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5 Questions for Bill Peduto

Pittsburgh’s mayor on his city’s livability achievements and the importance of having an open door

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Bill Peduto: "Pittsburgh is the perfect urban lab because it's small enough to try out just about any idea."

Pittsburgh has been making a lot of "livability" lists lately. (See the "Livable Pittsburgh sidebar below.) It’s quite an achievement for a city that has transformed from its steel industry heyday — and subsequent de-industrialization decline — to what many now refer to as “New Pittsburgh,” an active, environmentally-friendly city with a “tech/ed/med” economy.

(Pittsburgh is home to more than 1,000 technology companies, and nearly 70 colleges and universities, and one in 10 jobs are health care-related.)

Bill Peduto has been a hands-on player in Pittsburgh’s evolution for the past two decades, as a city council staffer and, since 2002, as an elected council member. The self-described “reform Democrat” was sworn in as the city’s 60th mayor in January 2014, having won 84 percent of the vote. Peduto’s livability bona fides are many:

  • As a city council member, Peduto advocated for “community-based” development plans (including the $2 billion transformation of the city’s East End) and investment in niche industries, such as start-up incubator Innovation Works, and Project Olympus, another incubator headquartered at Carnegie Mellon University.

  • In his first year as mayor, Peduto created a Bureau of Neighborhood Empowerment, the first city department with the sole mission of working hand-in-hand with the residents of communities that have seen historic disinvestment and neglect.

  • He’s held several “Mayor’s Night Out/Mayor’s Night In” events to get city government representatives out to neighborhoods and to welcome the public in to City Hall.

  • He’s a big supporter of alternative transportation solutions, from ridesharing to protected bike lanes.

By coincidence (or maybe not) Peduto is also friends with Richard Florida, the economist, urbanist, and renowned livability expert. Now a professor at the University of Toronto, the two met in the late 1990s when Florida was teaching at Carnegie Mellon. Last year, Florida praised Peduto to the Pittsburgh Quarterly  for having a “broad grasp of urban and domestic policy issues” and being a politician “who gets it.”

1. Pittsburgh is a city of 90 neighborhoods with a vibrant culture. But, like many cities in the U.S., it has had to redefine itself after the demise of the industrial base. You’ve said that Pittsburgh is the “perfect urban laboratory.” What is the Pittsburgh story and why should the rest of the country pay attention?

In 1979, the Pirates won the World Series, the Steelers won the Super Bowl, and Pittsburgh died. Industry and the job market collapsed residents whose families lived in the city for generations left and Pittsburgh had to figure out how to come to life again.

The city did that through building a new economy in partnership with its universities and hospitals, rather than building upon the old manufacturing model. That new economy now lures global companies attracted to the city’s educated and experienced worker base. But the city held onto what made it special, too, including a dense and authentic housing stock, beautiful urban parks and landscapes, and a can-do work ethic.

Pittsburgh is the perfect urban lab because it is small enough to try out just about any idea. When the idea works, the city is big enough that it gets attention on an international stage.

2. Pittsburgh has received high marks this year for its overall livability, as well as for features ranging from pedestrian safety to affordability. How is Pittsburgh livable for people of all ages? What’s your vision for Pittsburgh as a most livable city of the future?

I am pushing for Pittsburgh to invest in the city’s youngest residents — through support for pre-K education and help with health care — to prepare them as much as we can to become the leaders of Pittsburgh’s future. Those future leaders will reap the benefits of changes their forebears are making now: building a safe, clean and rewarding city for all, no matter their income, age, language, race or sexual orientation.

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A once industrial city, Pittsburgh is now extremely green.

Pittsburgh Skyline, City, Lake, Waterfront Bridge, City, Park, Grass, Cityscape, Mayor Interviews, Livable Communities

Getty Images

A once industrial city, Pittsburgh is now extremely green.

3.  Pittsburgh is a leading city in its proportion of residents 50-plus (according to the 2010 Census, 30 percent of the city’s 306,000 residents are 50 or older, and 14 percent are age 65 or older) and has even been called “an important case study of aging in the nation.” Pittsburgh ranks among the top 25 large U.S. cities listed on the Milken Institute’s “Best Cities for Successful Aging” survey. What makes Pittsburgh especially livable or age-friendly for older adults — and what needs to be improved?

Pittsburgh enjoys a density — as opposed to sprawl — that allows older adults to easily shop, worship, exercise and enjoy cultural events in close proximity while also being near to family, friends and neighbors. As more adults move into this age group, Pittsburgh, like other legacy cities, will be focused on adding public infrastructure, from sidewalk curb-cuts to public safety and health amenities that embrace the growing needs of seniors.

4. You were elected last year on an ambitious platform about making Pittsburgh a more livable city. You’ve talked about the value of intergenerational programs and you’ve already enacted big changes in bike infrastructure. What challenges, if any, have you encountered when implementing such “livability” work? How did you address those challenges?

My administration is pursuing policies that support all residents, no matter their age. My program Live Well Pittsburgh promotes healthy living options for everyone from toddlers to older adults. New protected bike lanes on city streets makes biking safer for all people, including those just learning to ride and older bicyclists riding at a slower pace. Sometimes residents don’t take to such changes easily. But changes like these are essential to growing and developing a city. In the end most people come on board.

5. How have community leaders, organizations, volunteers and public-private partnerships worked together to make Pittsburgh a better place? Do you have any advice for other cities that are trying to foster similar collaborations?

Collaboration with community groups and non-profits is essential to building and maintaining the modern city. I’m using such collaborations to provide ladders of opportunity for struggling neighborhoods seeking economic success for their residents and businesses. I created the most wide-open process in the nation for filling top jobs here at City Hall, and I did so with the funding and assistance of a local foundation.

Not all the answers to government issues are here in a mayor’s office. My advice to other mayors and community leaders: Throw open the door to your office, and welcome the expertise and wisdom from everyone outside.

Rebecca Delphia is associate state director, community outreach, for AARP Pennsylvania | Published 2014

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