commentary

(Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

October 3, 2004

Downtown is a Pittsburgh Neighborhood

by Rachel Rue

The City Needs Both a Strong Core and Vibrant Enclaves, Says Rachel Rue

Debates have raged for years about whether the best course for Pittsburgh's future development is to focus on revitalizing Downtown, or to concentrate on the rest of the city's 91 neighborhoods. All the arguing has made it hard to see the obvious: that neglecting either one will hurt us. The starting point of city planning should be to understand how the whole network of neighborhoods -- including Downtown -- has the potential to contribute to the character and well-being of the city.

City planning and development efforts in recent years have been focused almost exclusively on the Central Business District, as the Downtown neighborhood is officially named. The goal was to make Downtown development an engine of economic growth in the region, generate badly needed tax revenue and help make Pittsburgh an attractive city to workers now in their 20s and 30s. That's the age group where Pittsburgh has a labor gap significantly worse than that of the nation as a whole, according to 2000 Census data.

But the future does not depend on only the economic vibrancy of the city. It also depends on the look and feel of each neighborhood, its available housing stock, the variety of businesses on its main street and whether city services have been provided where most needed. With or without a successful plan for Downtown development, the daily experience of living in Pittsburgh will be shaped by the changing character of the neighborhoods. Choices about how resources are used and allocated within neighborhoods will significantly affect the quality of life for all of the city's residents.

There is great potential for the neighborhoods to be made a central part of the appeal of Pittsburgh. They are an important part of what differentiates Pittsburgh from other cities. Downtown development plans that focus on making sure that Pittsburgh has all the amenities available in thriving cities elsewhere (stadiums, convention center, national department stores) do not bring out what makes Pittsburgh special and different.

An alternative model of city planning and development would conceive of planning as taking place in and through the neighborhoods. Neighborhood development corporations, which already exist in many neighborhoods, would have a strong role in setting priorities and coordinating efforts within neighborhoods.

City planners would coordinate the collection of neighborhood plans, developing strategies to connect neighborhoods to each other and to the rivers, and thinking about how their different characters and assets complement each other. The Central Business District would be thought of as one of the neighborhoods -- centrally important and dominant, but still only one of 91.

This model has several advantages. Most notably, the residents and business owners in a neighborhood typically know better than anyone else what needs attention and what kinds of changes will benefit them. For example, if you don't live on the South Side Slopes, it is unlikely to have crossed your mind until recently that the many flights of sidewalk steps lacing the hills need maintenance at a minimum, and at best could be made into a positive attraction.

The sidewalk steps are relics of Pittsburgh's past. There are many others -- old buildings with the remnants of extraordinary architectural character under dilapidated surfaces. These buildings can often be restored with a relatively small investment of funds and a significant contribution of community energy and individual elbow grease.

This is true partly because of Pittsburgh's status as an under-populated, formerly grand industrial city. Much of the grandeur is still there, and can be brought back on the cheap because there is so little pressure on housing and other building stock. The raw material available for neighborhood renovation, development and rehabilitation is exceptionally rich.

Bricked into the tallest smokestack in the old Heinz factory, above the intricate Romanesque brickwork of one of Pittsburgh's great industrial relics, is the number 57. It stands for the “57 Varieties” advertising slogan adopted by Henry John Heinz in 1896 to symbolize the plenty and diversity of the food products a great Pittsburgh company had to offer.

If it chose, the city of Pittsburgh could offer 91 varieties -- not of food but of officially designated neighborhoods that grew up during Pittsburgh's reign as one of America's great industrial cities.

Pittsburgh's 91 neighborhoods have distinct demographic characteristics, topographies, and architectural styles. They are geographically divided by hills, rivers and major roads. Most have their own main street and business district. In many, a significant number of people have grown up and lived in the same neighborhood for most of their lives.

The diversity and strong individual character and culture of Pittsburgh's neighborhoods could productively be made an important component of planning for the city's future.

Pittsburgh has the good fortune also to be able to offer its own unique diversity of distinct environments, each with its own strong local character, and many holding ignored treasures from the city's past. A coordinated plan to unearth them, and to develop and catalog the flavors of every one of Pittsburgh's 91, could well contribute to Pittsburgh's special appeal.

Rachel Rue is an associate operations research analyst at the Pittsburgh office of the RAND Corp.

This commentary originally appeared in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on October 3, 2004. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.