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Era of Dying Places

• May 21, 2013 • 4:17 PM

Downtown Pittsburgh and the Duquesne Incline from Mt. Washington. (PHOTO: PLASTIKSPORK/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

For many, population is the only metric that matters. But what does it mean when a city’s population is declining while its workforce is growing—in both size and smarts?

From the lofty peak of the Industrial Era, around 1910, a community with a declining population was dying. A city’s prowess was defined by the number of residents. Recent Pittsburgh labor force history confounds this conventional wisdom. While the population declined, the workforce grew. While Pittsburgh was “shrinking” and a Rust Belt basket case, more and more people were seeking employment there.

To further complicate the narrative, the Pittsburgh workforce is increasingly well educated. The typical term is “brain gain.” The labor force is getting bigger. More talent with a college degree toils there. The headlines still scream, “Pittsburgh Is Dying.” Why? Population decline is all that matters, century-old thinking. Economist Edward Glaeser throwing some dirt on the city way back in 2009:

My great-grandfather helped manage a Pittsburgh steel plant, and I’m always rooting for the Rust Belt. However, I would not expect the great trends of urban change to reverse any time soon. Phoenix may have lost on Sunday, but it will continue to grow spectacularly. Pittsburgh’s population will continue to decline. For that reason, I’m happy that in Tampa Bay, in the heart of the Sun Belt, the Rust Belt had its revenge.

Since that Super Bowl Sunday, the labor force numbers for Pittsburgh have gone up and the labor force numbers for Phoenix have gone down. Have the great trends of urban change reversed? Yes and no.

After the Great Recession, the economic winds shifted. Before the financial crisis, the landscape favored Phoenix and hindered Pittsburgh. Since, the trends of urban change flipped. Quality trumps quantity.

The rise and fall of agriculture and manufacturing are well documented. After the apex of the economic epoch, the workforce declines. I suspect we’ve seen the top of whatever you want to call the post-industrial economy and the rise of something else. That something else has been percolating in Pittsburgh for a few decades.

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

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