Pittsburgh has become a poster child of urban transformation and revitalization. Once a steel town built on production, Pittsburgh is now one of the countries “most livable” cities, according to the Economist, having reinvented itself as hub for tech and healthcare, and drawing in younger families, innovators, arts and culture.
But is the Pittsburgh transformation a replicable model or just a fluke? What can we learn, if anything, about how the city was able to revive itself? Is Pittsburgh’s story transferrable to the other cities facing economic disinvestment and shrinking manufacturing sectors stretching across America’s rust belt? What options do we have?
As an Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow working in the small community of Poughkeepsie in upstate New York, these questions matter in a very real, day-to-day sense. We, too, are facing destabilized economies, aging infrastructure and population flight. And with a population of only 30,000, one-tenth of the size of Pittsburgh’s, we have even less resources available in which to improve lives and increase access to opportunity for our community residents.
While conventional urban renewal strategies tend to center on luring outside populations, programming, businesses and investment into urban cores in decline, a deep look at Pittsburgh’s strategies reveals that the city built on what it already had. The city’s urban strategies had greater social impacts because they ultimately supported communities already in place — improving existing structures, nurturing strengths and resources locally to stabilize its economy and build social capital and community wealth. For example, Pittsburgh didn’t just look to attract new talent, but focused on retaining the talent it had produced at local educational institutions, including Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh. Similarly, organizations like the Pittsburg Cultural Trust, with support from the local foundation community, the city focused on redeveloping old buildings in a distressed area of the downtown, investing in existing arts and cultural sites to orient district-level planning and clean up the surrounding area. At the same time, government leadership embarked on key strategies of urban and regional infrastructure improvements, the development of natural amenities along the Allegheny riverfront and incentivizing and celebrating the value of education through programs like the Pittsburgh Promise. Rather than by solely trying to attract outside investment, Pittsburgh was instead successful because it invested in the assets and communities already in place in the city as a way to forge its new identity.
Pittsburgh’s case teaches us that local economies and expertise can and should be leveraged to create resiliency. Rather than viewing a distressed city as a problem that can be fixed only through influxes of outside capital and investment, small cities should feel empowered to foster latent expertise, leverage local economies and support existing cross-sector collaborations where diverse partnerships can have greater community impacts.
In Poughkeepsie, valuing and leveraging local assets is the DNA of my work as a Rose Fellow. Long a bedroom community of New York City, Poughkeepsie has experienced decades of decline since the withdrawal of key manufacturing employers, including IBM’s largest plant. Yet the region boasts several assets: a vibrant arts and cultural scene; a local economy based in agriculture; a strong culinary arts industry; an entrepreneurial and innovative spirit based on new immigration patterns, and nationally recognized educational facilities. And with its location in the heart of the Mid-Hudson Valley, halfway between New York City and Albany, the city is positioned to benefit from its proximity to the big city.
The host organization I work with, Hudson River Housing, has the core mandate to provide housing and resident services, but is stretching and evolving to be able to better connect its clients with economic and social opportunity. One of the ways HRH is doing this is through a partnership with MASS Design Group, a mission-based architecture firm that has become well-known for its “lo-fab” approach to building where community members gain skills and employment through the construction of the building itself. Hudson River Housing wants to adopt this approach to our projects even more broadly: to consider how our housing can do more than just be a home.
One of the current projects I am tasked with, the proposed Poughkeepsie Center for Arts and Culture, is doing just that through its creative approach to both housing and local capacity. The multiple-building development will include housing, workspace and programming focused on the creative and industrial arts. I am developing feasibility and programming studies on both the building and urban scale to test what activities will take up what space, and how much of it. That means taking in ideas and opinions from our community and understanding their priorities. It means reconciling some of the preferences for the space with practical considerations, and developing a model for shared space that is radically different from how it has been done in the past. And it means that rather than taking simple, co-working space or incubator space models “off the shelf,” I get to help develop our own unique model that builds on local community assets and needs.
Ultimately, Poughkeepsie will need outside investment. We hope that anchor institutions, like nationally recognized educational establishments such as Vassar and Marist, and other institutions like the Mid-Hudson Regional Hospital, along with their populations, will be drawn to partner and reinvest in the urban core and in the city at large, where so far they been absent. But rather than wait for outside help, our organizations need to put forward a proactive vision of what Poughkeepsie could be, and tell the story of what it already is now to make the draw that much more appealing. We are developing our existing talents and assets so that when new investments do come into the city, they can have that much more impact. Our city is currently a candidate for a state-funded $10 million development grant, and with projects like the one I am tasked with, as well as another proposal to help redevelop the historical 1800s Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory into affordable and workforce housing with community-oriented and social-impact businesses space, our city is positioned to demonstrate the kind of grassroots development that I think can transform smaller cities across the country.
When we consider the challenges facing smaller cities, they can seem daunting. But building on the strengths we already have is an approach that values the latent assets and agency of these communities and gives us reason to be optimistic. We have a long haul ahead, but I am excited to be using my creative skills to help widen this approach in community development.
Allan Co is an Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow. This premier fellowship in public interest design places designers in community development organizations for three-year positions. To learn more about the Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellowship and apply for the upcoming cohort by July 10, visit here.