30 Years: Will we still be Pittsburgh in 2043, or only more so?

Part of the 30 Years, 30 Changes series on the Pittsburgh region

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Alot can change in 30 years.

In 1983, who would have thought to go to Garfield to visit a high-end restaurant with quail eggs on the menu? Or to live in an elegant loft in a former milk factory in the Strip District? Or have so many "green" buildings that the president of the United States decided to show them off -- and the city -- to virtually every world leader at a 2009 global conference?

"Thirty years ago? What about 10 years ago? There was no North Shore Park, no Marina at South Shore Riverfront park, no Mon Wharf trail," says Lisa Schroeder, executive director of Riverlife, a public-private partnership that guides and advocates for the redevelopment of Pittsburgh's riverfronts.

With that in mind, try imagining a Pittsburgh 30 years from now. Will we be riding in driverless cars, taking light rail to an airport that is once again a major hub, or commuting on busways that interlock throughout the city? Will we have one major health care provider or 20? Will the city of Pittsburgh's footprint grow larger in a merger with the county, or will all 130 municipalities -- the most elaborate social construct this side of the Balkans -- stubbornly hang on? Will Riverhounds soccer actually compete with Steelers football for fans? Will we still have a world-class symphony? Leafy neighborhoods, great universities, relatively low crime and low cost of living?

In short, will we still be Pittsburgh 30 years from now?

We asked some of the city's more active partisans, wonks, doers and thinkers to sketch a portrait of the greater metropolitan region of Pittsburgh in 2043. It's a little misty, a year that is mostly beyond the reach of data crunchers, but mostly, they're optimists.

"Our advantages over other cities will become more pronounced over the next three decades," says Doug Heuck, editor and publisher of Pittsburgh Quarterly and director of PittsburghTODAY, a nonprofit that closely tracks the region's progress compared with other areas.

Pittsburgh's durable social fabric and a strong sense of place and identity, along with a robust philanthropic tradition that is notably more active than in other cities, ensures that "Pittsburghers will be more likely to care about and believe they can help solve the various problems that arise in the next 30 years," he says.

Pittsburgh will include more Latinos and Asians, but immigration will still be slower here, and in 30 years, Pittsburgh will remain one of the whitest cities in the country.

Size matters, too: "We're a manageable city where lack of explosive population growth becomes an increasingly apparent blessing in livability," says Mr. Heuck, noting that the region's population of 20- to 34-year-olds grew by 7 percent over the past five years, and it is expected to grow another 8 percent by 2020, according to researchers at the University of Pittsburgh University Center for Social and Urban Research.

If Pittsburgh's per capita income continues to increase in the coming years, that's more important than population growth, says Don Carter, who heads the Remaking Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.

Pittsburgh is a "wealth builder" city like Milwaukee or St. Louis, rather than a "population magnet," like Phoenix, Las Vegas or Orlando, Fla. Because Pittsburgh has a stable population and a diverse economy -- from railroad companies to Google and Microsoft -- it protects us from the congestion, crime, and boom-and-bust cycles experienced by high-growth cities.

What about those things that are culturally indispensable? Will the Andy Warhol Museum continue to be a central signifier of the city's newfound "cool" persona?

"We'll still be pushing people's buttons and act as a change agent for our beloved city," declares the museum's director, Eric Shiner. And while the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, along with other legacy cultural organizations, struggle to balance budgets, in 2011 Pittsburgh's arts revenue finally crept above the national average, according to PittsburghTODAY.

Overall, though, our economic health in 2043 will require vigilance, says Harold Miller, of Future Strategies, a business and management consulting firm.

The region's economy was almost entirely dependent on the steel industry, and while he doesn't think we'll make that mistake again, "I keep observing that we are once again becoming pretty concentrated in certain areas -- health care, finance and company headquarters," at the expense of entrepreneurial diversity.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald begs to differ. Dozens of entrepreneurial companies are here now "and natural gas drilling will transform things in a way we're only scratching the surface on today," he says, bringing wealth to the region for decades to come.

It's Mr. Fitzgerald's job to be an optimist, and perhaps Mr. Miller's to be a pessimist, especially when asked this question: What are the chances that a decent, citywide mass transit system -- comparable to those in the world's great cities -- would exist in 2043?

"Zero," says Mr. Miller, noting that most of the largest underground systems were built in the 19th century, when labor was cheap. Such a project would be prohibitively expensive today, and if anything, Pittsburgh's difficult terrain makes a bus line transit system more feasible.

On that question, the two agree. No more digging, but in 30 years, Mr. Fitzgerald says, "we'll have a multi-county transit agency. You are going to have a bus rapid transit system that links Downtown with Oakland, and that will be within the next five years."

Actually, the past five years -- which saw a large influx of young people, the first real surge since the dark days of 1983 -- may be the best indicator of how we'll be doing, Mr. Fitzgerald says. They'll bring change while adapting to the city's enduring values of hard work and community.

In short, Pittsburgh in 2043 will still be Pittsburgh -- only different.

Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949. First Published October 27, 2013 12:00 AM

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