Public Space: Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh is emerging as one of the hottest urban areas in the world.  It's been no small feat either, from steel mills to internationally-ranked universities to a dynamic and innovative mayor, the period of rapid change has just begun.  As the tides turn and things progress into a positive and promising future, what is the state of the environment of which we live?  As previously stated, the built environment in Pittsburgh is lacking audacity and accolades of true integrity, this actively reflects on every other aspect of designed environment that exists in the city.  Whether this be a park or a public green avenue, there are several plans in place to make Pittsburgh a very well-rounded neo-urban city, however the truth will never show through unless these plans are implemented, maintained and used to their full potential. What is the future of public space in Pittsburgh and why is it so important?

Public Space: Defined

Public space - as with most other typologies in architecture/urban design - is a very loose term. Ranging from a designed parcel of land to actual buildings, public space can best be defined as an area or place that is evenly distributed to x number of people for y program(s). This place is created with the intent to better the quality of life of everybody no matter social, ethnic or racial background.  This is the type of space that forges equality while maintaining integrity of place, it is important that every city, neighborhood and community embraces public space as a way to congeal its constituents and create a more cohesive identity.  

Lack of Public Space

There are many (many,  many, many) parks in Pittsburgh.  There are more trails and even an elevated park right in the middle of downtown, the amount of green space we have to enjoy at any given time is significant to the quality of our life.  That being said, it still feels as if the city is lacking in the overall amount of space and place they designate as public and free-for-all. Part of this is due to the underused waterfronts, not counting those areas developed for commercial use.  Another big part is because there hasn't been a large emphasis put on taxpayer-influenced space which could be due to the fact the city was nearly bankrupt and has only recently emerged from that abyss.  Whatever the cause may be, as development continues to stir and new projects are implemented in and around the city, the number of publicly accessibly spaces needs to increase as well.  

Pittsburgh is not a very dense city.  Looking at a map of the downtown area, there are vacant lots, open storefronts and even some abandoned buildings.  As you move up the hill into the Lawrenceville, Bloomfield and East Liberty areas, there are low density developments leaving a large amount of open land that could easily be converted to publicly shared space.  Nestled into these neighborhoods could be a plethora of different temporary (or permanent) structures, parks or even urban gardens shared by the general population of that area.  The possibilities are endless.  Activating spaces that are currently underused - or not even used at all - breathes a new life into deflated neighborhoods and draws in the crowds.  Public space allows the rich to bump shoulders with the poor all the while providing a vehicle for progression in a city keen to being an underdog.   


Pop-up Parks

Philadelphia recently started a program called "Pop Up Gardens" sponsored by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society among numerous city businesses.  These spaces take over vacant lots and convert them into temporary escapes, each themed differently and each with a different drawing factor.  What really gets people to these spaces is their locally-provided food and drink as well as a family-friendly atmosphere where young, hip parents meet to have a mint julep and touch base with old friends while their kids play under a transplanted palm tree. It's not hard to go about transforming spaces and capital is easily achieved when the businesses that invest place their products for sale in the parks.

These spaces tend to be vastly popular and draw very large numbers, especially those visiting the city for a few days.  What's even better is that the solution can be temporary or permanent, the sponsors can chose to bring back the space or not after each summer ends. It's not hard to translate this to Pittsburgh, a city that is arguably one of the most diverse food cultures in the tri-state area with a beer and distillery-saturated market that would drown even some towns in Colorado.  While Pittsburgh and Philly often don't see eye-to-eye, this is something Pittsburgh could greatly benefit from, literally taking the idea right out of Philadelphia and pasting it to some of Pittsburgh's urban lots.  Even some of the underused green spaces that exist right in the heart of the city could use temporary 'pop-up' configurations to get more people engaged in the spaces being offered.  Often humans don't appreciate what is there until it's either gone or they are forced into realizing what exists.  
There are plenty of opportunities that already exist in the city, but many don't quite get the attention they should due to the fact that nothing draws people in (and away from their technological vices).  So while we do differ in several aspects from Philadelphia, imitation is a form of flattery, and for this instance we will flatter our eastern neighbors with utilizing their pop-up parks as a basis for designing our future public spaces.

Philadelphia took this idea one step further by placing these pop-ups along their waterfronts. Spruce Street Harbor park was packed nearly every night (weekend or not) this summer and stayed open an additional month due to sheer demand.  Philadelphia's waterfronts aren't anywhere as dynamic or captivating as Pittsburgh's, transplanting the idea of a temporary park along the 412's banks could enliven and activate a part of the city that has been left untouched for far too long more than Philadelphia planners could have ever dreamt for their visions. 

A view towards Philadelphia from a dock in Spruce Street Harbor Park

Originally just a green space on the banks of the Delaware River, Spruce Street Harbor Park became another PHS pop up garden complete with an LED forest

It goes without saying that Pittsburgh's waterfronts are inordinately underused.  With Sasaki's proposal for a Green Avenue along the Allegheny, more public green space and places would begin to be freed up along the river's edge.  While Philadelphia's examples may be temporary solutions to vacant properties, they are activating space and even profitable.  Our solutions may seek to have more of a long-term impact, but even so could incorporate the infrastructure to be cyclical in programmatic rotation.  How are public spaces engaged differently throughout the seasons - winter obviously sees stark decreases in usage - and how can altering a program seasonally maintain the amount of people coming out to interact?  In this, we see a way to build upon the prototype our turnpike neighbors have built and transform it into a usable space year round, even when it's blustery, snowing and grey outside.   

Pittsburgh for once has plenty to learn from Philadelphia.  Their ingenious usage of unused spaces within the city has financially put their urban oasis in the reach of many citizens both young and old.  While Pittsburgh may be searching for more permanent solutions, particularly along its beautiful riverbanks, it doesn't hurt to look into temporary spaces such as those across the state.  In a world where most of us have our noses to our smartphones/tablets/laptops 75% of the day, it would certainly be useful if we could reintroduce the notion of actually getting together with others in person.  The best way to reinvigorate humans with human contact is to provide a vehicle for interaction, one where an individual doesn't have to feel pressured to purchase something or as if they do not belong. Are the city's solutions permanent or temporary?  Is there a fair mixture?  The answers will develop over time as different schemes are introduced and tested.  For now, a plan to incorporate 1 part public space for every 10 private into the city's masterplan would certainly incite a more human-centered urban fabric where personal interaction is key and all are welcome.