Peculiar Pittsburgh

Won’t you be my sister city? How Pittsburgh gets international siblings and what we’re learning from one

The Pittsburgh Tech Council heads to a sister city in Spain next month.

Flags from the countries of Pittsburgh's sister cities line the hall of the City-County Building's fifth floor.

Flags from the countries of Pittsburgh's sister cities line the hall of the City-County Building's fifth floor.

mj slaby / the incline
MJ Slaby

A steel town that reinvented itself after economic collapse — sure, that describes Pittsburgh.

It also fits Bilbao, Spain, a city on the other side of the world that’s setting a global example in urban development.

Next month, the Pittsburgh Technology Council will travel to the northern Spanish city — known for its arts and culture, like the Guggenheim Museum, and for public transportation — for the organization’s first benchmarking tour focused on policy, said Brian Kennedy, senior vice president for operations and government at the tech council.

For him, the trip is about helping the council tackle its top issue: recruiting.

“When we talk about Pittsburgh, we talk about how it’s a tech town and an eds and meds town,” Kennedy said. “And at the end of the pitch, there’s a, ‘By the way, the arts are here, too.'” Bilbao leads with the arts, so, Kennedy said, the trip will help the council learn more about leveraging that in its Pittsburgh pitch.

So how did the two become “sisters” — and how else can they help each other?

Family resemblance

Pittsburgh and Bilbao became sister cities in the 1970s, per Pittsburgh’s records. Although commonalities aren’t a requirement of the relationship, the two share quite a few.

They’re both river cities and steel towns, said Don Carter, director of the Remaking Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. Four years ago, the institute organized and hosted the Remaking Cities Congress to study the decline of post-industrial cities in the 1980s. Half of the cities were in the U.S., and the other half were in Europe, with both Pittsburgh and Bilbao represented. He later led the writing of Remaking Post-Industrial Cities, a book about the 10 cities studied at the event and has been to Bilbao twice.

Bilbao was a ship-building town that’s since cleaned up its rivers and is working on innovation, but its technology focus isn’t as diverse as Pittsburgh, Carter said, adding that they don’t have the academic strength in robotics and computer science or companies like Google and Amazon. But Pittsburgh can learn from the European city, which has “been much more successful in putting together” a light rail and tram system, he said.

In January, a BBC article described Bilbao’s changes:

Standing outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, looking out across the waterfront, it is hard to believe that twenty years ago this was a post-industrial wasteland. Bilbao was built on steel and shipbuilding, but by the 1980s those old industries were dying. This gritty Basque city had to find a new direction. It reinvented itself as a hi-tech hub, and the centerpiece of this regeneration wasn’t a new factory but a brand new art gallery.

What made the Guggenheim so successful was that it wasn’t built in isolation – it was part of a wider programme. The river was cleaned up, the city centre was spruced up. ‘It was a scar in the middle of the city,’ says (museum director Juan Ignacio) Vidarte, of the view from his office window. ‘The mission of the museum was that the building would help transform the nature of that site.’

Bilbao “placed a heavy bet on the table” with the Guggenheim, and it’s made tourism a big part of its economy, Carter said. The city is a global example for how to use art, infrastructure and urban design to rebound from an economic crisis (followed by major flooding), Kennedy said. It’s dubbed “The Bilbao Effect.”