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Glasgow and Pittsburgh: cities of steel

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The 12th November 2020 was a great day for Glasgow.

And not (just) because of Scotland’s stunning soccer success sinking Serbia that night. On the 12th, the city signed a formal partnership with Pittsburgh, USA.

This was the result of years of joint work on key issues like health, inequality, and the climate emergency. I’m proud that the RSA and RSA Fellows on both sides of the Atlantic, such as Duncan Booker in Glasgow and Grant Ervin in Pittsburgh, were involved in making it happen. It was an honour to attend the signing.

In a time of global challenges, place-to-place partnerships can be more important than ever. Glasgow and Pittsburgh’s partnership is built on a shared past and the promise of brighter future, full of new opportunities.

More than just ‘post-industrial’

Glasgow and Pittsburgh both have legacy of industrial pride, tinged with economic and social hardship. At the RSA, our work on heritage explores how important these kinds of histories can be in improving people’s lives today. What makes a place feel like home can be a platform for creating inclusive growth.

Both cities share a practical, rugged, humorous character, resilient in the face of challenge – a character which has drawn scorn from outsiders, but which now helps ground both as desirable places to live and work. 

The decline of the steel industry in Pittsburgh saw the population of the city collapse. Glasgow’s similar losses in shipbuilding during 1970s and 80s contributed to increasing health inequalities (sometimes unhelpfully referred to as ‘the Glasgow effect’).

Today, both cities have seen a resurgence based on reinvention. They are tackling inequalities and structural barriers. They are hosting world-leading work in new industries – AI and robotics in Pittsburgh, satellites in Glasgow.

Pittsburgh and Glasgow are often described as ‘post-industrial’. We prefer to see them as ‘pre-something’.

They are creating their own futures.

(For more on what ‘post-industrial’ really means, explore our event with urban design expert Don Carter.)

The shared journey into a new era for both cities is highlighted by their commitment to meeting the challenges of the climate emergency.

Glasgow is hosting the COP26 global climate change talks. Pittsburgh had its own moment in the global climate spotlight when Mayor Peduto famously stood by the Paris Agreement on Twitter, in response to President Trump leaving the deal.

But away from the glare of global media, both cities are showing the way on sustainable growth. Glasgow is home to groundbreaking work on the ‘circular economy’ – growth that only uses the resources we have. And both cities are learning from each other in applying Kate Raworth’s ‘doughnut economics’ model.

Challenge and opportunity

When a group of us travelled from Scotland, Pittsburgh’s Mayor Bill Peduto explained that the city’s rebirth came with a responsibility to help share their learnings with other places dealing with loss and decline.

Both Glasgow and Pittsburgh have a responsibility to their surrounding areas. Areas such as Inverclyde in the West of Scotland have experienced the industrial decline that Glasgow has witnessed, but the rebound has not yet occurred.  Likewise, the parts of Pennsylvania surrounding Pittsburgh have experienced significant decline, tragically reflected in population decline and the opioid crisis.

Cities are essential drivers of regional economic activity. Glasgow and Pittsburgh have the opportunity to reinvigorate those towns connected to them.

This combination of opportunity and challenge is at the heart of what makes this work so exciting. At the RSA, we’re proud to be involved. As a global organisation built on uniting people and ideas, supporting the Pittsburgh-Glasgow relationship is exactly the type work that brings our mission to life.

Already it has been a powerful space for RSA Scotland and RSA US to work closely together. Our joint event in September 2018 turned me into a confirmed Pittsburgh fan for life!

The Pittsburgh-Glasgow partnership is not the only city-to-city partnership we’re involved in. But it is the most developed and ready to make a meaningful global impact.

Glasgow and Pittsburgh – cities of industry, creativity, humour and enlightenment. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

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