Tales From Two Cities
An easy way to get you back into reading BLOGs after the holidays. A couple of newspaper articles that have application in Windsor.
- Rust Belt realities: Pittsburgh needs new leaders, new ideas and new citizens
The current recession provides a new opportunity for Pittsburgh's elite to feel good about itself. With other boom economies from Phoenix to Miami on the skids -- and other old Rust Belt cities like Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo even more down on their luck -- the slow-growth achievements of the Pittsburgh region may seem rather impressive.
Yet at the same time, the downturn also poses longer-term challenges for which the local leadership is likely to have no answers.
In large part, Pittsburgh's "success," such as it is, has been based on what may be called a "legacy economy," essentially funded by the residues of its rich entrepreneurial past. This includes the hospitals, universities and nonprofits whose endowments have underwritten the expansion of medical services and education, which have emerged as among the region's few growth sectors.
The other great advantage Pittsburgh has -- as do potentially other shrinking Rust Belt burgs -- is lower housing prices. That's the good news. But the lack of a great surge in housing prices during the real estate "bubble" also testifies to the region's general lack of overall attractiveness and its languid job market.
The current national economic meltdown now changes these realities, and in ways that may not allow Pittsburgh and other slow-growth burgs as much comfort as they might wish.
For one thing, the "legacy" economy is almost certain to start shrinking as the portfolio investments of universities, hospitals and nonprofits begin to erode. After all, these institutions rode the boom elsewhere for a long time; they now will reap the consequences of that dependence.
Perhaps even more important, the great housing advantage seems certain to weaken as a net positive. As prices in Florida, Arizona and even California begin to decline, Rust Belt residents who've been thinking of moving to warm weather, more dynamic economies and lively entrepreneurial environments will now have their chance.
To thrive, Pittsburgh simply cannot rely on being somewhere that is a good place to go to school, get sick or die. It needs to offer restless, entrepreneurial people an opportunity to succeed and do something new.
As local blogger Jim Russell notes, the real problem with his hometown is not that people leave, but that others do not come to replace them. People always leave places, but exciting locales -- Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, Houston or San Francisco -- also attract large numbers of new people. The immigrants, many of them seeking the "main chance," are generally the people who shake things up and bring new energy to places.
Who seeks their "main chance" in Pittsburgh? Certainly not foreign immigrants, who are staying away in droves. Metropolitan Pittsburgh has one of the lowest percentages of foreign-born residents in the nation. Even Detroit, with its sizable Arab population, has some sort of ethnic vibe.
In the short run, some might argue, not having immigrants relieves the stress on schools and eases potential social tensions. Yet in the America that is emerging, these newcomers represent arguably the most dynamic new element and harbingers of the future. By 2000, one in five American children already were the progeny of immigrants, mostly Asian or Latino; by 2015 they will make up as much as one-third of American kids.
Rather than compliment itself on not exhausting itself by running too fast, the Pittsburgh region should think about producing enough of a pulse to attract immigrants and aggressive young people. A place that reassures itself on the basis of its stable, homogeneous and rapidly aging population seems doomed to achieve little better than self-satisfied stagnation.
City leaders may be proud to see Pittsburgh hailed in the media -- most recently by USA Today and the Cleveland Plain Dealer -- as a poster child for urban "renaissance," yet these glowing accounts are clearly not inspiring many people to settle there.
Indeed, in a nation with the most vigorous demographics in the advanced industrial world, the City of Pittsburgh continues to suffer one of the most precipitous declines in population. Like the former East Germany, the town needs more coffins than cribs. Even the suburbs of Pittsburgh have been losing population.
More worrisome, there seems no strategy -- or even an inclination of needing one -- to change this reality. Rather than stimulate the grassroots economy, the region for decades has sought to revive itself by spending billions on new stadia, arenas, convention centers and cultural facilities, sometimes in the process demolishing vibrant working-class neighborhoods or local business districts. Meanwhile, the roads and bridges of the city -- which continues to battle bankruptcy -- are in a constant state of disrepair.
Every time I read about or visit Pittsburgh, the powers that be have a new project to prove to themselves that the city actually has a life. Most recently, it's a lame-brained scheme to create a 1.2-mile, $435 million (at least) transit tunnel under the Allegheny River to connect Downtown's heavily subsidized office towers to the North Shore's even more heavily taxpayer-funded pro sports stadiums and a future casino.
Yet, in reality, Pittsburgh's "Tunnel to Nowhere" is simply part of the same old brain-dead development strategy that may impress visiting journalists or conventioneers but creates little in the way of good new jobs or long-term opportunities.
You have to think about what the energetic people who come to a community really want -- things like economic opportunities, single-family houses and good schools for their kids. Who but speculators and city officials cares about luring the latest ESPN Zone or Planet Hollywood? These kinds of venues are simply commodities now, with no sense of place and available in any city of decent size willing to subsidize them.
So what should the Pittsburgh region do differently?
The first thing would be to consider using its scarce public funds to revive the old urban neighborhoods and leafy suburbs that constitute Pittsburgh's greatest competitive advantage. These are places that may attract students now, but to matter in the long term, some of these young people must stay after they graduate. This will be particularly critical as the current "echo boom" begins to fade and the now record-high number of students begins to drop.
Second, the region should target growing small businesses. The era when Pittsburgh was a big-business town is all but over. In 1960, 22 Fortune 500 companies were headquartered there. Now it's roughly a third that number. High taxes, tiresome regulatory regimes and the enormous burden created by outsized city employee pensions have hit the small entrepreneur hardest. Addressing these issues is more important to them than new arts venues or jazz clubs.
Finally, the city needs a shtick to call its own. It might look at its historic strengths as an innovative engineering city. Pittsburgh could look also to its hinterland, a region rich in beauty and resources, as part of its competitive advantage.
All of these things could provide linchpins for a true renaissance -- one driven not by public relations and shiny new subsidized edifices, but by the energy of its people.
That's what has always made for great cities -- and what will do so well after this current recession has passed into memory. Pittsburgh has the potential to catch the inevitable next wave that will emerge after the crisis, but only if it can get past its long-standing celebration of mediocrity."
Replace Toronto with Windsor
- City of lost opportunity
Mediocre leadership, lack of vision, high costs have squandered Toronto's once-glittering prospects
Twenty years ago Toronto was on the cusp of becoming a world class city. Since then it has squandered that potential. Today it's just another struggling North American city bracing for the onslaught of the worst recession in living memory.
This lost chance at greatness didn't just slip away on its own. It is the result of accumulated underperformance on many fronts.
First there is the mediocre political leadership that Torontonians have imposed on themselves since the mid-1980s. The last Metro chairman, Alan Tonks, was well-intentioned. But other than leading Metro toward amalgamation, he was ineffective in dealing with many of the core issues of his decade in power. He was followed by two terms of Mel Lastman (what were we thinking?) – eight years of confrontation, confusion and embarrassment.
David Miller is probably the most competent mayor to lead Toronto in some time. He is burdened by the lack of vision, action and creativity of his predecessors, but his own track record is not much better. As a result, he is now desperately trying to rearrange the chairs on the deck of the Good Ship Toronto as it heads into an economic storm of major proportions.
Toronto has a long history of over-promising and under-delivering. Grand announcements about megaprojects have usually ended in their implementation being stalled or shelved. The revitalization of the waterfront is a prime example. It has been promised in several forms – none of which has ever been delivered. Compare this with Chicago's experience. Its mayor took a political risk by pushing aside the city's waterfront airport and went on to create one of the most attractive waterfronts on the continent.
How many major transit schemes have been announced and then abandoned over the last 20 years? Instead of a steady extension of the city's rapid transit network, Torontonians have settled for a couple of new subway stops, the Sheppard Line to nowhere and a few more streetcar lines. Real "world class" cities like Milan, Hong Kong, Tokyo and New York have found creative ways to make massive investments in expanding their subway systems that are lowering their congestion, pollution and energy consumption.
This city has endured a long series of risk-averse and, therefore, results-averse councils. While other cities around the world have been experimenting with new ways to finance infrastructure, Miller and this council keep relying on the whims of other levels of government.
In Paris, developers buried some of the roads along the Seine in return for air rights and density bonuses. (Could this work for portions of the Gardiner Expressway?) London's 118-kilometre east-west Crossrail Line is expected to bring $40 billion to the U.K.'s economy. It is being developed with private funds. Other great cities are already charging car owners who drive downtown. They invest that money in maintaining and expanding their transit systems. Miller's "Transit City Plan" is yet another watered-down version of what is really needed. Once again, this compromise depends for implementation on the largesse of other governments.
Toronto has failed to obtain enough fiscal freedom from the province. Neither Tonks nor Lastman understood how to politically engage city ratepayers (who can be influential provincial and federal voters) in support of Toronto when it needed more attention and money from Queen's Park or Ottawa. They either went cap in hand or threatened financial catastrophe.
Miller has been able to attract a portion of the federal gas tax, GST relief and to negotiate some limited additional taxing powers from the province. But this falls far short of the fiscal needs of Canada's largest city – particularly when it generates much more money every year in taxes for Ontario and Ottawa than it receives from them in services or funding.
There is also the expensive and environmentally wasteful urban form that Metro and Toronto allowed to develop for decades. Much of the city is still low-density suburban sprawl. It is car dependant, and carries with it permanent high infrastructure, energy and servicing costs. This council's encouragement of high-density development where services already exists is a step in the right direction. But the planning mistakes of the past have put serious limitations on the city's future quality of life.
Toronto was a big loser in the late '90s downloading fight with the province. When skilful city leadership was needed, it was largely missing. Mike Harris rammed a wide range of provincial programs down the city's throat without the money to fund them. The city failed to redirect its ratepayer outrage back at Harris. It relied instead on a failed battle of words. Toronto continues to stagger under this burden with little relief in sight from the province. After two years of study, Premier Dalton McGuinty's recently announced phased-in approach to uploading is a cruel joke.
Like General Motors, Miller has allowed the city's cost structure to balloon out of control. The total compensation of many city workers (wages and fringe benefits) exceeds that of their counterparts in the private sector. Collective agreements have been negotiated that limit the use of best productivity practices. They discourage outsourcing where it's a cost-effective alternative. Toronto's unit costs are so high now that it is increasingly difficult to deliver services to ratepayers that are perceived as good value for their tax dollar.
Miller's long-term waste management initiative – burying its garbage in a hole in the ground south of London instead of one in Michigan – is not the act of an environmentally responsible 21st-century city. He could have provided much-needed environmental leadership to other municipalities by supporting the processing of the city's garbage in its own backyard, using proven energy-from-waste technology.
Some issues can only be tackled at the regional or GTA level. Transportation is one of them. The province's establishment of Metrolinx was needed. But Metrolinx will simply add another layer of bureaucracy without aggressive funding from the province. The promise of $50 billion over 25 years to implement its regional transportation plan is just another pipe dream unless Metrolinx also learns, as others have, how to attract significant private sector investment.
There is no silver bullet to ease Toronto through the tough times that lie ahead. The last two decades have not prepared it for what is coming. One can only hope that the federal and Ontario governments understand the importance of investing heavily in Canada's biggest city, as part of their forthcoming economic recovery programs. But that will only constitute a short-term means of saving Toronto from itself.