I never thought I'd hear a Baltimorean say such a thing.

Last week, while reporting on the Rawlings-Blake administration's 10-year financial plan, I spoke with the mayor's press secretary, Ian Brennan. We covered a lot of ground in our hourlong phone conversation, but one comment in particular rewound itself repeatedly in my mind like a game-deciding, goal-line drive. One day, said Mr. Brennan, "We would love to be spoken of like … Pittsburgh as a city not suffering post-industrial urban decay any longer."


What? I wanted to throw a penalty flag. Why, I wondered, would anyone praise the Steelers' home town? But I soon discovered that for several years now, cities around the world have had ample reason to ask if they should be more like Pittsburgh.

In 2009, then-Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell introduced reporters from around the world to the city during the G20 economic summit. "If you asked people about Pittsburgh 10 or 15 years ago, they would have said 'steel and smog,'" he said. "Well, there's still steel in the Pittsburgh region," he continued, "but there is no smog." Yes, many heavy industrial jobs were gone for good, "But they've been replaced in a remarkable renaissance by a combination of green jobs, life science jobs, recreation, entertainment. Pittsburgh has undergone a remarkable transformation."

"Hell with the lid taken off." That's how writer James Parton described the city in 1868. Even well into the 1940s, air pollution from coal-fired plants was so bad that it sometimes blocked out the midday sun. That began to change after World War II, when local government and business leaders undertook an ambitious series of environmental protection and real estate development projects that they dubbed "the Renaissance." By 1954, smoke pollution had been cut by 90 percent and downtown Pittsburgh was expanding.

But what those reformers didn't know was that the U.S. steel market would soon implode. Between 1977 and 1987, the Baltimore metropolitan area lost 12.5 percent of its manufacturing jobs while the Pittsburgh area lost nearly half (48.5 percent).

In 1985, city, county and local university officials developed a joint economic plan with four major goals: leveraging what remained of the region's metals industry and attracting more corporate headquarters; focusing on advanced technologies; enhancing the region's quality of life; and expanding opportunities for women, minorities and other underemployed groups.

From a regional perspective, the plan was largely successful. "There are about 300,000 jobs in the city of Pittsburgh," says Chris Briem, an economist at the University of Pittsburgh, "the same number as 50 years ago." That's especially remarkable because in that time, the city lost nearly half its residents. So it's a mixed picture. More people are now moving into than out of the region, while the city itself has yet to stem its population loss. But in roughly one generation, Pittsburgh made the shift from a coal-powered economy to cleaner, more diverse, research-driven industries.

So what might this mean for Baltimore?

Baltimore is doing what it can to balance its books and stave off a fiscal crisis. That is a good and necessary start. But to thrive and not just survive, we will need our own regional strategy. That strategy is the topic of "Building from Strength: Creating Opportunity in Greater Baltimore's Next Economy," a 2012 report by Jennifer Vey, a fellow in the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program.

"Greater Baltimore has significant assets on which to build a more opportunity-rich next economy," writes Ms. Vey, "but they aren't being fully exploited." And many of the city's low-wage workers are not reaping the benefits of a relatively robust regional economy. The high-tech future Ms. Vey imagines for Baltimore has much in common with what Pittsburgh's leaders envisioned nearly three decades ago. It involves building from strength with existing manufacturing firms and research-intensive bioscience and IT sectors; growing our base of "green" jobs; and improving the transportation systems that will help move people and goods.

So while we are undeniably better at football, it's true: Pittsburgh has a lot to teach us about the importance of regional economic development. But even if Charm City should selectively admire Steel City, I would encourage all of us to take note of what my editor told me when I pitched this story: "The Pirates still stink."

Lionel Foster is a freelance writer from Baltimore. His column appears Fridays. Email: lionel@lionelfoster.com. Twitter: @LionelBMD.