I’ve written a few times now about larger cities in the Rust Belt (largely the Detroit to Buffalo corridor, with Pittsburgh included), what they’re lacking, and how they can bounce back. I’ll continue to write about this because of my relative familiarity with the region and because I am genuinely interested in revitalizing these cities with youth in mind.

Yesterday I came across a piece in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, published a week ago, that glowingly describes the successful renaissance neighboring city Pittsburgh has undertaken. The article frames Pittsburgh as a good example of what can be done to weather the recession. Pittsburgh, which faced its own economic turmoil 25 years ago with the closing of the steel mills, has since diversified its economy, investing in higher education (Pitt, Carnegie Mellon) and healthcare (UPMC hospitals), but also developing tech and green industries as well. As the article describes, this approach has attracted Millennials to the city, taking the place of the Boomers who fled the area over the last few decades.

The bust also caused a seemingly disastrous — but ultimately beneficial — shift in demographics. When the jobs left Pittsburgh, so did a generation of baby boomers. Today, that void has been filled by “millennials” — those 27 years old and younger. It’s no accident that Pittsburgh is one of the few cities to offer free Wi-Fi within its borders.

Meanwhile, the city’s substantial elderly population, living on the safety net of Social Security, pensions and Medicare, is less affected by a recession than younger working folks.

“The city has done a remarkable job of reinventing itself because it had to,” said Michael Edwards, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit group that works with businesses, civic organizations, foundations and elected leaders on developing the city’s 100-block downtown. “We’re trying to build a city for the future.”

Much of that future is moored in the past. The Pittsburgh Technology Center, an office park on the site of a former Jones & Laughlin steel mill, is a research hub employing 1,000 people and one of the best examples of brownfield redevelopment in the nation.

Of course, I’d do well to point out that the mayor of Pittsburgh is a Millennial himself. 28 years old, Luke Ravenstahl is a Pittsburgh native who was elected to Pittsburgh’s City Council (youngest ever) in 2003. Two years later, Ravenstahl was elected City Council President, and when Mayor Bob O’Connor passed away in office, Ravenstahl succeeded him. Ravenstahl was officially elected mayor in November of 2007 by a 64 to 35 percent margin.

While many of the students from Pittsburgh who I work with in Erie don’t say much about the mayor, they quite clearly are proud of their hometown. Of course it doesn’t hurt that the sports teams attract a following, but they seem to identify with the region. It’s interesting that when I hear someone that is a native of a Cleveland suburb introduce themselves, they always say the name of that town. When I hear someone from Pittsburgh tell others where they’re from, they always say “Pittsburgh,” and only provide the smaller hamlet upon request.

So the pertinent question, then, is what happened with Pittsburgh? How do Cleveland and other Rust Belt cities get to the point where the brain drain’s impact is negligible and we create some positive energy in and about these communities?

Not surprisingly, I’d argue that much of it has to do with targeting the younger Millennials — those who will be going to colleges in these cities in the next couple years and those who already live in these areas. And whether these are explicit appeals — like the Pittsburgh wi-fi network mentioned above, or the hiring of a “bike-pedestrian coordinator” to make the city more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly — or implicit — like the collaboration-heavy route Pittsburgh took to climb out of its own mess — they seem to be successful.

The Plain Dealer published a sidebar to its article examining what Pittsburgh did to revive its city in order to extrapolate some of the strategy for Cleveland. Check out the Millennial-friendly values buried in these steps:

  1. Regionalize. Pittsburgh has lost population, but regional ties give it as much — or more — clout in Harrisburg as Philadelphia. Cuyahoga County could streamline county government and forge a regional coalition for more power in Columbus.
  2. Develop and use the waterfront. From Pittsburgh’s old convention center, there wasn’t a window that allowed a glimpse of the river. The new waterfront convention center has a boat dock from which visitors can catch a pleasure cruise.
  3. Develop educational leadership. Carnegie Mellon University was once a good regional school. Now it’s a great university of international renown. Plagued by abrupt changes in leadership and budget woes, Case Western Reserve University has not grabbed that mantle.
  4. Cooperate. Recognizing that their fates are entwined, corporate and labor leaders in Pittsburgh have been successful at setting aside many of their differences to work for a common good.
  5. Strategize. Like Cleveland, Pittsburgh’s philanthropic and business communities have had open checkbooks. Pittsburgh often has had a sharper vision of how the money should be spent.

Finally, not only should our local governments be targeting Millennial values when developing and reinvigorating communities; we should also be doing all that we can to include Millennials, even recruiting the most passionate of them to run for office. We can see Ravenstahl’s impact on Pittsburgh. Getting Millennials involved automatically forces the discussion off of ego-based controversies in the present and pushes it toward the future, answering questions like what the population will look like 25 or 30 years down the road, and what do we need to do to meet that population’s needs.

It seems that collaboration, technology, and big ideas go a long way toward rebuilding our cities. Who better to be involved in this effort than Millennials?

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