How Pittsburgh Is Managing Population Loss

When the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center took over the top floors of the U.S. Steel building last year, it seemed to cap the city's transformation from worn-out factory town to shiny hub for health care and education.

But the view from the landmark building hints at a more complex narrative. Beyond the new convention center, three expanding universities, and bustling downtown, a keen-eyed observer can also make out dozens of bald spots, blighted row houses, and overgrown lots—vestiges of the boom-and-bust cycle that has marked Pittsburgh's history. One of the nation's most populous cities by the mid-20th century, Pittsburgh today no longer even makes the top 50—suggesting that while it is, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, one of America's "most livable" cities, it's also among its most leave-able.

Between 1950 and 2009, more than 100,000 factory jobs and 300,000 people—50 percent of Pittsburgh's population—skipped town, according to census data. By 2009, even as the eyes of the globe fixed on Pittsburgh as host of the G20 conference, almost 20 percent of the city lay vacant or abandoned, according to the mayor's office. That's similar to estimates in the nation's most economically desperate cities, including Detroit and Flint, Mich. Vacant properties are more than just an eyesore: exposed metals and building materials can poison neighboring children and pets, while abandoned houses serve as a host for mice, rats, and crime.

And while The Washington Postand The New York Times have covered Pittsburgh's economic face-lift in recent months, lost tax revenue and a costly pension program for city workers have kept it flirting with bankruptcy. It's been "like watching a limb die," says Rob Stephany, executive director of Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).

Urban planners once dealt with such human and commercial hemorrhaging by trying to bring businesses and residents back—a strategy in keeping with America's obsession with expansion, and its entrenched belief that bigger is better. But now Pittsburgh—much like other ailing Rust Belt towns—is upending that approach in favor of a most un-American idea: deliberately going smaller to match shrinking realities.

Known as "right-sizing," the policy became a workable idea in the late 1970s when Cleveland tweaked local law to help the city reclaim and redevelop abandoned properties. It has since taken off as an answer to postindustrial decline: bulldozers, grass seed, and foreclosure law are used to prepare once booming urban environments for a more modest future—a notion that has won praise from academic and even presidential quarters. In 2007 Harvard awarded Michigan's Genesee County (which includes Flint) an innovation award for implementing right-sizing strategies. The Obama administration has channeled $2 billion toward the policy through the use of land banks—governmental or nonprofit organizations that focus on flipping vacant or abandoned properties for positive use.

Pittsburgh's right-sizing effort has accelerated under Luke Ravenstahl, the city's lantern-jawed young mayor. Since assuming office in 2006, the now 29-year-old has attacked the city's 28,000 abandoned parcels, tripling the demolition budget and doubling the number of bulldozed lots from 250 to 500 last year. At the same time, he has created a "Green Team" to mow down overgrown lots, clearing the way for urban farms, gardens, and small parks, while allowing local residents to buy the cleared lots around them for only $200 (as long as the land in question is "unusable for erecting a freestanding building," according to the guidelines). More than 500 have been sold that way since 2006. More than 600 others have been permanently returned to nature.

But not everyone is happy with such slimming-by-design. Nationally, critics blast right-sizing as the second coming of "urban renewal"—a mid-20th-century policy that flattened often vibrant working-class and minority neighborhoods in the name of revitalization. They condemn it as a defeatist position that accepts, rather than fights, urban contraction. "The use of a bulldozer conjures that ugly past," says Genesee County Treasurer Dan Kildee, who runs one of nation's most robust land banks in Flint, which could shrink by as much as 40 percent. He says shrinking is inevitable in the Rust Belt cities, and that land banks are a smart, sustainable way of managing that downsizing.

London's Daily Telegraph turned Kildee into a punching bag in June when it reported that portions of 50 U.S. cities need to be "bulldozed to survive," and that President Obama had tapped the Michigan native to apply his "pioneering scheme" nationwide—"razing entire districts and returning the land to nature." Kildee's work with the White House has, in fact, been informal and limited to the creation of land banks. But the story was picked up by the Drudge Report, bounced around talk radio, and debated on right-wing blogs.

Proponents of right-sizing reject the idea that it is the apocalyptic scheme portrayed by its detractors. Rather than destroying underutilized areas, as in the urban-renewal projects from the '60s, they say they want to rehabilitate abandoned lots: it's the difference between a paring knife and a mallet.

Still, the brouhaha helped stall proposed programs to right-size in Baltimore and Youngstown, Ohio, and pushed advocates such as Kildee in search of a better sales strategy. Maybe that's why Pittsburgh hasn't advertised its right-sizing strategy.

"Building to fit a smaller population has been part of the blood running through our veins for a while now," says Stephany, the URA executive. "For much of that time we chose not to talk about it. This notion of actively right-sizing—the notion of acknowledging that you've lost some population and that you're not going to rebuild yourself to look like 1940, but that you can build yourself down. I don't think anyone has figured out what the right words are."