Pittsburgh’s Tomorrow – What We Need in the Future

As the year comes to a close, we look forward to what Pittsburgh can be –– and what we'd like to see change –– in the coming years.

Illustration: shutterstock

We’re a city that honors its past. We tell stories of our glory days. Recall nostalgic places. Give directions according to landmarks no longer there.

But what do we want for our future?

We asked some of the region’s brightest visionaries and dreamers to share with our readers: What are Pittsburgh’s challenges and opportunities over the next five years? What are the big ideas that could transform Pittsburgh? What can we do today to ensure a brighter tomorrow? We also tossed in some ideas of our own.

photo by dave cole


Work Together to Fix the Region’s Weaknesses

by Harold Miller

Countless hours and dollars have been spent over several decades trying to find the “big idea” that will transform Pittsburgh into something it’s not. High tech, biotech, robotics, energy, the creative class and others have come and gone as narrowly focused visions for our future.

There’ve been enough “big idea” studies to fill a library, with little in the way of results. Over the last decade, southwestern Pennsylvania ranked dead last in job growth among the top 40 regions, and our region’s population continues to decline.

No smart investor would put all their money in one company’s stock, and Pittsburgh is Exhibit A for what happens when a region puts all of its economic eggs in one basket. The rise and fall of the steel industry repeated itself with Volkswagen, USAirways, Sony and Westinghouse. Why would Amazon have been any different?

We already have a combination of assets no other region has: world-class educational and cultural institutions and affordable housing without hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts or wildfires. But we also have serious weaknesses. Our infrastructure is crumbling. We have the second highest corporate net income tax rate in the nation and the least diverse workforce of any major region. Our healthcare systems work harder to put each other out of business than to deliver the best and most affordable care to residents. Is it any wonder our economy isn’t growing?

So here’s a big idea: Let’s fix those problems instead of ignoring them or arguing about who to blame. Let’s rebuild our infrastructure, lower taxes, welcome new residents and deliver effective, compassionate and affordable healthcare. No one agency, committee or program can do it. It will take all of us — every business, worker, elected official, taxpayer and voter in the region — working together to create the foundation needed for growth. If we devoted the same energy to solving our economic problems that we devote to our sports teams, just imagine what we could accomplish.

Harold Miller is President and CEO of the Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform and Adjunct Professor of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University.

photo by dave hallewell

Find Our Strength in Diversity

by Betty Cruz

Tempting as it is to fall into shiny object syndrome, I think we need to dig into what’s been long staring us in the face: racial (in)equity. To me, all of Pittsburgh’s culture is grounded in how honest we are willing to be about our individual and collective roles, either upholding or dismantling racism within the spaces we navigate.

I’d like to see more Pittsburghers step up as intrapraneurs for equity, disrupting our systems and white supremacy from within organizations. Whether we see it or not, our nation’s racist legacy permeates across all our institutions. We will not become the region we say we want to be without facing this truth.

This is key to moving us from an insular community — the Pittsburgh many non white community members experience — toward one that is truly welcoming because it holds itself accountable and takes meaningful action to practice what Mr. Rogers preached.

We all have a role to play.

Betty Cruz is the founder of Change Agency, a social enterprise that serves as a hub for civic initiatives, and project director of All for All, which aims to advance immigrant inclusion in the Pittsburgh region.

photo by richard cook

Become the Smartest of the Smart Cities

by Jessica Hodgins

Pittsburgh is a hub for innovation, particularly in technologies that leverage artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning modeling of data. Hundreds of start-ups have spun out from the local universities and medical centers, innovating in AI-driven areas such as robotic exploration and inspection, mapping and modeling of our as-built spaces and autonomous driving. International companies, including four of the five FAANG tech giants (Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google), have been enticed to Pittsburgh by our ready supply of talent.

My dream for Pittsburgh is that we can combine our home-schooled talent with those entrepreneurial and established efforts in AI and machine learning. Our infrastructure and modernization problems are no worse than any other city that grew up in the late 1800s in a geographically complex location. But they need solving.

Smart stop lights can help with the traffic in areas well beyond East Liberty. Self-driving cars or even their human-driven, rideshare predecessors can fix our parking problems. AI-based planning techniques can manage neighborhood growth and change without outpacing the infrastructure repairs and improvements. We can more smartly manage the processing of waste and storm run-off so that it doesn’t overflow into our rivers. Recycling can become 100 percent with the help of robots that will sort the paper from the glass and plastic, for instance. Innovations in materials might even be able to help with the ubiquitous potholes or at least get them repaired more quickly.

Pittsburgh has good bones from our days as a steel mill town. We have a ballet, a symphony, creative, original theater companies and a collection of wonderfully eclectic museums. These cultural attractions are surprising given our population (particularly given the limited tax base within the city limits). But those good bones need to be fleshed out with modern AI and machine learning muscle to allow Pittsburgh to become the smartest of smart cities.

Jessica Hodgins is Professor of Computer Science and Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University.

photo by dave cole

Prioritize the Art of City Maintenance

by Rob Pfaffmann

“Our thesis is basically that our culture’s obsession with innovation and hype has lead us to neglect maintenance and maintainers” – Lee Vinsel, from “Hail the Maintainers”

Once a week, my wife Lisa heads across the street to the Liberty School or maybe down to the Negley Station on the busway to take care of “her” trees. While she passionately gardens, prunes and mulches, passers-by look on quizzically … a few thank her. They get it. She is “a maintainer.” There are many untapped resources like her with the same passion and persistence. Too often we plant a tree or build a building that we don’t take care of after it’s built.

Our city is a palimpsest to be celebrated layer-by-layer, new, old and in-between. One day you discover the classic industrial steel sheds of the upper Strip District followed by a hidden foundry on the North Side. Further on along our trails is another opportunity hidden in plain sight: the abandoned Western Penitentiary. Dozens more unique places large and small are waiting deep in our neighborhoods.

We all hear about the proposed “first day attractions” that are often one-trick ponies. Do we really need a gondola across the Mon? A blue lagoon on the Ohio? Every city has a Ferris wheel. New York has its Highline; Chicago, its Millennium Park. Sure, we enjoy them when visiting those cities, but they are born of their own histories and circumstances.

As we ponder the future of Pittsburgh, maybe we need to think differently about the types of visionary projects we create. We need a network of smaller community vision plans that focus on maintenance of our neighborhoods. We can develop a more authentic vision that celebrates our quality of life through how well we take care of our city’s natural and manmade beauty. Many of the initiatives and public policy are already focused on our urban forest, accessible parks and rivers and the restored or repurposed architecture.

In the spirit of Fred Rogers, August Wilson and Rachel Carson, we should make our neighborhoods the true focus of our vision for a sustainable and resilient community. Herein lies our opportunity: Take care of what you already have, nurture it and share it within the diversity of each of our 90 neighborhoods.

Architect and planner Rob Pfaffmann’s design approach has informed — and been informed by — his preservation advocacy and community involvement.

photo courtesy flickr creative commons

Create Spaces for Culture and Community

by Molly Alphabet

You knew who lived in half the houses on every block. You knew their relatives on both sides of the family, how they all fit together, and what positions their kids played in Little League.

This was my Lawrenceville childhood in the 1990s. Although many of us are still in the neighborhood, that description does not quite match the Lawrenceville that you can visit today (without knowing just where to look). The framework of the “old neighborhood” has become outdated and impractical to many people.

It is my hope, however, that future Pittsburghers can continue to experience that sense of community in the networks we build for ourselves across the region. Because I’ve experienced this same spirit in the places around town that the Pittsburgh music scene calls home.

In the decade I have been actively involved in local music (primarily the indie-rock and Americana scenes), many bands and venues have come and gone. What has remained constant in the local scene is the supply of great musicians and enthusiasts who are its heart and soul. There are a ton of fantastic songwriters in our city. When Pittsburghers come out to experience live, original music of all genres, that is when they can truly tap in to that regional culture — getting to know the artists who speak in some way for their corner of the community.

My hope for the future of Pittsburgh’s music scene is that venues, media outlets and artists continue to create and protect spaces for original music to be played, bring the art to neighbors’ attention and explore authentic, homegrown Pittsburgh culture. We don’t need more cookie-cutter developments with disconnected bar owners; we need more venues run by the type of local-culture aficionados that have been giving us places to hang out and get weird for decades. Places like Nied’s Hotel in Lawrenceville or The Park House in Deutschtown.

Where many physical neighborhoods no longer contain tight-knit family groups, much of that same community spirit is on display in hangouts like these every weekend. Pittsburghers can still connect to the world around us through music — can still build new families through shared interests, right in our backyard.

Molly Alphabet is a country singer-songwriter who performs around Pittsburgh as a duet with her husband, Chet Vincent, or with her six-piece country band.

photo by dave hallewell

Connect Communities to Raise Us All

by Marita Garrett

As Mayor of Wilkinsburg, I look at the challenges and opportunities that [exist] not just in Wilkinsburg but across Allegheny County. Obviously, the City of Pittsburgh is the largest municipality, but there are 129 other municipalities in our county — and each one’s trials and tribulations are intrinsic to our growth.

Per the 2010 census, there were 1,223,348 county residents, of which 82.9 percent were white, 14.4 percent black, 2.94 percent Asian and 0.37 percent other. This reaffirms the segregation that we see. The main challenge is how do we use our bridges to connect communities — especially those who have been disenfranchised for so long. I don’t think we need any more labels to be the “next best thing” or “up and coming,” but rather we need to focus on being a place that is a better and improved version of our previous incarnations.

Let’s be honest about the work we need to do to truly be the most livable city. Together, we have the resiliency to rise up from what has temporarily gotten us off track and refocus.

Our region should be healthy and thriving, in every aspect. I envision a region where ZIP codes don’t determine what type of services are available. Communities should have equitable access to quality education, transportation, foods and basic human rights. A place where residents are civically engaged, self-reliant and understand their power. This is what we need to transform this region.

Let’s bridge communities instead of doing things for the sake of being innovative and trendy. All citizens of Wilkinsburg, and Allegheny County, should enjoy the same prosperity.

Marita Garrett is the Mayor of Wilkinsburg and Founder & President of Civically, Inc.

photo by Dave dicello

Build New Bridges

by Dan Burda

Bridges connect Pittsburgh — 446 of them, according to a count in 2006. Without them, our region would never have developed from a series of isolated valleys, hillsides and riverbanks into the thriving community it is today.

But we are still separated. The challenge of learning and accepting our differences is constant and not always easily overcome.

There have been signs of progress. Some of the original steel mill communities along our rivers are experiencing a renaissance with new construction and development. Hipsters are reinventing the small neighborhoods that created our city with multicultural flair and finesse.

With businesses recognizing Pittsburgh’s eds, meds and tech potential, more city neighborhoods stand to benefit. Will Millvale be the next Lawrenceville? Sharpsburg? Manchester? Can it happen without making housing in these areas unaffordable to those who live there now?

I believe it must and will.

The great people of Pittsburgh constantly celebrate who they are. Every weekend we see awareness walks and campaigns to fight diseases and create education about the special needs of many within our own neighborhoods. Good energy never turns a blind eye to what makes the beauty of our communities encourage new growth to build around us. I know one day the general word “community” will encompass “everyone” and sub labels will no longer be necessary.

Dan Burda is the owner of Studio Raw Salon in Ross Township and an advocate for a number of causes including organ donation, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and the Emma Munson Foundation.

photo: shutterstock

End Public Smoking

by Brian Hyslop

It’s time to end smoking in any of the remaining bars, casinos and clubs that still allow it.

When Pennsylvania passed the Clean Indoor Air Act in 2008, it allowed thousands of exemptions.  According to the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center, there are still more than 400 drinking establishments in Allegheny County that allow smoking indoors even though studies show that bans do not harm and may even help businesses.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that exposure to secondhand smoke causes disease and premature death among nonsmokers and that laws that prohibit smoking improve the health of workers and the general population. An argument against smoking bans is that customers can choose not to go to an establishment that allows smoking, but that discounts the health of the employees who breathe in secondhand smoke.

People should not have to choose between making a living and putting their lives at risk.

Brian Hyslop is Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine

photo by dave dicello

Be a Good Neighbor

by Lauren Davidson

Every Thanksgiving, I keep one ear open to the television all day to catch my first glimpse of the Eat’n Park Christmas tree commercial (no, watching it on YouTube is not the same).

The classic ad epitomizes everything I think about Pittsburgh. That we’re kind to one another. That we’ll take a minute to help one another. I know this is not everyone’s experience; I know it’s a privilege that this is the Pittsburgh I see. But it’s what I hope for Pittsburgh — and especially the refugees who come here fleeing war and genocide.

Refugees, who undergo a rigorous vetting process, are legal when they enter the United States and can apply for citizenship after five years, are often placed in other cities but choose to come to Pittsburgh: we’re typically welcoming, and we often already have a community of people from their country where they can feel relatively at home.

My hope for Pittsburgh’s tomorrow is that we welcome them, we welcome diversity, we lend a helping hand to our neighbors and we embrace those who are making our city a more beautiful place.

Lauren Davidson is an Associate Editor at Pittsburgh Magazine

photo by jessica sinichak

Make Playgrounds for Everyone

by Jessica Sinichak

I’m grateful to live in a community with a bevy of beautiful parks, including one exceptional playground specifically built for kids of all ages, sizes and ability.

The Pirates Charities Out of the Park Playground in Cranberry Township — adjacent to the Miracle League special-needs ballfield — has a lifesize pirate ship accessible by a ramp, a rubberized surface designed to take the impact out of a fall and a spacious “oodle swing” that allows multiple people to lay on it. The playground equipment is spaced out in a way that makes it easy to navigate by stroller — or by wheelchair.

While Pittsburgh announced in late 2017 that it would add chair-like swings accessible to people with disabilities — plus six wheelchair-accessible swings — to most of the city’s playgrounds, I’d like to take it a step further.

In Pittsburgh’s Tomorrow, I see entirely adaptive playgrounds where kids with extra needs aren’t restricted to a certain section or swing, and where everyone can play together on the equipment — no matter their ability.

Jessica Sinichak is Home Editor at Pittsburgh Magazine

photo by dave cole

Really Go Green

by Sean Collier

Mayor Bill Peduto garnered international praise in 2017 when he fired back at President Trump’s “Pittsburgh, not Paris” comments.

The city has a long way to go, however, before it can be considered environmentally friendly, particularly in terms of air quality, despite an agreement to continue observing the Paris Agreement.

California recently promised to convert to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by the year 2045; if Peduto and city officials want to back up the assertion that “Pittsburgh stands with the world,” a similar promise is in order.

A commitment to the health of Pittsburgh’s citizens will take more than praising green-building initiatives and ensuring that new construction is relatively clean. As a city, we need to do more than talk a good game.

Sean Collier is an Associate Editor at Pittsburgh Magazine

photo by laura petrilla

Expand Our Markets

by Hal B. Klein

Going grocery shopping in Pittsburgh almost always means stopping by the nearest Giant Eagle or, maybe, Whole Foods. I’d love to see more options for healthy, affordable and locally grown food at neighborhood markets, too.

While some progress has been made with programs such as Food Bucks, a partnership with Just Harvest and the Food Trust, we still have a long way to go in order to assure equitable food access across Pittsburgh.

We can start by asking people in city neighborhoods what they would like to see in their local market. I’d like to see farmers markets blossom, too, which is something that is yet to happen and would require the leadership of an organization with the time and interest to coordinate the markets more efficiently than currently is the case.

While we’re at it, I’d love for a couple of butcher shops to pop up; nearly all of the sustainably raised meat in the area is sold in frozen, cryovaced packets.

Hal B. Klein is an Associate Editor at Pittsburgh Magazine

photo by dave dicello

Cut the Cost of College

by Richard Cook

One way to make a four-year college degree more affordable is to enroll in an accelerated program that delivers a bachelor’s degree in three years.

But most of those programs are flawed, writes Paul Weinstein, director of the Masters of Arts in Public Management at Johns Hopkins University, because “they are essentially four-year degrees squeezed into three years.” Weinstein found the course loads so heavy, few students sign on. His solution is to cut the course fat.

“The modern curriculum has become oversaturated with unnecessary electives and general education requirements that attempt to teach students a little about everything at the cost of educating extensively in one or two subjects,” he says.

Schools in Pittsburgh can lead the way by making a three-year bachelor’s degree the norm.

“That will require reinventing the college curriculum to impart in three years the core skills our students need to get good, middle-class jobs or go on to graduate school to acquire highly specialized skills,” Weinstein says.

Richard Cook is Director of Digital Media at Pittsburgh Magazine

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