Almost two months after our Expanded Horizons trip to Pittsburgh, in an embarrassingly anachronistic but completely true-to-self fashion, I want to share some thoughts about the city, its history, and the identity search that it grapples with today. My ideas are a compilation of my own and those of my classmates that we shared in a meeting, discussing takeaways from the trip. A modern “agora”, if you will.
On the History of Pittsburgh
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the city prospered from the mass production of steel, glass and other manufactured goods, along with the other Rust Belt cities. Pittsburgh’s downtown, known as “The Golden Triangle”, rests at the confluence of three rivers, the Ohio River, the Monongahela River, and the Allegheny River. Factories tucked along the riverfront allowed for easy shipping in any given direction by steamboat. The “Steel City” grew up around these natural routes, and over time 446 bridges connected various regions of the city. Manufacturing opportunities drew labor from all over the world. These immigrant populations conglomerated into vibrant ethnic neighborhoods that speckled the urban landscape of the burgeoning Pittsburgh economy. Yet, automation and offshoring lead to the decline of the manufacturing industry, and Pittsburgh experienced devastating sprawl throughout the second half of the 20th century.
Strong Neighborhoods: A Blessing and a Curse
Pittsburgh is a city of vibrant and passionate neighborhoods. Over 90 neighborhoods vie for development grants, non-profit benefits, and general resources from the city. Those who visited the Technical Assistance Center learned more about what this means for the city. Interest groups forming their own nonprofits has lead to siloed efforts to make change. The organization works to create synergies amongst organizations with similar interests, rather than immediately starting a non-profit on their own. Both a blessing and a curse, this loyalty to kin and kind results in combined efforts to preserve Pittsburgh’s history and weaves a promising future vision.
Foundations Pave the Way to the Future
Some of the local mega-powers that formerly dominated Steel City manufacturing have created one of the largest, most robust foundation pools in the country, according to the planners I met at Pashek Associates. Drawing from their experiences in other cities around the world, they said Pittsburgh’s nonprofit ecosystem is rare, only comparable to that of Buffalo, New York.
These same actors that produced destructive pollutants want to reinvest their earnings to make the city a better, cleaner place. After the fall of manufacturing, in a unique symbiosis between the nonprofit, private and public sectors, the city dealt with the lower tax base from population decrease in a creative way. Rather than forcing locals to shoulder the financial burden, public officials leaned on nonprofits and foundations to invest to which they gladly obliged. This has garnered local support for projects dedicated to the riverfront revitalization, sustainable building, and improved infrastructure for alternative transit.
A New Identity is Emerging
Does Pittsburgh know who it is on a local, regional, and national front? As it concedes its industrial past and redefines its future, what will the city grow up to be? One of the site visits was to Bike Pittsburgh, a nonprofit working to improve biking infrastructure in the city. We saw many of the new protected bike lanes throughout the city, which have been lauded by many. Yet, there are still some kinks to be figured out.
As Taylor Lafave and I ventured out for breakfast and coffee on Saturday morning, we found that most shops were closed. The reason? No one lives there, so coffee houses don’t see the benefit of opening on the weekend. Rich Bunnell, a first year MUP, anecdotally described this urban existential crisis:
“I was doing one of my all-day city walks on Saturday, and there was a moment where I almost got hit by a bicyclist on a bridge. I didn’t, but, in that moment when the two of us on alternative modes of transportation almost collided, I realized that Pittsburgh is still learning who it is.”
I realized that Pittsburgh still has its urban training wheels on. Once they come off, the city is positioned to take off...rapidly. The nexus of healthcare and technology has breathed new life into the city recently and offers a glimpse of future investment areas. Expanded Horizons was a trip to remember, and it won’t be my last time to Steel City.
The following are the organizations we visited on the trip: Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh, Pashek Associates, Perkins Eastman, Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, Strada LLC, Bike Pittsburgh, East Liberty Development Inc., Green Building Alliance, Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, Regional Industrial Development Corporation, City of Pittsburgh, Community Design Center/Technical Assistance Center, Port Authority, and Riverlife. The University of Michigan Urban and Regional Planning Program would like to thank each firm for their immense hospitality.