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Why is Pittsburgh the Most Livable City?

Over the past several years, Pittsburgh residents have likely heard of their city topping “Most Livable in the United States” city lists in multiple publications.  To name a few, Pittsburgh has claimed similar titles by Forbes in 2010, The Economist in 2009, and most recently, in the top 10 in Mercer’s “Quality of Life” list.  However, Pittsburghers may not be aware of the reasons that make the city they live in so special, at least not consciously.

Some reasons may be surprising for those who have lived in Pittsburgh their entire life; they may take a few of the city’s great qualities for granted.  To find out what they are, one must first take a look at the criteria that is involved in the publications’ evaluations for “livable” lists.

“Everybody has their own method for research and determining the positions,” said Albert Ciuksza, Market Research Analysis for the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance.  “But as a general rule, for some of the better known publications including Forbes, The Economist, and the Places Rated [Almanac], they have a very defensible methodology.”

Forbes magazine used past and current statistics, and also projections to try to determine cities’ economic growth and stability.

“To find out where jobs were available and incomes were steadily growing, we ranked cities both by their rate of income growth over the past five years and the current unemployment

rate, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.”

Other main criteria include health, education, and artistic and cultural opportunities, according to Forbes.

Forbes cited the reasons for Pittsburgh’s success in accordance to their criteria: “Indeed, Pittsburgh’s art scene, job prospects, safety and affordability (crime rate and cost of living) make it the most livable city in the country, according to measures studied.”

This comes as no surprise to Jim Feutrel, VP of Market Research at the Allegheny Conference of the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, who said some of the most widely used criteria amongst the publications are what Pittsburgh does best.

“A few of the underlying themes [in criteria] are cost of living, especially in housing, low crime rate, and traffic patterns,” Feutrel said.

Pittsburgh’s cost of living is 5% below the national average, its crime rate is low compared to other similarly-sized and larger metropolitan areas, and the housing market is relatively stable and inexpensive, Feutrel said.

Feutrel attributes the stability in the city’s housing market as one of the factors that has allowed Pittsburgh’s economy to remain strong through the national financial adversities of the last few years.

“Recently, we have not been hit as hard by the recession as many cities in the rest of the country, and the housing market is one of those reasons,” Feutrel said.

This may come as no surprise since the housing mortgage crisis was at the heart of the nation’s financial crisis, but Feutrel explains that the reasons for Pittsburgh’s strong economy go beyond a stable housing market.

“Pittsburgh has a very diverse economy which focuses on five main sectors: financial and business services, information technology, advanced manufacturing, energy, and health care and life science,” Feutrel said.

Pittsburgh’s reputation as an industrial city whose economy revolved around heavy manufacturing is a tough identity to break, but the days of steel, iron, and coal’s dominance on the city’s economy are in the past.

“Up until about 35 years ago, the city’s economy was one that relied very much on heavy industry.  Not to say that it still isn’t a great city for it, but the innovations in business, education, and health care has really helped power [economic] growth in the region,” Ciuksza said.

This ability to adapt is at the core of Pittsburgh’s developing and growing business sector.

“The business community is very vibrant, and it has helped propel Pittsburgh’s economy,” Ciuksza said.

Pittsburgh’s manufacturing of products other than those of the consumer variety has also allowed the city to make it through the recession more effectively, because consumption of consumer products diminishes in times of widespread financial struggles.

However, Feutrel maintains that just because the city has diversified its business and manufacturing emphases, it doesn’t mean Pittsburgh doesn’t still retain elements of its former backbone.

“While advanced manufacturing has allowed the city to focus on new things, we still have a very vibrant metal and machinery manufacturing industry,” Feutrel said.

Another of the five sectors of Pittsburgh’s economy, energy, thrives due to one of the city’s oldest and most well-known companies, Westinghouse, as well as a newer industry, Marcellus Shale drilling, which has become very prevalent in recent years.

It would be hard to discuss the main factors of Pittsburgh’s economy without mentioning Western Pennsylvania’s largest employer, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC).  UMPC is a global health service provider with over 54,000 employees that has routinely been named as one of the most technologically advanced health centers in the country, such as being ranked in the “America’s Best Hospitals” by U.S. News World & Report.

One of the multiple areas of study that UPMC is nationally recognized for is its prominent research in head trauma.

“They have developed the IMPACT test for scoring cognitive function surrounding closed head injuries. It has been become a great resource for medical professionals,” said California University of Pennsylvania athletic trainer, James Daley.

UPMC is also well-known for its work in athletic training and studies.

“In Athletic Training, [UPMC’s strong reputation] is especially the case.  Pittsburgh has physicians and athletic trainers that are national and world leaders in sports medicine,” said Thomas West, chair of the Cal U Department of Health Science.

UMPC is, in a sense, a “three-pronged attack” in terms of its benefits to Pittsburgh’s identity as a livable city.  Its health services and medical research offer a strong presence of health-related resources to citizens, the large number of employees help provide jobs and economic insurgence, and its close affiliation with the University of Pittsburgh help improve an already strong post-secondary education environment in the city.

The University of Pittsburgh has one of the largest life science budgets of any university in the nation, and is part of one of the nation’s most highly-concentrated areas of post-secondary education and research.

“With 35 colleges in what is considered the Pittsburgh-affiliated area, the financially reasonable access to many universities is one of the best features about the city,” Ciuksza said.

Carnegie Mellon University is another prominent college in Pittsburgh, which is commonly ranked in the top 20 U.S. universities and highly respected in the fields of computer science, engineering, and business.  Other highly recognized universities in the city include the Catholic college, Duquesne University, and the primarily women’s college, Carlow University.

The prominence and prevalence on Pittsburgh universities is also important to Pittsburgh for more than strictly educational and reasons.

“During times of down economy, people tend to return to school, which was another thing that obviously helped in the most recent recession” Feutrel said.  “And the research that occurs in school like CMU and Pitt helps spin-off a lot of economic development.”

While Pittsburgh obviously has a lot to offer in the work environment, there is also plenty of “play” opportunities that make the city appealing.  Leisure, dining, and art have all grown dramatically over the past decades in a region that has been commonly known for its blue-collared identity.

“Over the last decade, Pittsburgh has expanded its arts, culture, entertainment, and dining options. Ranging from construction of new venues to the opening of many new restaurants,

Pittsburgh has more and more to offer its residents,” said Betsy Benson, Publisher and Vice President of Pittsburgh Magazine.

Sean Collier agrees with this sentiment.  Collier is the Associate Editor at the Pittsburgh Magazine, and runs the “After Dark” blog as well as writes pieces on dining, music, and film in the area, such as “20 Best Bars in Pittsburgh.”

“Natives may lovingly refer to Pittsburgh as a ‘shot and a beer’ town, but we are so much more,” Collier wrote.

According to Collier’s blog, Pittsburgh is growing dramatically in the music and film events.  Pittsburghers display a keen interest in cultural music such as blues and jazz, and the city’s rich blend of history and innovation have made it a Hollywood favorite in recent years for filming small and big budget movies.

Other leisure opportunities that are unique to Pittsburgh are its many bike trails and easy access to rivers for activities such as fishing and boating, according to Benson.

The cultural scene has also experienced growing interest in art.  While late artist Andy Warhol is the face of the Pittsburgh art scene, the community continues to evolve into the future.

“One example would be the Mattress Factory Museum collaborating with world renowned artist Hans Peter Kuhn to creative an innovative, striking and energy efficient light instillation on the roof of its North Side building. It looks like big white glowing pick-up sticks visible from Mt. Washington,” Benson said.

The energy efficient, or “green,” activity in Pittsburgh is also very important to the city.  Pittsburgh is the home of Rachel Carson, author of the seminal book “Silent Spring” and the matriarch of the environmental movement.  According to “The New Emerald City,” by Lissa Rosenthal on the Pittsburgh Magazine website, Pittsburgh was chosen to be the host of World Environment Day 2010 because of its continued efforts to reduce its ecological footprint and find energy efficient methods of transportation and production for the future.             .

What makes Pittsburgh so great may be that all of its strengths are interrelated and help improve each other.  From the economy, to education, to health care, to leisure, and everything in between, it seems Pittsburgh is a balanced town that offers opportunity in many areas, and the evidence supports this.

While Pittsburgh was not in the top 15 of any of the individual categories used for ranking by The Economist in the 2009 “America’s Most Livable City” study, it still came out on top of the overall list.  Feutrel attributes this to Pittsburgh’s diversity and reliability.

“I think that’s one of our great strengths and it speaks to the diversity of the economy and region,” Feutrel said.  “In a way, it’s the identity of our city and its residents.”

While Andrew Carnegie revolutionized the steel industry and created the identity that many Pittsburghers still associate themselves with, it’s apparent that that’s not all the city has to offer these days.  However, as Ciuksza and Feutrel said, that doesn’t mean it isn’t still a part of Pittsburgh and its residents’ identity as they revolutionize the city yet again.

So, next time a Pittsburgher wonders what makes their city the most livable in the nation, tell them to just look around.  Things often seem ordinary when you see them every day.  Sometimes though, they are really quite extraordinary.

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