Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Gutter: Summertime and the living's easy

Another day, another recognition as the Most Livable City in the state/country/world.

…Pittsburgh once again is the most livable city in the United States -- and 29th worldwide -- in a 2009 survey by British magazine The Economist…(Post-Gazette, 6/10/2009)
And again I say, take that, East St. Louis!

The Economist Intelligence Unit -- which publishes numerous surveys and studies for paying clients -- has ranked Pittsburgh first in U.S. livability ratings since it started measuring them in 2005, said Jon Copestake, editor of the survey….

…The Economist's ranking is just one of many kudos Pittsburgh has earned recently: In 2007 it was rated as "America's Most Livable City" by Places Rated Almanac, and in January Forbes Magazine cited it as the sixth best city in "Ten Cities For Job Growth In 2009."
But we should give the other side a say as well.

Of course, there was that survey by the Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends project, which found Pittsburgh one of the least popular of places to live -- in the bottom 10 of 30 cities surveyed -- with only 17 percent of those surveyed saying they wanted to live there. And Business Week magazine reported that Pittsburgh is the 14th "Most Unhappy City" in the nation.
And it’s also humorous to note that when you Google the phrase “most livable city,” you come across the website, which has nary a mention of Pittsburgh on its lists.

But let’s put the negative aside. We can here to praise Pittsburgh, not to bury it.

Well, some of us did.

"Livability is in the eye of the beholder," [Jake Haulk, president of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy] said, noting surveys tend to overvalue cultural institutions -- which benefit relatively few people -- and undervalue economic indicators such as job growth and low taxes, which benefit many. Places like Charlotte, N.C., attracted people for that reason, he said.

"I would think that livability would have to do with finding a good job. If you're just looking at cultural things, sure, Pittsburgh is a nice place to live, if you can afford to send your kids to private schools or live in the suburbs and pay high taxes for good schools, but people tend to go where they can find work."
Hmmm, those are some interesting points, particularly about the overvaluing of cultural institutions. So what factors were considered when deeming Pittsburgh the most livable city in America?

In The Economist's report, between 30 to 40 indicators were considered under five categories: stability, health care, culture and environment, education and infrastructure. The Economist used its own analysts plus statistics and input from correspondents in each city.

"The idea was that the city presenting the least challenges to your lifestyle would be deemed the most livable," said Mr. Copestake -- in other words, cities that aren't too big, too crowded or too crime-ridden. Pittsburgh's medical centers and its cultural amenities -- unusual for a city of its size -- helped propel it up the charts, he added.
Okay, so:

Not too big - This city is nothing if not geographically small.

Not too crowded - We’re losing people everyday, right?

Not too crime-ridden - I guess that per capita the crime rate’s probably not too bad.

Look, I like Pittsburgh. I really do. I moved here almost 12 years ago and I’ll probably be staying here for quite some time (although I wouldn’t be surprised if the future finds me living in the scenario Haulk suggests - in the suburbs and paying high taxes for good schools). And to tell the truth, my life is pretty, well, livable. But I look around and I see city employees wondering if their pensions will survive and I see murders increase by 38.5% from 2007 to 2008 and I see neighborhoods ignored so that developers’ interests can be met and I see whole groups of people in this city being completely undervalued - or, as The Wire creator David Simon once said, “people are worth less” - and I have to think that a strong percentage of this city is having its lifestyle challenged.

And again we find ourselves thinking back to Carmen Robinson and her talk of “two Pittsburgh’s.” Time and again during the election Robinson talked about how you have the Most Livable City of Champions and you also have the real Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh that’s made up of neighborhoods no one on Grant Street has cared about in some time and definitely no one at The Economist considered when ranking the city so high.

So if you consider Pittsburgh to be America’s Most Livable City but you aren’t really taking the whole city into consideration, then you’re saying that those neighborhoods that don’t fall into the mold aren’t part of the city and they don’t exist. Sounds like sweeping the problems under the rug or, even worse, ignoring them altogether.

And that’s probably the worst effect of these kinds of reports: they give the impression - delusion? - that things are going well. For a great many people in this city, things are not going well. But every time a study like this comes out, those in charge can sit back and feel good about themselves, content to go another day without addressing the real problems.

Also, for a brief history of Pittsburgh's placement in these kinds of studies, check out Null Space's take on the matter.


Heath said...

I see your points about the questionable nature of such rankings, especially in light of Ms. Robinson's pointed critiques about Pittsburgh's cultural divide. Though, I see no need to subvert our city's ranking, especially due to the title "most livable" has been independently bestowed on Pittsburgh by a variety of sources.

This deserves to be a Peak, not a Gutter.

Chris Peak said...

Oftentimes there are tough editorial decisions to be made in the case of Peaks vs. Gutters, but this one went to Gutter because I really feel like these studies are too objective and data-based while ignoring actual on-the-ground livability. And while they should be relatively harmless feel-good stories, I get the impression that reports like the one from The Economist reinforce a certain sentiment that things are going good when, in fact, many things in this city need more attention than they are currently receiving.

So, for distracting from what's important, it's a Gutter.

gutter said...

Pretty insightful post. Never thought that it was this simple after all. I had spent a good deal of my time looking for someone to explain this subject clearly and you’re the only one that ever did that. Kudos to you! Keep it up.

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