Pittsburgh Technical Council

Growth or Musical Chairs? Pittsburgh’s Flat Population Growth

Growth or Musical Chairs?  Pittsburgh’s Flat Population Growth

Article Published: May 17, 2017

In 2008 at the height of a recession, I wrote an article in TEQ detailing the importance of growing our population and welcoming foreign-born entrepreneurs. I then wrote another piece, in 2010 reflecting about the changes in diversity and population over the past years. Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote to refresh your memory: 

Sometimes the original points remain the important points. More than a year ago, I wrote about the importance of global migration, as well as immigration needed to fuel our region’s growth. This wasn’t the first time that I wrote about this important topic, and obviously, it won’t be the last either! It is essential for us to have constant dialogue tied to action.

Not much has changed since the last time I wrote about this subject early in 2008. The economy and national policy relating to facilitating the influx of international talent remains stalled as we find ourselves slipping toward 2010 with no major change in sight. The inability to attract people who will drive rebirth through innovation and the commercialization of new products hangs heavy on all aspects of our economy. 

I have adapted verbiage from the President’s Note published in the March 2008 issue of TEQ entitled “Immigration and In-migration: the Pittsburgh region needs to attract more international talent.” I think it hits on several good points surrounding this important regional growth engine:

So why does all this matter? The arrival and attraction of immigrants, who possess a spectrum of skills and competencies, help cities to thrive. Those that aren’t magnets for immigrants shrivel, according to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in its review, “Caught in the Middle,” by Richard C. Longworth. The nation’s most successful regions are vibrant with people whose origins represent the world’s myriad of perspectives.

Look at Silicon Valley. And yes, Pittsburgh, don’t grow weary of this comparison. According to Anna Lee Saxenian, Professor of City and Regional Planning at the University of California at Berkeley, who published “Brain Circulation: How High-Skill Immigration Makes Everyone Better Off,” by the end of the 1990s, Chinese and Indian engineers were running 29 percent of Silicon Valley’s technology businesses. By 2000, these companies collectively accounted for more than $19.5 billion in sales and 72,839 jobs.

Our region continues to make little progress in attracting a foreign-born population. According to U.S. Census 2000 data, the foreign-born population in the seven-county Pittsburgh metropolitan statistical area numbered 62,286, or 2.6 percent of the total population. Compared to 2.4 percent of the regional population in 1990, the percentage of foreign-born population increased for the first time in at least 50 years, according to a 2002 Pittsburgh Economic Quarterly article. 

Come on Pittsburgh, we can do better. If we don’t embrace change and new thought leaders and tolerate learning and inclusion, how can we ever expect our entrepreneurs—who are busy exploring the solutions of tomorrow—to remain here to build their dreams? Global migration to Pittsburgh remains an important priority.

Fast forward to 2017. The amount of positive national and global journalism about Pittsburgh over this past year has been growing steadily. But our population and diversity has not kept pace.

So, what shocked me is our population numbers. When we compare ourselves to aspirational cities, why are we flat (in real numbers, we lost 29 people a day from 2015 to 2016 across 10 counties)?

How could one of the greatest incarnated cities in the U.S. remain flat lined for population growth? I know we have an aging population that tends to tip the scale, and we are dropping to a mean age of 42 (compared with 47 in 2010). Investment is up, commercial real estate is strong, housing remains strong, albeit some displacement in pockets of the city itself, and the array of amenities is growing daily.  

We remain a city lacking U.S.-patterned diversity. This includes a vital African American community who is part of the prosperity. While our universities have attracted the best and brightest from around the world, we tend to serve as a temporary host. Emerging changes in immigration protocol will hamper any short-term efforts of keeping these students here. 

I am not a proponent of rapid growth. However, I know that the groundwork of Pittsburgh’s reinvention was laid 35 years ago. We must reflect the diversity of the U.S. population or else we will not have natural tentacles to the world. 

Technology allows us to participate virtually at every imaginable level. Virtual reality will be our reality in three years. However, it is the proliferation of face-to-face relationships inside a physical community that builds a sense of place. We can live anywhere. We can now choose to live in one place and work elsewhere. Pittsburgh must be a destination to build a life.   

I hope that I can report better progress in the next couple of years and not excerpt this article.

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