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 infrastructureits 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 bridgesmore numerous in Pittsburgh than in any city in
the world other than Venice, Italyare 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
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.
is the Executive Director of the Pittsburgh Riverlife Task Force.
She can be reached at [email protected].