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Pittsburgh’s Newfound "Riverlife"

Lisa Schroeder
Executive Director
Pittsburgh Riverlife Task Force

Pittsburgh boasts the most powerful geographical calling card of any city in the nation, with a skyline that's framed by rivers and a cascade of green hillsides. I like to take in the view from the deck of the West End Bridge, high above the headwaters, with the Point in the foreground and the Ohio River at my back. The scale of our riverbeds, as they wind through waves of hills and valleys, is unmatched. All at once, that vantage point captures both the tantalizing sense of promise and the scope of our challenge.

It was not so long ago that a silhouette of blackened, belching mill stacks formed a rim along our riverfronts and obscured Pittsburgh's greatest natural treasure. We have experienced at least three phases of post-industrial revitalization, in which the rivers occupy center stage of a struggle. Through waves of adversity, prosperity, immigration, and exodus, Pittsburgh has pushed ahead with the guts to succeed against all odds.

When the steel industry imploded in the late-1970s and early 1980s, a new vision of urban reclamation was born. Three mayors in as many decades scraped together seed funds to convert industrial brownfield sites into productive commercial hubs, leaving a legacy of point projects that put a new face on Pittsburgh's riverfronts. But it was a face that turned its back on the rivers. Desperate to reinvent our economy, we often settled for riverfront development projects that not only faced away from the rivers, but gave away the store on design standards - too many roads and parking lots, too little green space, and too few connections to our historic neighborhoods.

Mayor Tom Murphy's relentless drive to create continuous trails along our riverfronts for walking, running and biking have nurtured a public thirst for recreation on the riverfronts. As we've pushed ahead to foster public life and private value along our rivers, new mixed-use brownfield development projects have reflected a changing balance of aspirations: for quality of life, economic stability and environmental health.

Now facing a fiscal crisis and hovering on bankruptcy, Pittsburgh finds itself once again in a struggle to recast the balance of revenue and resources. In an era of scarcity and mean politics, it seems clear that this time, a host of visionary actions will be needed to bring about a transformation of Pittsburgh's most unique and priceless piece of natural infrastructure—its riverfronts.

To answer the call, a new kind of public-private partnership was created in 2000 with the appointment of a feisty group of civic leaders, urban planners, and riverfront property owners called the Riverlife Task Force. They came together to create a vision and vowed to implement a coordinated, collective master plan that would not only showcase our river landscape to the world but that would also make Pittsburgh's riverfronts, as historian David McCullough said, "a place where you want to bring the people you love." They threw open the doors to the public and encouraged dreaming. In countless public input meetings, the visions expressed were rather visceral and kinetic, filled with human yearnings to touch the water, to linger on the shoreline with a grandchild, to fish in a quiet spot. A child wants to ride horseback with her dad along the river. A teenager wants to hang out with her friends in riverside coffee bars. A regional vision was born that is remarkable for its simplicity: a green edge open to all, beautifully landscaped and seamlessly connected to our soaring bridges and to our neighborhoods.

The input from the community was complemented with study and inspiration from architects, artists, urban planners, and designers from around the world who have brought stunning creativity to the Pittsburgh riverlife design challenge. The vision created through this process is completely changing the paradigm of Pittsburgh's relationship with the rivers that have defined this city since the beginning. It's a vision defined by neighborhoods, businesses, recreation, leisure, art, and nature coexisting in a harmonious balance on and near the rivers. Called Three Rivers Park, this bold stroke of planning and investment encompasses far more than a few yards of designated greenspace with trees and benches. It's a grand urban river park with the principal asset being the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers themselves. To achieve the human, cultural, and economic connections described in the visioning process, the Riverlife Task Force is working to create and enforce world-class design standards in buildings and structures, including bridges and riparian edges. And it's working.

Suddenly, almost without notice, Pittsburgh's riverfronts are becoming hot property again. The northern edge of the Allegheny and Ohio have been transformed to the "North Shore," Pittsburgh's trendiest destination, the home to two of America's newest professional sports stadiums and a hotbed of civic and private sector investment.

Three Rivers Park also includes the new David L. Lawrence Convention Center, the world's only green convention center and a masterpiece of design that integrates the city's bridges and skyline with its budding love affair with the rivers. On the Monongahela's south shore, Station Square, one of the city's first successful brownfields is undergoing a major expansion that includes new connections to the river's edge. Directly across the river, plans are well underway for Mon Wharf Landing, where a flood-prone city parking lot will be transformed into a magnificent park connecting trails and bridge landings to Point State Park, which is also receiving a long-overdue facelift befitting its role as Pittsburgh's "living room."

And bridges—more numerous in Pittsburgh than in any city in the world other than Venice, Italy—are being lit with the help of corporate funding to add yet another dimension to the evolving character facelift of Pittsburgh's downtown.

Make no mistake, the vision for Three Rivers Park reflects a grandeur of scale and beauty in keeping with our tradition: more than six miles of continuous urban riverfront park, created with exacting attention to design, quality and a healthy environment. But the plan is characterized by small moments: trails, cafes, gardens, bike paths, and boat docks. This time, revitalization is about creating a place where everyone can come and feel welcome.

But perhaps the most exciting aspect of Three Rivers Park is the fact that it's not simply a plan: it's actually happening. In fact, more than one-third of the development that was contemplated or planned in 2001 is either completed or under construction. The stimulus for this development has come largely from local foundation support and government grants, but increasingly, private development is taking a greater role.

And as new development opportunities arise, private developers are following the lead of the Riverlife Task Force in embracing the standards of design, architecture, and land use that have already made such a profound impact on Pittsburgh.

Not long ago, an electrical engineer burst into the Riverlife Task Force headquarters to describe his burning vision for a "Platinum Triangle" of continuous trails along our rivers, starting downtown and extending to the Highland Park Bridge, through Oakland to Hazelwood and back to the Point. "At night, the lights could come on all at once," he said, "and people all over the world would notice."

In Pittsburgh, the grandeur of this gentleman's idea is matched only by the remarkable enthusiasm he has for it. For perhaps the first time in our history, the people of Pittsburgh are beginning to see this city as a true work of art.

Lisa Schroeder is the Executive Director of the Pittsburgh Riverlife Task Force. She can be reached at



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