Pittsburgh vs. Portland: May the Best City Win


There is a competition mentality that plagues our conversations about cities year after year, here and abroad, that can be both the source of joy or scourge for mayors and citizens alike. What is the best city to start a business in? Where should I move to for a great nightlife? Which one tops the list for raising a family? The list goes on and on. Find your preferred publication and pick your flavor of competition. But are these really so important? A lot of time and money goes into attempting to top these lists, not to mention gathering the data to create them. And some people seem obsessed by the notion that one city would be more popular than another when clearly, this underdog city deserves more attention (and new residents). So why the popularity contest? Or more specifically, why the recent emphasis on the battle between Pittsburgh and Portland?

I talk about Portland a lot and in turn talk about talking about Portland a lot because I feel as though I almost need to excuse the emphasis I place on this particular city. Yes, it has a TV show and a reputation for being that weird mid-sized city in the Pacific Northwest, and for this reason it has attracted a lot of attention. However, it has also been included in quite a few of these aforementioned lists detailing bicycle performance and quality of life. My family almost moved to Portland years ago when it was considered an up and coming city in livability standards, and I finally moved here in part because of this publicity, for good reason. In Monocle’s Quality of Life survey, Portland sits at 23 amongst the world’s livability greats - surely nothing to sneeze about. It’s Platinum bicycle rating and inclusion in other lists also indicate the reputation is at least statistically present in some way.

The Portland Skyline

Even when not included there is always the question of why. When Copenhagenize released their 2013 Index of Bicycle Friendly Cities, the only North American city was Montreal. Portland had lost it’s 2011 place among the top 20 cities and that was a significant change for a lot of people. And when Portland lost its #1 spot in Bicycling magazine’s top 50 bike-friendly cities list to Minneapolis, it was national news. The bicycle haven had lost! For those who are critical of Portland’s acclaim, it was an excellent example of the city’s slippery position on the bike-friendly pedestal. To the Portland proponents - a reminder that we need to keep progressing in order to keep up with the rest of the country if we even hope to become world-class.

In some cases this is valuable information. If you’re concerned with riding your bike to work in a particular city that kind of reputation must mean something, and you can be reasonably sure that you’ll find what you’re looking for in that place. For members of the community and professionals alike, if you look at a city that topped the charts, you can see what they did and maybe try to emulate it to improve life where you live. On the other hand a city slipping in rankings can provide insight into the issues that need to be more readily addressed. Maybe it even spurs a bit of competition that can push cities to improve. And of course there’s tourism as well. These lists can increase attention more generally and bring people to your city in order to experience the “greatness” or learn from that place and bring it back to their home country.

Pittsburgh's Skyline (Image via PPS and cory.cousins via Flickr)

But lately there seems to be some sort of fervor surrounding not livability per se, or an emphasis on the best at biking, but a popularity contest for the next best “cool” city (or hot, whatever you prefer). For some reason this is complete with a bullying mentality in an attempt to cast one out and raise up the other through the ashes. And Pittsburgh, the rust belt rising star, has become the poster child for Portland’s downfall by a few of these city bullies.

And not without reason.

It shouldn’t be too surprising that this competition is between Pittsburgh and Portland. Pittsburgh’s profile is strikingly similar to Portland’s - A mid-sized city, its temperate climate, dense downtown, and 95 distinct neighborhoods (compared to Portland’s 95) give it a sense of vibrance and new life after an industrial age. And Pittsburgh has also been on lists recently, touting livability, inexpensive housing, a multitude of major employers and the same young, quirky kind of creative population that also exemplifies Portland. A few years ago I heard of young crafty types buying fix-me-up townhomes in a sort of rust-belt homesteading trend.

More recently, a story I'm very interested in illustrates the kind of creative enterprises going on there today. The design studio Deeplocal has set up a social club called Bayardstown, an homage to Pittsburgh's historical inhabitants, in a now privately owned public space near their office. They're coming up with creative uses for neglected spaces to build community and enjoy their city. And the list goes on.

Pittsburgh's Repurposing. More of this everywhere, please. (Image via PPS, original from luiginter via Flickr)

So is Pittsburgh the next big thing? Quite possibly. But that’s not the point. What’s happening in Pittsburgh is great, that’s true. But the same sorts of things are happening in cities all over the country - young people changing their city to be more livable, making their way, riding bikes and creating change. Maybe Pittsburgh and other cities like it will continue their rise in the “best city” charts, and I applaud them. This is a paradigm shift, not a popularity contest. The more we can make cities better for bicycling, creative enterprises, and general all around livability, the better we’ll all be. There’s no need to fight about it. If these top city lists help spur better cities, then I support them. May the best city win? Sure. But if that’s the case, I hope we all win eventually.