a declining steel capital; very few people know that now the city's economy is based primarily on health care and education. It did better than many other rust belt cities during the economic downturn, with an unemployment rate lower than the national average and more stable housing prices.

The reason why President Obama chose Pittsburgh as the G-20 host city is simple: the city's transformation from steel economy to a high tech, high energy efficiency economy has proved that the United States has the capability to recover.

Can Pittsburgh, a city of only 310,000 people take in tens of thousands of visitors during the G-20? Will the London-scale G-20 protest happen in Pittsburgh, a city with only 900 police officers? Is the 29-year-old mayor ready to face the challenge? Here is what he told me.

21st Century: One reason the city was chosen to hold the G-20 is its successful transformation from a steel city to a new service-based city. I walked around the city yesterday, and did not see any smoking chimneys. So are there steel plants left in the city right NOW?

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl: There are no steel plants in the city of Pittsburgh borders. We do have plants in suburban communities outside the city of Pittsburgh. U.S. Steel still has a big presence here and it is, of course, a very reputable corporation. We are very happy they still exist here. But you are right; the general perception of Pittsburgh is quite different from what it is today.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

21st Century: From an economic perspective, then, Pittsburgh is no longer the "steel city?"

Mayor Ravenstahl: Yes, it's not predominantly steel anymore. I compare it to Detroit for example, which is the auto capital of the world. Now they are experiencing what we did in the late 1970s when the steel industry declined. We are probably not the steel capital anymore, but we still produce it here and send it around the world. In addition, we created high-tech, bio-tech, health care, education, robotics and life sciences industries, and so many types of companies are evolving here in Pittsburgh. The steel industry comprises 5 percent of our employment, but health care is the No. 1 sector. Health care has more than 40,000 employees now, over 10 percent of total employment in the city. We really have diversified in a way that has allowed us to survive this downturn very well.

21st Century: Do you think such a transformation is applicable to other cities in the U.S., especially the rust belt cities around the Northeast?

Mayor Ravenstahl I think so. I think when you compare Pittsburgh with some of the other Northeastern cities, the rust belt cities, we've done better than most, if not all. We are proud. Our unemployment rate is now 2 percent lower than the state average.

21st Century: What are the key lessons that other cities can learn from Pittsburgh?

Mayor Ravenstahl: I think the diversification of our economy is important. We've also been able to achieve large scale collaboration involving many sectors, from local government, to nonprofit organizations to corporations. We all work together and have been part of the transformation, and that is a key to our success that other cities can learn from.

21st Century: Speaking of diversifying the economy, a green economy is also something that Pittsburgh is encouraging. For example you have legislation on green buildings and fuel efficiency. Even though Pittsburgh is doing better than other cities in terms of facing the economic downturn, why would you encourage a green economy, irrespective of the cost, during a national economic crisis'?

Mayor Ravenstahl: I don't think it's that simple. I agree that the cost is higher than regular development, non-green or less certified development, but we think history shows that investing a little bit more up front pays more in the long run.

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