The Pittsburgh Regional Indicators Project is only 3 years old, but it is already a wise old sage, judging by the sober and balanced report it released on the region's pros and cons this week.
Eschewing mythologies that have often misled journalists, academics and all too many residents, the project, sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, is an attempt to provide fact-based information, relative to comparable regions, that will paint the most accurate portrait of Pittsburgh possible.
Supported by The Pittsburgh Foundation, the report is called "How Well Do You Know Pittsburgh Today?" It is not the product of Chamber of Commerce types who are averse to bad news and therefore eager to chat up the city's strengths at the expense of a far more complicated reality. While the project's collaborators (its president is former Post-Gazette editor John G. Craig Jr.) can take pride in their concise and accessible account, it is the data that will surprise, intrigue and maybe alarm civic leaders and citizens. (The report is published in the current issue of Pittsburgh Quarterly, and can be read online at pittsburghquarterly.com. Data is updated regularly at the project's Web site, pittsburghtoday.org.)
Highlights include familiar portrayals of the Pittsburgh defined by the sweep of a 75-mile radius from Point State Park. The region has a very low crime rate, its roads are among the worst, but the morning and evening commutes are relatively painless compared with other benchmark locales.
The report also contains counterintuitive information about the region's strong arts attendance and participation, with rates that outpace those in both categories of local sports. There are also many jobs in the region, which posted its highest number of them in September 2008; people, however, earn less here than elsewhere.
While confirming the stability of the housing market, the report is also the bearer of bad news: Pittsburgh has the highest percentage of children in poverty (15.8 percent) of the benchmark regions and it is among the least diverse racially. Other negatives include: half of our local governments suffer from "structural deficits"; we're at a greater risk of heart disease; our air is among the worst in the nation in terms of particulate matter.
Still, it will come as a surprise to many who assume Pittsburgh is the second-oldest region in the country that its population is aging more slowly than the nation as a whole.
Data for the report was updated weekly and covers 10 key topic areas. The 14 cities used for comparison include Denver, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Charlotte, Philadelphia, Boston and St. Louis.
The report relies upon the expertise of Pittsburghers. Its purpose is not to promote a specific political or social agenda.
While not prescriptive about how to deal with the region's shortcomings, the report is blunt about where the region stands in each category. It is a fresh pair of eyes on a place we thought we knew better than we actually did. Armed with new knowledge of itself, Pittsburgh is better equipped to engage the future.