Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

This Is Sprawl, Pittsburgh Edition

It can be difficult to identify exactly what sprawl is sometimes. Many cities are experiencing strong suburban expansion, but are also growing regional population as well. When you are adding nearly a million and a half people a decade like Houston is, it’s very likely your urban footprint is going to grow.

But there are some cities in America whose regional population has been flat (perhaps with some ups and downs in between) since 1950. This lets us examine sprawl in its pure form – an increase in urban footprint with no increase in population. Chuck Banas previously showed us this at work in Buffalo. Now Don Carter has done the same thing for Pittsburgh. In his recent TEDxPittsburgh talk, he put up the graphic below which struck me right away:

That’s a staggering increase in the urban footprint for no increase in population. The population ups and downs clearly nowhere came close to this footprint increase. While certainly not the only factor at work, clearly in many places this is part of the reason why we are broke. As Chuck Banas put it, “Same number of people, three times as much stuff.” – to pay for and maintain forever. No wonder some places are in such bad fiscal shape.

If you don’t remember Chuck’s Buffalo map, here it is again to refresh your memory:

Topics: Public Policy, Sustainability
Cities: Pittsburgh

35 Responses to “This Is Sprawl, Pittsburgh Edition”

  1. Kevin says:

    Wouldn’t a better comparison be number of households in 1950 versus Today? The number of people per household has been declining for a long time; even with a stagnant population this trend has created a demand for more housing.

  2. Jord says:


    Less people per household is one of the factors leading to a higher ratio of “stuff” to people. Why should it be dismissed?

    You might argue that it is a reasonable or acceptable change, while other phenomena are less reasonable or acceptable, but there are no such judgment claims being made in this post. The point is that the spread of population has led to each person using more resources, which is a fiscal drain. More households being made up of less people could be a contributing factor and there’s no reason to ignore it.

    A deeper analysis including such data could be interesting, but it wouldn’t be a good substitute for what we see here.

  3. DBR96A says:

    I do think that the decrease in the size of the average household partially explains the expansion of urbanized areas. Pittsburgh’s population has dropped by more than 50% since 1960, but the number of occupied housing units in the city only decreased by about 18%, from what I’ve heard, and if I remember the number correctly.

    The other big factor in the Pittsburgh area used to be the desire to get away from the heavy industry. Nobody wanted to live right next door to a steel mill, so those with the means moved up out of the valleys and into the hills. These days, I think that schools are the biggest factor. The populations of the best school districts increase while the populations of the worst school districts decrease.

    In spite of all this, Pittsburgh still hasn’t been disfigured by sprawl to nearly the extent of places like Atlanta, or even Philadelphia. Cranberry is the bane of all urbanophiles in Pittsburgh, but even it’s only 15 miles north of downtown Pittsburgh, and its location at the junction of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and I-79 lends itself to development anyway.

  4. George Mattei says:

    Kevin-yes it would. Household formation is a much better predictor of housing demand than population. That’s housing markets 101.

    Still-these are very educational maps. I wager that even with a comparison of household growth to urbanized area, the ratio would still strongly show that our land consumption, and our production of real estate, has outpaced the actual need.

    Does anyone have a quick way to find the number of households in Pittsburg MSA from 1950? The Census website had the 2010 count at 1,001,627.

  5. John Morris says:

    Hasn’t the housing bubble shown that a good bit of household formation was beyond what people could really afford?

    It might be an extreme comparison but in the 1950’s household debt was very small, and most people had 30 year mortgages with 20% or much more down-or no mortgage at all.

    Of course, we see now that, household debt was the tip of an even larger iceberg of costs for infrastructure we couldn’t afford.

    I will be back with more thoughts since there are some pretty Pittsburgh specific factors at work here in terms of heavy industry and geography that have to be factored in.

  6. stlplanr says:

    Problem is, our political economy makes new development easier than redevelopment. Environmentalists need to truly support far-reaching reforms that will effectively reduce red tape, that is, if we truly want to reduce sprawl.

  7. Ted says:

    Since moving to Pittsburgh, I have been suspicious of the claims regarding the amount of sprawl. I agree there is more sprawl than in 1950, but there feels like there is less sprawl in Pittsburgh than other comparable cities. My intuition, based upon experiencing sprawl in different cities, is that the red in the Pittsburgh map is less dense than the red in the Buffalo map or maps of other cities. The Pittsburgh Region is blessed with a topography that limits the ability of uniform sprawl to develop. Instead, you have a forced intermixing of sprawl and green spaces. The result is akin to a natural urban growth boundary.

  8. John Morris says:

    OK, as a non lifelong Yinzer, I will give a quick and dirty history of the region.

    If one looks at the map at left closely, one sees most population pretty close to the three main rivers. Most of us know, the region was made up of a collection of company towns, tied to heavy industry along those rivers. Coal came downstream which heated iron ore shipped by rail from the great lakes. Many plants barged goods along for further processing nearby. River bend = floodplain = plant = town.

    As DBR96A, said many of these river valley towns were not places people with options wanted to live in. In the case of Homestead, a large chunk of the town was torn down in the 40’s to make way for a mill expansion.

    Also, forgotten is that most of these flood plains-at least on The Mon, are still subject to serious flooding.

    Later, competition reduced the number of mills and automation, radically reduced the number of employees per mill. The ET works in Braddock still acounts for about 25% of U.S Steel’s raw steel production but employs only about 900 people–almost none of whom live in Braddock.

    Likewise, new employers–including other higher value added manufacturing plants found locations in flatter and drier locations away from the rivers more attractive. However, sprawl highway construction has certainly been a huge part of this mix.

  9. John Morris says:

    I guess what I’m saying is that, if one was looking to locate a city today based around education, medicine, robotics, software, design, business services and high value added manufacturing-one would likely not pick Pittsburgh’s current location.

    I imagine this is at least as true in the case of Buffalo. Both cities were designed around the logistics of heavy shipping and heavy industry. so one has a certain level of shifting going on.

  10. Al says:

    There’s a fallacy to this – Pittsburgh didn’t have normal growth patterns as it sprawled with industry to begin with.

    But the big fallacy is that the 2 charts assume that nobody moved to the region or that there was natural growth.

    The region peaked around 1970 with 2.7 million. Was and is there sprawl? Of course, but this must be noted for context….

  11. John Morris says:

    Yes, Pittsburgh sprawled with industry to begin with. It’s really a collection of towns, of which Pittsburgh became the control center.

    However there is a whole lot of very destructive sprawl.

  12. Dan says:

    Whether Pittsburgh’s sprawl is as bad as Atlanta’s is not the point here.

    The point is that population stayed static while land use for housing EXPLODED.

  13. DaveOf Richmond says:

    George Mattei – the housing count for the Pittsburgh MSA in the 1950 census is 628,470. The MSA then only contained Allegheny, Beaver, Washington and Westmoreland counties, it has since added Armstrong, Butler and Fayette. If you add the 1950 totals for those three counties in, you get 733,196.

    This is not quick, but you can download the 1950 census pubs here:

  14. Jim Russell says:

    What is striking about the analysis is not the sprawl, but that the narrative about dramatic population decline is bunk.

  15. John Morris says:


    Thanks, I haven’t clicked that yet but it is very important info.

    I would love to see some kind of estimate of infrastructure costs per person. (LOL, since these are “public goods” nobody has likely tried to come up with that number)

    My guess is that the Pittsburgh region has to have one of the highest costs. Whatever the relative level of sprawl here, one has to see every small bit of it as very, very expensive.

    After, Venice, the Pittsburgh area has the largest number of bridges–over rivers, over hollows, over gorges and across valleys. These don’t come cheap. Add to that, a good number of tunnels.

    Of course, that just scratches the surface of the massive environmental impact. Not surprisingly, the area is known for areas of very poor air quality and a flash flood risk from storm drainage problems.

    The area also is pretty close to leading in the number of bridges considered substandard.

  16. John Morris says:

    @DBR96A suggestion for a highway improvement might give some idea of the costs.

    “No need to double-deck I-376. Just rebore the Fort Pitt and Squirrel Hill Tunnels to fit three lanes in each portal, and six-lane the damn thing.”

    I mean, off hand it seems pretty nuts–Just rebore a big long tunnel? Can’t we try to develop Oakland, East Liberty, Point Beeze and Homewood more densely? What about the Strip or the North Side or is the North Side only good for stadiums?

    Who is going to pay for all this? How much more land would be needed for parking if something like this were done? It’s just nuts.

  17. Mont Handley says:

    I’m all for density as a way to preserve our resources but Pittsburgh’s topography is also at play in the sprawl. We live in and around, not hills, but escarpments. The difference is that escarpments, which are also the feature one would see at the Grand Canyon, are the remains of plateaus that have been eroded. They are not the most stable place to build dwellings, which early Pittsburghers did all over town. As those buildings aged and the escarpments continued to erode it became apparent to many that building on flatter areas of the region was was far more desirable.

  18. George Mattei says:

    Thanks Dave@Richmond. I am also looking for data on Pittsburgh MSA’s houehold formations from 1950 and current.

    Here’s a good article from Ed Glaeser on housing, that includes info on household formation and construction in the mid-2000’s.

    There are some good links to census data for the U.S. that show both sets of metrics from the 50’s onwards.

  19. John Morris says:

    @Mont Handley

    But Pittsburgh does have a good deal of reasonably, dry, flat and well located land–much of it in or near the heart of the city. The Strip, The North Shore; East Liberty; The Bloomfield-Friendship gap along Liberty Ave; Point Breeze ect…

    The tragedy in Pittsburgh, is a failure of imagination during the period from the 1940’s on to make better use of land as the city itself moved away from heavy industry.

    People, talk so much about the “robber baron era”, but judgements made back then were mostly rational. Land on the flats was effectively used for the industry right for the era and technology. Rail formed the backbone of non river transport.

    Later, these people left a very awesome legacy of first class museums, libraries and colleges. I laugh when people outside think they can copy Pittsburgh’s strategy easily since world class assets like this are pretty unique.

    It’s the stuff that happened since that is harder to understand–particularly, that the throw away land mentality is so persistent in the face of all the evidence against it.

    It’s not like Pittsburgh doesn’t have examples to look at like The Southside.

  20. George Mattei says:

    I just took the two data sets on household formation and housing units built for the U.S. from the linkes in Gleaser’s article and did a quick comparison. Granted, this is not a controlled, scientific demographic analysis, but the results are interesting nonetheless.

    Since 1968, when we arguably had a housing shortage, until 2011, we constructed a total of approximately 10 million more housing units than we had households formed. Of that 10 million, a whole half of that was built in the 2000’s.

    Given the fact that many sources say that the U.S. as a whole has an average of over 10% vacancy across all housing units, this seems to fit pretty well with this data.

  21. Al says:

    As I noted, Pittsburgh’s population did not stay static. It went from 2.4 million in 1950 to 2.7-8 million in 1970 (probably was declining as it went into 1970).

    Saw we are talking about a few hundred thousand more people in the metro before it declined. It wasn’t simply sitting out 2.4 million all these years.

  22. John Morris says:

    I don’t think that small a number justifies the sprawl we see in that map-even though my guess is the peak numbers might be undercounted.

    The history is complex, but involves a very large amount of economic and social waste.

    However, I do think a pretty large amount of shifting around was pretty inevitable. Take for example the Mon Valley which had a huge job base almost totally dependent on heavy industry which all pretty much gone now. This job loss had to affect not only mill towns but all the surrounding suburban communities that had grown around them.

    Recent trends seem to show a pretty dramatic shift towards the city itself and towards the northern suburbs/exurbs.

  23. Chuck Banas says:

    Overall, new home construction has outpaced household growth in the U.S. for decades. According to the Brookings Institution study “Vacating the City: An Analysis of New Homes vs. Household Growth” from 1980 to 2000, the number of new building permits exceeded the number of new households by nearly 19%. This trend was most prevalent in the Northeast and Midwest, at 30% and 35%, respectively.

    During the 1990s, Buffalo and Pittsburgh dominated the top of the list. In Pittsburgh, almost three units of new housing were built for each additional household in the area; 55,936 housing permits were recorded while the area grew by only 19,252 households. In Buffalo, almost four units of new housing were built for every new household.

    The study concludes, “The more that new housing exceeds growth, the greater the impact in terms of household loss and abandonment (and depreciated real estate). Cities in this situation cannot prevent abandonment. Negative conditions appear to form when the ratio of new housing-to-household growth exceeds approximately 1:1.”

    The Brookings Institution report may be found at:

    For those who are interested, I covered this phenomenon in a sequel to my post on sprawl, found at:

  24. Chuck Banas says:

    …and many thanks to Aaron for revisiting this important topic!

  25. DBR96A says:

    Something else to consider is that the housing stock in Pittsburgh was notoriously bad. I actually have a collection of World Book Encyclopedias from 1972. Here’s what it had to say:

    “During the 1960’s and early 1970’s, Pittsburgh’s housing ranked among the worst in the United States. Almost a fourth of its dwellings were substandard. Many of the worst ones have been replaced or repaired by the Urban Redevelopment Authority, a city agency, and the Allegheny Housing Rehabilitation Corporation, a private group. But large numbers of Pittsburgh’s Negroes still live in crowded slums.”

    This is probably a big reason why Pittsburgh began to sprawl even without much population growth: the newer houses were better. Most of the houses built in the old company towns and in the more industrial neighborhoods were the original shitty tract housing. They didn’t age well, and many of them lacked basic amenities like indoor plumbing. And even though suburban houses built in the 1950’s and 1960’s haven’t aged very well, they were still built better and had more amenities than the houses that everybody moved out of.

    Even today, there’s still a shortage of high-end houses in the Pittsburgh area, which explains why the average price of a house continues to increase. There’s a glut of low-end houses (less than $150K), and those prices are flat. But you can’t build the high-end houses ($250K and more) fast enough, so those prices are appreciating at a brisk pace.

  26. Al says:

    I was also about to add, it’s clear that most people don’t want to live in the crowded almost row house homes that dominate the region. Thousands upon thousands pre war mill town homes… most are narrow, most have many antiquated aspects to them. Some people love it, most don’t.

    I think the “low” housing costs of Pgh need to be footnoted… low for many of these homes… or even some 1950s suburban homes that dominate the “suburbs” of the Mon Valley, but anything a little more modern is a lot more expensive and on par with other regions (perhaps still less expensive, but a lot more than the $100,000-120,000 range that is sometimes cited.

  27. John Morris says:

    Yes, they were shitty tract houses and many of the worst of them were in low lying areas that flooded.

    Even so, this does not excuse what happened, we threw away not just the houses but the entire communities and lots of potentialy valuable land. Also, in most cases, like Braddock and Homestead, there was a very fine stock of first class commercial buildings, old banks, department stores, theaters and libraries.

    Why were none of these buildings ever converted to residential, or artist spaces or a dozens of other uses? Also, why wasn’t the land in some of the best located ones not better used to build new and better housing?

    A great example of a town that made a full conversion of this type is Lowell, Mass. Most of the crappy worker housing is gone-but a whole new population now lives or works in converted textile mills and classic old office and commercial buildings. I know it’s not exactly the same situation but it’s relevant.

    Homestead is a great example. A few years after the mill closed, Prince Charles visited and was laughed at for making the suggestion they hold flower shows in the mill. It seemed silly, but he must have noticed the beautiful, location, right across a bridge from upscale Pittsburgh neighborhoods with nice views along a river. The folks who built the massive big box mall also saw this as a great spot.

    What if instead of a mall, one had built a dense, walkable community of townhomes, apartments offices and retail? This would have then helped save the high quality commercial street. Remember, theat right up the hill is the awesome Homestead Library and theater. Just down the road is the famed, Kennywood Amusement Park.

    The region has dozens of similar failures. I know, people didn’t think like this-but it’s a tragedy all the same.

    The region also has lots of very high quality housing that’s gone to pot.

  28. John Morris says:

    “Many of the worst ones have been replaced or repaired by the Urban Redevelopment Authority.”

    That is mostly untrue. Promises were made that housing would be replaced in places like the Lower Hill. Mostly, it wasn’t, in it’s place we have a cluster—- of highways, stadiums, burms and now junk like Allegheny Center.

  29. John Morris says:


    “I was also about to add, it’s clear that most people don’t want to live in the crowded almost row house homes that dominate the region. Thousands upon thousands pre war mill town homes… most are narrow, most have many antiquated aspects to them. Some people love it, most don’t.”

    While, I agree this is partly true, the surprising story of Pittsburgh real estate (surpirsing to Pittsburghers) is how many areas with mostly that type of housing stock are seeing strong demand and rising real estate values. The Southside is mostly made up of those type of houses along with a great quality commercial strip. Lawrenceville and Bloomfield have lots of housing of equal or lesser quality.

    The key here is of course, location, location, location. Poor quality housing doesn’t always equal a poor quality location and as we can see when it’s allowed, density can create it’s own attraction.

    The Southside, is a pretty classic example of good location with incremental building conversions, building add ons and mostly rational infill construction.

    This isn’t brain surgery and Pittsburgh is hardly the first city to deal with areas with overcrowded or substandard housing. The answer to this problem is not to just toss the whole neighborhood in the garbage.

    The map doesn’t show, loss of substandard housing–it shows a massive sprawling waste of land.

  30. Chris Barnett says:

    Careful, John, with value-laden argument. Especially when talking about Appalachia and Appalachian-Americans.

    My dad and mom certainly don’t consider their 1970’s home on a suburban half-acre to be a “sprawling waste of land”, even if you do.

    Mom grew up on an Appalachian farm and in my entire lifetime has never lived anywhere without enough land for fruit trees and big food and flower gardens (plus a clothesline).

  31. John Morris says:

    Most of the homes around here are not on a half acre or more of land. What tend to see much more is layer after layer of town/ old inner ring suburb replaced by new suburb sometimes with similar housing stock.

    For example, we have towns like Carnegie and Millvale, which suffer increasing flash flood risk that seems related to areas around them getting paved over.

    Anyway, as a taxpayer, I am sick of paying for this.

    BTW, I do acknowledge that Pittsburgh’s story is complex, since there is a good deal of somewhat rational sprawl related to shifts away from heavy industry.

  32. DBR96A says:

    As for The Waterfront, it could have been done better, but there’s still plenty of potential, and it can be tweaked and retrofitted over time. I think the most serious problem with The Waterfront is the lack of connection to the rest of Homestead. There needs to be at least one more access point from Homestead’s central business district to The Waterfront. As it is now, the only access points from Homestead are via the Homestead Grays Bridge and an access road at the eastern end of the development down near the Rankin Bridge.

  33. John Morris says:

    I agree it can be rerofitted and hopefully changed. The lack of links to Homestead are just one of a host of problems.

    It’s a great location, not just for shopping but for living and working. As you know, there are a small number of town houses.

    Overwhelmingly the biggest problem aside from plain butt ugliness is far too much retail in relation to the surounding market. This is an overall, problem with retail in the region in general, which seems designed to canabalize itself.

    BTW, the Grays Bridge is I think both very busy and substandard.

    It’s very sad because, what Homstead is a critical key link to the Mon Valley. A beautiful Homestead would have helped Braddock in a huge way.

  34. Al says:

    The Waterfront is a disaster. I’ve been to more urban big box clusters in suburbs than that mess.

  35. Bill E says:

    Now that the Allegheny County tax assessments are the front page story, another factor comes (back) into play to promote sprawl. The new numbers are ridiculous fabrications arrived at by some mathematical formula and somehow completely unrelated to real property values. Butler, Beaver, Westmoreland, and Washington Counties are smiling and have ther doors wide open.

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