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.”

Sister, sister

Pittsburgh uses sister-city relationships to build connections around the world and to “foster mutual understanding” through educational and cultural activities, as well as economic relationships, Feyisola Alabi, a policy analyst for the city, said in an email to The Incline.

Per Sister Cities International, these are Pittsburgh’s sister cities:

  1. Bilbao, Spain
  2. Da Nang, Vietnam
  3. Donetsk, Ukraine
  4. Fernando de la Mora, Paraguay
  5. Gaziantep, Turkey
  6. Karmiel, Israel
  7. Matanzas, Cuba
  8. Misgav, Israel
  9. Naucalpan, Mexico
  10. Omiya, Japan
  11. Ostrava, Czech Republic
  12. Presov, Slovakia
  13. Saarbrucken, Germany
  14. Saitama (Urawa), Japan
  15. San Isidro, Nicaragua
  16. Sheffield, United Kingdom
  17. Skopje, Macedonia
  18. Sofia, Bulgaria
  19. Wuhan, China
  20. Zagreb, Croatia

Alabi said once a city asks about becoming a sister city with Pittsburgh, there is an application process with questions like:

  • Why do they want the city of Pittsburgh as a sister city?
  • Are they connected to the city of Pittsburgh in anyway, like through an organization or an individual?

To make the relationship final, the mayors or highest elected officials of both cities sign a memorandum of understanding, according to Sister Cities International. Pittsburgh’s list could grow soon, but there are no details yet on a possible new sibling.

“We are currently in the process of scheduling a conversation with a proposed city to talk about the possibility,” Alabi wrote.

Sisterly advice

A 25-person delegation from the Pittsburgh Technology Council will travel to Bilbao for Sept. 19 and 20. The group is a mix of people from various industries like business, arts, culture, economic development, transportation and architecture, Kennedy said.

During the trip, they’ll meet Bilbao leaders, tour the city and the arts district and learn about its history and successes.

The trip will end with a roundtable discussion with policymakers for next steps, added Monica Takacs, the tech council’s senior director for major programs. She said it will be a time to start finding ways to put what the group learned into action back in Pittsburgh.

There’s some hope to reverse the host and visitor roles, too. Kennedy said a Bilbao delegation is planning a Detroit trip in November. “We’re going to try to convince them to come for a day and spend some time in Pittsburgh,” he said.