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Pittsburgh positives: Walkability, low crime and home prices

| Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, 11:38 p.m.
A statue of Fame sits atop the 1871 Soldiers Memorial overlooking Lake Elizabeth in the West Park section of Allegheny Commons, Monday, August 18, 2014.
Steven Adams | Tribune-Review
A statue of Fame sits atop the 1871 Soldiers Memorial overlooking Lake Elizabeth in the West Park section of Allegheny Commons, Monday, August 18, 2014.

Pittsburgh might be slightly fatter and more cigarette-addicted than many urban areas, but the Steel City earns high marks for comparatively low crime, reasonable home prices and walkability, an annual report shows.

To Justin Monro-Neely, it's also a looker.

“Absolutely more beautiful than it was 20, 25 years ago,” said Monro-Neely, 40, of Ben Avon, who came to Pittsburgh for school in 1991, planned to leave but never did. “Stick around long enough, and everything came around.”

The 2014 Pittsburgh Today & Tomorrow analysis released Friday agrees, detailing a slow but studied rebound across the region. New demographics show Pittsburgh starting to shed its elderly profile, too.

“We still have, demographically, a much higher percentage of older residents. But the people who are moving in are disproportionately younger. The area is getting younger,” said Douglas Heuck, director of the review issued through the University of Pittsburgh.

The report from Pitt's University Center for Social and Urban Research compares the seven-county region with 14 other metropolitan areas in 10 categories, including economic, environmental and safety concerns. Other metropolitan areas in the study include Philadelphia, Cleveland and Boston. Heuck said the idea is to give the public — and public officials in Western Pennsylvania — a regular scorecard to help set priorities and evaluate programs and policies.

Results this year are mixed but illustrate a fourth consecutive year of sluggish population growth helped by an influx of international immigrants. The number of residents in the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area grew by about 6,000 in the past three to four years, a slight bump after decades of outward migration in a region of 2.36 million people, Heuck said.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald believes more newcomers are arriving from overseas, though the regional proportion of foreign-born residents — about 3.3 percent — trails the national average of 12.9 percent. International migration now outpaces domestic migration as a source of local population growth, according to Pittsburgh Today projections.

“If we can continue to grow the international, immigrant, foreign-born population here in Pittsburgh, we are contributing to the job creation here in the region,” said Vibrant Pittsburgh CEO Melanie Harrington. The economic development group encourages diversity in the regional workforce.

It also cites a Fiscal Policy Institute estimate that foreign-born residents account for roughly 4 percent of regional economic output. They are more likely than other groups to start new businesses and to be highly educated, Vibrant Pittsburgh organizers said.

While the higher education and medical sectors temper unemployment, the area lags the other areas in the study in the percentage of residents with bachelor's degrees, the Pitt research shows. The region ranks 12th among peers, with about 30 percent of residents having a bachelor's or higher degree. It's second for high school completion, with about 92 percent of residents holding a diploma, behind only Minneapolis.

A shortage of skilled labor likely will limit local economic growth during the next several years, said Gus Faucher, a senior economist with the PNC Financial Services Group. PNC forecasts 1.1 percent total job growth in the area over the next three years, shy of a national forecast increase of 1.5 percent.

“Businesses would like to locate here, but they need the skilled workers to do that,” Faucher said.

Other figures in the Pitt report cast the region in a brighter light. While about 35.5 percent of adults were overweight and 23.3 percent smoked, 90.1 percent had health insurance. Only Boston had a higher rate of insured residents.

The Pittsburgh area also had the lowest rate of car thefts in the study, with 76.4 thefts per 100,000 residents. Its homicide rate was about 20 percent below the average for the other areas.

Researchers scored the region well for walkability, too, placing it fourth because Pittsburghers often accomplish their errands on foot.

“My No. 1 would be the cost of buying a house. I think there are great houses here at a great cost,” said Jason Price, 40, of the Mexican War Streets, a Pittsburgh resident since 2008.

Homes in the area had the second-highest value-appreciation rates over the last five years, according to the Pitt report. Denver was the only other city in the analysis to see appreciation rates rise.

R. Dennis McClelland credited “the inherent stability” of hard-working Pittsburghers for that even keel.

“We haven't followed the rest of the world. We've done our own thing, and we'll continue to do that,” said McClelland, executive vice president of the Realtors Association of Metropolitan Pittsburgh. “We take care of our own.”

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or

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