Walkable Cities and the Pittsburgh Paradigm

Staying busy on the work and home fronts lately, so this will be more of a hit-and-run type entry.

You know, I probably haven’t done enough to establish my planning beliefs on this blog, other than what I think about the present and future of Detroit.  I will be rectifying that.  I saw this blog post by Kaid Benfield recently that captures much of what I think should be a priority for cities — walkability.  In his piece, Benfield highlights Jeff Speck, author of the new book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time, and catalogues the ten steps he believes are vital for city growth.  A quick sample of one of the ten points:

Mix the uses.  (“Cities were created to bring things together.”)  The research shows that neighborhoods with a diversity of uses – places to walk to – have significantly more walking than those that don’t.  Jeff makes the point that, for most American downtowns, it is housing – places to walk from, if you will – that is in particularly short supply.  He also points out, quite correctly, that for most (still-disinvested) downtowns, affordability is not much of an issue, because relatively affordable housing is all there is.  For those booming downtowns susceptible to gentrification, he recommends inclusionary zoning and “granny flats,” or accessory dwelling units.

 The whole piece (and likely the book, although I haven’t read it yet) is worth your time.  None of the strategies are out-there visionary,  but are common sense things that led to the development of great cities for centuries.  When cities tried to compete with suburbs following World War II, and failed miserably, many realized that the urbanity that made them unique could actually form the foundation of their revitalization.

Meanwhile, Jim Russell of Burgh Diaspora continues to illustrate that cities need to strongly reconsider what drives actual revitalization.  He constantly brings up the fact that Pittsburgh’s economy and employment figures are reaching new highs, despite the fact that the region’s population is hardly unchanged.  What has Pittsburgh done?  It’s gotten smarter, established its niche (education and health care), and done a good job of attracting new blood by focusing on talent production instead of talent attraction or (worse yet) retention.  Honestly sometimes it’s difficult for me to parse out Jim’s message because he writes in a staccato style, but he’s clear that Pittsburgh is developing and employing a model that other Rust Belt cities should take seriously:

Pittsburgh’s turnaround is no longer just a regional story, a bright spot in a dismal post-industrial landscape. The recovery is globally significant. Pittsburgh is one of a few shining stars for all of North America. Talent is streaming into Southwestern Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh metro sets labor force records every month.

Rust Belt take note.

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