While I’m not expecting hundreds of thousands of page views our first month in existence, I think it’s important to explain to the folks who do read what some of my underlying philosophies are and the history of why I approach policies and problems the way I do. For me, steady population growth is paramount, but I want to first stress that decision makers need to know their market. They might like to begin by deciding who they would idealistically would like to attract to communities, but ultimately they need to focus on appealing to folks who want to be there.
I grew up in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania in the late 80’s and early 90’s. I’m old enough to remember shopping in Allentown’s center city with its two department stores, Hess’s and Leh’s, but too young remember the area with any real nostalgia. I do recall taking great pleasure in the suburban shopping malls that were born around the same time I was and completely changed the way we looked at the region’s primary city.
For years, Allentown tried in vain to draw suburbanites back in the downtown. There was a failed movie theater, a streetscape facelift, a failed nightlife drive, and a small scale arena that didn’t have the kind of financial backing to deal with limestone deposits and its risk for gaping sink holes. All of these efforts to get people to visit didn’t work and for one simple fact: the people left the city for a reason and they really didn’t want to come back.
Consider the times. Below you find a not so scientific, crudely draw venn diagram that illustrates why their redevelopment efforts failed:
In blue you’ll see the people who like the suburbs and the country. In red, you’ll see the people who liked the city. At the time, it was a considerably smaller bubble than the suburban one. That’s not even the real flaw in the logic of policy makers. In the middle we have a sliver of green representing people who liked the suburbs and the the city. This was the smallest group to draw from but yet the one they consistently targeted. They did this by making Allentown feel more like a suburb. Covered walkways, lower density, more surface parking were all meant to accommodate the suburbanites who never really came, but they alienated the much larger bubble who actually wanted to be there. At the same time, they didn’t offer anything the suburbs couldn’t or didn’t.
Ultimately, a demographic shift helped start to save Allentown. Much to the surprise of demographers, Allentown showed a net census gain of about 5,000 residents in 2000 and the growth has continued since. Much of it came from enterprising Gen-x’ers seeking cheap property options and Caribbean immigrants who came to Allentown to avoid the high rents of New York and for the opportunity to buy their own home. The new residents helped boost the economy in the short term. Ironically, the latter probably viewed Allentown as something of a suburb anyway.
As the first decade of the 2000’s progressed, millennials began to leave their safety of the suburbs for the more appealing city. The Venn diagram looks a bit like this now:
The city circle is bigger and so is the portion of people willing to live in the suburbs and spend recreational time, and just as importantly expendable income, in the city. Allentown policies still target suburbanites, but they’ve gone bigger with high level minor league sports, and a couple of chain restaurants while adding dense housing, parking garages and cultivating something of a local food scene to draw in the people who want to be in the city. As a result, downtown is more vibrant and brighter than it has been in my lifetime.
So what does this have to do with Pittsburgh? It’s simple. There is a broad enough market to where policy makers need not focus on the red any longer. In fact, it would be advantageous to ignore their desires almost entirely, as you run the risk of putting off a growing group of potential new residents who are looking for cities that look like cities to reside and play. So when I read suburbanite editorials or comments in the Post Gazette complaining about closure of east bound Penn Avenue for a bike lane or about the Bunker Project being held up, or critical reactions about the demands of Hill district community leaders for input on the redevelopment of Mario Lemieux’s giant parking lot, I laugh a little. They’re not the target market for the city’s policy anymore nor should they be any longer. Thankfully, the policy makers are waking up to see it.
For Pittsburgh to grow its population again the way it needs to in order to become a more vibrant, viable place that appeals to the people who want to be here, not just those who happen to work here, they need to know their market. There will be a vocal majority of suburbanites who detract from a re-urbanization of the city but planners and policy makers need to stay the course or even favor stronger urban based policies. After all, it’s what the people who want to be here want. The city has an interest to ignore those who don’t.