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
The Portland Skyline (Image courtesy Razvan Oredovic)

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)
Pittsburgh’s Skyline (Image via PPS, original from 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)
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.

11 thoughts on “Pittsburgh vs. Portland: May the Best City Win

    1. I see what you’re saying and I knew it was coming, but I try not to use “creative” in the same way as the common phrase “creative class”. I’m not talking creative as in young professional 30-somethings that create a clothing brand or a tech start up at a coffee shop. I mean creative in the basest form of the word – thinking outside the box in some way so as to change things. That can be as simple as insurgent public space or as involved as starting a non-profit where assistance doesn’t exist. I think the point of all of this is choice – like in bicycle share – the criticism includes that it exists for the privileged few, but if it doesn’t exist at all, then it can’t be used by anyone. A public space is for the public, and so if you assist in creating a parklet you are theoretically making it for everyone. Keeping a city down isn’t going to help matters. I’m hoping that this is a trend and that it will improve life in cities for all. This is why my focus is on people in public space, but there’s a lot more to it as well…

  1. Yes, but we (Pittsburgh) were the first to be NOTICED for “making our way” in this – the modern age or epoch. Post crashes and bursts, post-9/11 and everything that comes with it. Our success so far in finding that way is surely equal parts preparation and perspiration.

    (And it’s particularly cool indeed if this new modern age is defined by a conscious rejection of aspects of Modernism.)

    What was the hott city before Portland? Austin? Seattle? Right now I am foreseeing an Ohio Valley – Upper Northwest rivalry lighting up prime time for many years (though in truth, the black & gold are always thinking dynasty).

    1. Oh absolutely – I definitely think that this is the product of this bottom-up modernism-rejection, or, changing the city yourself because it’s probably never going to be completely top-down again. I just hope that the next “hott” city is eventually one after another after another until the quality of life is about the same. Some cities really need it. Thanks for the comment!

    2. I think the use of the word “dense” to describe Pittsburgh’s downtown area shows you’ve never spent a whole day there. The area is a dead zone of empty, crumbling buildings, drunks leaving the game, and locals starting fights in the streets. There are no businesses open after 7, unless you count the McDonalds. As a recent transplant, who visits Portland regularly, the comparison between the two is ridiculous. Pittsburgh has been pushing the status as a “hot” city for the past 10 years with little to no substance to show for it. The people here are delusional, pushing one or two noticeable improvements to the city, which then disappear the next year due to negligence. Pittsburgh is playing catch up and pats itself on the back when it catches up to the mediocrity of another city (remember how Pittsburgh was supposed to be on the culinary map with its sole cupcake store Dozens? no?). But Pittsburgh rejects progress, change, or anything innovative because that is not how its done here. You’ll meet people who work in the tech industry and still consider themselves blue collar, and resent the placement in the “creative class” as if it were a shame to not be a coal miner suffering from black lung. 10 years from now, Pittsburgh will still be claiming progress with little to nothing to show but delusional optimism and a declining and aging population.

      1. Sorry Stacy, but you have absolutely no idea what you are talking about. For being a “new transplant” your opinions about Pittsburgh are completely outdated. First of all the population has been increasing since 2010-2011, this is a verifiable fact. And comparing downtown from now to what it was 10 years ago it is night and day. There has been 5-10 billion (with a b) dollars of investment in the golden triangle over the past decade alone. New skyscrapers are going up and and old buildings are being renovated and filled with new businesses faster than I can type. And literally I am laughing about you culinary statement B.S. cupcakes… really? hahahah! The list of new innovative restaurants popping up are ound the city is growing by a handful each month. Lawrenceville’s Cure just made a national publication for top 100 restaurants in the country! You know what, you don’t fool me… you sounds exactly like a self-hating local… a yinzer who grew up here and doesn’t appreciate what they have in this city. You would have to be to explain your knowledge of outdated stereotypes from years ago combined with you ignorance of what Pittsburgh is today.

  2. The biggest problem about Pittsburgh is not that it is no longer “Someplace Special” and not that it has all the bad weather (it still does) but rather the fact that Pittsburgh does not seem to be anywhere “on the map” to out-of-towners. If u ask most people where our city is they will say something like, “isn’t that near NYC and Philadelphia?”…..”Ah…yeah,” I tell them. I think what we need is a landmark to emphasize exactly where we are located in this country and in this state, just as St. Louis is known to people by its landmark, the giant archway over the mighty Mississippi River.

    So, at this time I would like to propose to you all that Pittsburgh, with its Three Rivers do something even more spectacular than St. Louis: create three arches with each of the arches spanning across each of the three rivers of Pittsburgh. This would create an unforgettable mark of Pittsburgh, put it on the map, make it a travel destination and stimulate new business in the city (as well as more people moving into the metropolitan area).

  3. I met the Mayor of Pittsburgh, Tom Murphy, at a lecture about the revitalization of his city. I got to talk to him for a bit about what things he did to transform his town. Nice guy.

    I think you’re fair in your writing. There are a lot of cities out there that are finding new and innovative ways to make themselves more livable and attractive to outsiders. It’s funny how Portland and Pittsburgh get a lot of attention in this area.

    I worked as a Project Manager doing economic development work for the city of Baton Rouge. We started to get alittle buzz in the southeast a couple of years ago. Primarily because of a very progressive mayor. Fun times.

    1. Tom Murphy was the former Mayor (through 2006). After him was a short stint by Mayor O’Connor who passed away. Then there was Ravenstahl – who was the youngest Mayor and kind of acted that way. The FBI is looking into that. Now Bill Peduto is set to run the city and we’ll be in great shape if his execution is anywhere close to his vision.

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