“Anchor institution” is a buzz phrase in economic development circles these days, especially in cities such as Pittsburgh that are struggling to reinvent themselves. Institutions with established roots have become “powerful players in remaking cities into vibrant livable places,” according to a recent Pop City article.

First coined in 2002 by Harvard business professor Michael Porter, anchor institutions are universities, medical centers, performing arts centers or other large businesses that do what the term implies: they anchor a community, and they anchor in a community.

As such, these institutions generate jobs, purchase goods and services, and with time, foster clusters of spin-offs and other area development. But unlike other businesses, they cannot simply pack up and leave when the going gets tough.

The University of Pittsburgh is an anchor institution—and a notable one at that. Located near downtown in the ethnically diverse, culturally rich Oakland neighborhood, which also has its share of poverty, Pitt is taking an active role in helping the community become a more vibrant and innovative place.

Its efforts are picking up notice. Pitt was featured as “A University of the Community” in a recent article by researchers at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and ranked “Best Neighbor” among public colleges and universities in a 2009 national survey.

“Over the course of recent years, the role that our University has played in this region’s rebirth has been cited with envy by observers from other parts of the country,” Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg said in a release.

So why has Pitt achieved such rock star status?

First off, the university listened and responded to community concerns, and its outreach efforts have led to the creation of much-needed programs and services. Pitt Science Outreach, for example, provides science immersion programs and experiences for kids. Health care networks are fighting obesity and promoting wellness. Housing, neighborhood revitalization programs, and job training services are available to community residents.

The university has also reached beyond the Oakland community to partner with area businesses and institutions, such as The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, that serve city youth and promote education. The university’s Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments (UPCLOSE) is a partner in the museum’s MAKESHOP. Efforts such as these have contributed to the city’s larger economic growth and urban development, which has made Pittsburgh a more attractive place for new businesses, including Etcetera Edutainment and Schell Games.

It’s this willingness to collaborate that is one of the main hallmarks of Pitt’s (and other anchors’) recent success, according to HUD researchers. And this success has had a ripple effect that has led to an even wider network of innovative opportunities.

The Kids+Creativity Network is a great example. Gregg Behr of the Grable Foundation and Jess Trybus of Etcetera Edutainment wanted to create more opportunities for kids in Pittsburgh. With so many resources and so much brainpower in the city, what would happen, they wondered, if they pulled together some of the top talent in education, arts, entertainment, business, and technology?

Within a very short time, they found out. More than 300 Pittsburgh leaders came together to create unique partnerships to hatch and foster learning opportunities for kids. University of Pittsburgh, The Frank-Ratchye Studio for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University, Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, and the Fred Rogers Center are now just a few of the Kids +Creativity Network participants.

In many ways, it is this kind of synergy that represents the ideal of anchor institutions. Anchors are just the start of something bigger. By providing continued support and stability, anchor institutions cultivate clusters of related businesses and brains – all of which attracts more talent and investment, making innovation like that in the Kids+Creativity Network possible.

The key in all of this clustering and anchoring, however, is to recognize the assets already in the place—the long-time neighborhood residents, for example, who have their own roots sunk into the area, as well as an institutional memory that can prove valuable. Far too often, though, long-time residents are seen as “legacy costs,” not assets—an OFF! spray to the creative classes, and something to be “addressed.”

As the HUD report notes, Pitt has created a model for how to effectively incorporate community voices in the process. And as the evidence in Pittsburgh proves, cities can rebuild and innovation can thrive only when everyone takes part.

Photo/ Dylan Morales