skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Clean Power plan
Safe Chemicals

Kaid Benfield’s Blog

'The power of the post-industrial city'

Kaid Benfield

Posted February 7, 2012

, , , , , , , ,
Share | | |

  Pittsburgh then and now (via Don Carter, TED talk)

In this illuminating TED talk, Don Carter of Carnegie Mellon University places the future of Pittsburgh and other post-industrial cities in the context of global environmental trends and concerns.  He makes the point that, like many so-called “shrinking cities,” Pittsburgh hasn’t really been shrinking but, in fact, expanding in the wrong way while its population remains stable.

Nonetheless, the city hasn’t been growing.  But Carter believes that the proper measure of a city’s future prospects is not population growth but, rather, growth in per capita income.  On that measure, it turns out, Pittsburgh is doing just fine.  The problem with Sun Belt cities, he argues, is that the Sun Belt is going to become the “Drought Belt” because it is on its way to running out of water.  Pittsburgh and other post-industrial cities are much better positioned for a future where “water is going to become more important than oil.”  Twenty percent of the surface fresh water in the world, it turns out, is in the watersheds and water bodies of the Great Lakes and American Upper Midwest.



Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  Please also visit NRDC’s sustainable communities video channel.

Share | | |


Nicolas DeromeFeb 7 2012 09:36 PM

I agree that the availability of water will become very important in the future, but I suspect it will affect agriculture more than cities. Agriculture uses something like 80% of the water compared to 20% for cities. Only a very small fraction of that 20% is used for drinking water and often more than half of that 20% is used outdoors, like for watering lawns. Also, water not used on crops and yards can mostly be recycled. I think the Sun Belt can potential continue growing, if it is able to reduce the amount of water used for agriculture and outdoors.

The other factor to consider is that most of the freshwater available is groundwater. The Earth has about 100 times more water in the ground than on the surface. Obviously, we have to make sure we use groundwater sustainably, which hasn't really been the case, but what matters when it comes to which cities have the most water availabe is groundwater. (I don't think Pittsburg is in too bad of a situation in this regard compared to other cities)

AquifersFeb 8 2012 12:42 PM

I believe the copious "groundwater" you refer to is rapidly being drained in the desert cities of the sunbelt. That is most certainly the case in the farming areas of the midwest where the Ogallala aquifer has been drained by 400 feet.

tom murphyFeb 8 2012 04:07 PM

If future adequate fresh water supply is in doubt in the Sun Belt, then there should be evidence of municipalities restricting development by refusing source-water hook-up's in order to sustain the supply to all existing users. Any examples of this?

Comments are closed for this post.


Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

Feeds: Stay Plugged In