York Urbanist


For three days we experienced Pittsburgh, the arts, zoo, botanical gardens and the downtown.  Pittsburgh is making strides, but it lost its battle to the automobile in the 1960′s. Recovering its waterfront is their priority and their nemesis.  This story starts on the last day following an experience of a city during the heat wave and on a holiday week.

From the Pittsburgh Zoo, we chose to avoid the limited access highways. Our trip took us through Lawrenceville to the Strip District before careening through the downtown. Pittsburgh on a weekday at lunchtime is not much harder to travel than the holiday traffic, more evidence to support motor vehicle emphasis and dependence. Making occasional stops, we discovered more about the people. Sales and service staff are frequently over the top in friendly assistance. But when we (frequently) asked for directions, we returned to our limited mapping. The mountainous geography sends road alignments on non-parallel courses south of the gridded city centre, but one can intuitively relate to the river valley, never getting lost as downhill leads to one of the rivers. But we could not avoid the limited access highway when we made a wrong turn. It shot us back to the city centre from which we were trying to escape for our trip north.

What we take away from Pittsburgh:

Highways and Bridges, Engineers have done well in the past, but it is beyond time to think about the liveable city; Friendly, yet less geographically knowledgeable, service staff for the traveler. Is this an indication that the city’s own people do not venture far from their neighbourhoods?;

Emphasis on the physical attractions and less concern about the experience of the in-between spaces which link the attractions;

Respect for heritage and history, but not if it gets in the way of limited access highways;

Art inspires in small ways while architecture triumphs over the street with classic or date-stamped facades that start at the street level and shout “we are here” to the belittled pedestrian or driver. The Cultural District is giving impetus and optimism that this City could become not just sports but a cultural center. ;

and, So much waterfront, yet so little access to it. The token Point State Park itself is slashed by a limited access highway and framed by two bridge structures. The unpeopled ‘river walk’ pales in comparison to its namesake in San Antonio. It needs to relate to the city street grid but has not because of the impeding highways. Station Square worked with the rails, why can’t the city work with its throughways?

With no fewer than 10 colleges and universities, Pittsburgh could design itself around the knowledge industry. But then the demographics are different than a steeltown. Yet the city could make the leap. The youth need an affordable means of transportation and more intuitive recreation, desperately devoid in this city. The campuses are less integral and still give way to the automobile. Steeped in tradition, the universities should build more on that dynamic as they create heritage. Neighbourhoods need intensification to survive. Naming the Districts is a first step and encouragement of design and mixed use would assist urban integrity. This article follows http://yorkurbanist.com/2012/07/pittsburg-day-3/ and a series of four blogs. Watch in Waterfronts for Pittsburgh’s comparison to other international waterfronts.