Neighborhood Changes Show The Future of Pittsburgh

Earlier this week, a Chicago developer officially broke ground on the long-awaited, $100 million project to redevelop a 5-block stretch in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, including the historic produce terminal. A few days later, about a mile away, construction began on the redevelopment of the former site of the Civic Arena, which seeks to reconnect the Pittsburgh’s Hill District with downtown.

It got us thinking about neighborhood change, which happens to be the subject of a fascinating new report from the University of Minnesota Law School’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity. The report looks at how the forces such as segregation, deindustrialization, and gentrification have changed the nation’s 50 largest cities.

These shifts were easier to document for much of the 20th century: The American city went from booming to economically devastated as wealthy people moved out to the suburbs and urban areas grew poorer. Today, by contrast, many urban centers (Pittsburgh included) are experiencing economic revitalization, much-touted “urban renaissances.” 

However, as we’ve documented in our report on the changing demographics of Pittsburgh, the story of neighborhood change in America today isn’t that simple.

For the University of Minnesota’s report, researchers developed a model to capture both economic expansion and decline. They applied this model to the entire United States at the Census-tract level, and then studied if tracts are experiencing growth, low-income displacement, low-income concentration, or abandonment.

Overall, the report found that the most common form of neighborhood change is poverty concentration. Nearly 37 million Americans live in a Census tract that has undergone low-income concentration since 2000, and perhaps surprisingly, poverty concentration is an overwhelmingly suburban problem.

“In the last decades of the 20th century, the suburbs…. grew more racially diverse and developed large amounts of poverty. Some began to suffer severe economic decay and even depopulation,” the report notes. “Some suburban sprawl was stalled by the mid-2000s housing crash and recession, which slowed outward growth.” Meanwhile, as urban cores began to show signs of life, people, wealth, and development began moving back into cities. 

As in the past, “white flight” is strongly associated with neighborhood change. “Between 2000 and 2016, the white population of economically expanding areas grew by 44 percent,” the report found. “In declining areas, white population fell by 22 percent over the same span.”

In Pittsburgh, suburban areas like Carnegie, McKees Rocks, and Wilmerding have experienced this kind of shift, with white residents leaving or dying in high numbers. At the same time, non-white residents are moving in, though in far smaller numbers, and poverty concentration has gone up. (Tom Lisi at PublicSource has a great look at the Pittsburgh data.)

We’ve worked on many projects that contend with the shifting demographics of Pittsburgh—something we consider to be one of the greatest challenges for businesses and organizations in our region in the coming decade. Our region is unique in that we have a massive population of white, solidly middle class folks who worked in stable, often unionized blue collar jobs. That population has formed the customer base of many, many Pittsburgh businesses, but as manufacturing and steel in Pittsburgh has declined, so too has this population. A large percentage of the customer and client base for many Pittsburgh businesses is dying off. In response, businesses need to adapt to serve a much more diverse population of people.

For more on this issue, read our report on this subject here.