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Wednesday
Oct022013

Retooling Downtown for the Next Century

A focus on Pittsburgh's core public space portfolio 

Market Square in the heart of Pittsburgh as been central to its downtown strategy.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, like many regional centers throughout the United States, is in a necessary state of transition from the twentieth century to the current one. Through these growing pains, American cities and their regions have inherited the role of setting the social, physical, educational, and environmental agenda as Federal policy either moves too slow or is too blunt to adequately contribute to each place’s unique sense of being and the particular opportunities or challenges in diverging corners of a country as big and vast as this one. 

Concurrent to this downshifting of responsibilities is an upshifting of expectations. The United State’s economy and its demographics is actively responding to some of the anomalies of the 20th Century. People old and young are making the financial, health, and quality of life connections that were severed in the past era's post-war and industrial exuberance that inadvertently allowed us to spend our savings and mortgage our future in a vain attempt to sustain the unsustainable. This is causing a widespread re-evaluation of how we spend our time, how we invest, where we live, and how we apply our creativity.  

This is not cyclical change, but structural.

The cities that recognize this phenomenon are making the investments and changes to policy that not only make them more resilient to the many externalities that are outside of their ability to directly control (think Sandy, The Great Recession and other events that are costly to cities but not the result of purely local actions) but to also compete on a national and global stage for the innovators, educators, investors, creators and leaders that will further reinforce a place’s population, its economy, and its vibrancy. 

Of the many metrics used to gauge how a city is moving closer to a 21st Century livelihood, the health of the public realm remains one of our best barometers. Much like internet hits are used to measure and further attract web activity, public space “hits” illustrate for us the intersection between a place’s culture, economy, navigability, openness and creativity to increase the ‘memorableness’ of a place in driving even more traffic and more investment. While the strength of these indicators need to be tracked throughout a city, a city’s downtown is where the results might matter more than any other part of a city. A place is only as strong as its core.  

Pittsburgh understands this. And, because the city and its downtown was largely built before the focus on the automobile outscaled it’s ability to keep pace, the public realm we are now repopulating is truly central to an Investment Ready Place. This inheritance affords public space entrepreneurs the ability to invest in public spaces in a direct and meaningful way. 

A 21st Century Conversion Strategy

Sitting at the core of Pittsburgh’s 21st Century conversion strategy (which began long before the change in centuries) was the recognition that downtown Pittsburgh had to evolve away from simply being a Central Business District that closed up shop on nights and weekends when the regional employment hub went vacant. Instead, it had to start treating and investing in downtown as if it were a fully functioning neighborhood.  

Transforming downtown into a neighborhood means making it more inclusive for families and others beyond just office workers.

With downtown now imagined as a neighborhood, a top-down-plus-bottom-up all-of-the-above approach could take hold. The best neighborhoods are not monolithic and downtown Pittsburgh would have to adapt. This allowed new and unexpected ideas to take shape; brought a diversity of energetic implementers and partners into the fold; and diversified the ultimate investments that lead to a dynamic place. Corporations, institutions, non-profits, foundations, and individuals joined the City in envisioning (not that they always agree) how a 21st Century Pittsburgh might operate and live. Each brought their unique creativity, talents, and abilities to find investors to funnel investments into a robust portfolio of public spaces. An all-in approach to 21st Century city building requires many authors working on many different kinds of projects at different times, scales, and locations. 

Taking advantage of many contributors allows each to plan, invest, evaluate, and repeat on different cycles and in real-time response to the success and failures of others. Together, this forms a resilient system that drives economic and city development. But for a place, it also means that the pubic realm doesn’t appear to be cast from a single mould. It allows for different experiences that peak at different times of the day, week, and year. It is as incremental and messy as it is master planned and coordinated. 

Recent investments in Pittsburgh public spaces have helped leverage over $4 billion in public and private investment (Source: http://www.riverlifepgh.org/)

What has occurred in Pittsburgh during this first decade of the new century is nothing short of remarkable. The city has managed to effectively unleash four billion dollars of public and private downtown investment built around a full array of public spaces:

  • Landmark Spaces are those that get all the post cards and are shown from the blimp on sports broadcasts. They are also the ones that draw the most people to do the largest range of things.
    Point State Park
  • Public Squares are the active rooms within a city where people meet markets; food; weekly and seasonal traditions; and spend time with one another.
    Market Square
  • Semi-Private Spaces create figural rooms off of busier thoroughfares that, while usually open to the public, are associated with a private entity that builds, maintains and programs the space.
    PPG Place
  • Connective Spaces serve to move people throughout a block, a neighborhood or the city. They are typically linear and meant for moving through but make no mistake, they must be treated as great public spaces. 
    North Shore and the Three Rivers Heritage Trail
  • Found Spaces are where public space entrepreneurs are most active in reclaiming, repurposing, and reprogramming what a space should or could be. 
    Strawberry Way Pop-Up Patio

Lessons Learned

Pittsburgh has accomplished much amidst a backdrop of post-industrial cities that are getting just as many positive as negative headlines. But Pittsburgh, like all city building, is never finished. There are many lessons that are transportable to other cities as they focus on their own retooling efforts:

 

  1. Start downtown   Pittsburgh benefited from a geographic and cultural preference for keeping downtown contained and reinvested in. Because the downtown core was never dismantled like so many other US cities in chasing the automobile, a continued focus on retooling the city for the 21st century using the downtown core as the basis to build a strong constellation of walkable neighborhoods around great public space is still possible. The takeaway is to start with treating the core as a full neighborhood and move out from there. In some cities, there may be multiple cores to target. Pittsburgh has focused on Oakland and East Liberty in addition to downtown as part of broader retooling efforts. But remember, in the end, a place is only as strong as its central core. 
  2. Planned messiness   21st Century cities will manage well the relationship between what is important to centrally guide and plan versus what is best accomplished through a more discovery-driven approach. This maximizes a place’s potential to be sticky to new ideas and opportunities, even if they weren’t spelled out in the original plan. 
  3. Inclusiveness   As part of the planned messiness, success has many authors. The magnitude of Pittsburgh’s shift over the last 15 years could not have been accomplished in an exclusive environment. Efforts made to include different partners are key to the city’s ultimate success. 
  4. Mix it up   In an inclusive environment that has planned flexibility focused on a city’s downtown, a great deal of mixing is made possible. The richest and most rewarding parts of downtown Pittsburgh's resurgence is where there exists the broadest range of public space types, scales, investment sources, and building increments. For instance Market Square and the sequence of spaces stemming from it involve a great mix across a number of these metrics whereas the areas that have not realized similar levels of resulting investments from open space improvements have been those stretches where the space types become too repetitive or monotonous. The spaces off Grant Street, most of them Semi-Private Spaces, fall into this pattern. 
  5. Don’t forget the space between   Downtown still has “place deserts” where the lack of meaningful public space is, at best, a stretch one walks quickly (more out of boredom than out of safety or other concerns) and at worst an area suffering from under- or mal-investment, a sense of danger, or lack of general purpose. Quite often this dearth stems not from a lack of nodes like squares but from forgetting about the streets themselves. Treating streets as public spaces is the next major public space frontier for downtown Pittsburgh and must not be taken for granted as other cities retool their downtowns for the next century.

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