Society often takes a rigid, utilitarian approach to urban space, maximizing the efficiency of each square foot so that it contributes to the overall function of the city. This is perhaps why we have traditionally associated these areas with useful, but impersonal, man-made objects—grey concrete, traffic grids, skyscrapers—instead of with more impactful experiences and emotions.
Major cities across the world have begun working to change this view, with a shift towards a greener, more connected vision of city life. Pittsburgh has joined this exciting effort with many new organizations and projects aimed at reshaping the urban landscape in imaginative ways.
For a more focused look on these changes to our city, The Fourth River reached out to the appropriately named Envision Downtown, a Pittsburgh organization looking to improve how people experience the Downtown area, and especially how they move within that space. As assistant editor, I had the opportunity to speak with Envision Downtown’s Program Manager Phoebe Downey, who explained how public spaces, bike lanes, and re-purposed dumpsters all help transform a city.
The Fourth River: To start, what is Envision Downtown?
Phoebe Downey: Envision Downtown is a public/private partnership between the Mayor’s Office and the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership formed to accelerate Downtown’s economic growth and competitiveness. Envision’s mission is to advance mobility and livability in Pittsburgh’s central neighborhoods, by making it safer, more attractive and convenient for everyone to get to, through and around Downtown.
FR: How does Envision Downtown approach urban development?
PD: Cities ultimately exist for people to work, live and thrive in. For that reason we should be thinking about how infrastructure and the public realm support the types of public life we want to see in our neighborhoods.
Rather than focusing on just moving people (mostly in cars) efficiently through the City, like we have for the last 50 years we want to start thinking about how we can use the urban form and space between buildings to encourage social interactions and provide diverse public life options.
FR: This creative vision for urban development often emphasizes the need for more “public space.” Can you explain what that means and why it’s important that a city provides such areas?
PD: Public spaces are not new. For years towns have centered around town squares or piazzas. It’s where all the key amenities were located but most importantly where neighbors came together. Over the years we have lost that in our cities; those spaces were more often than not given over to parking.
Public space requirements are key in getting back meeting spaces for diverse groups of people to get together and interact either passively or actively, depending on how the space is designed. By making the spaces safe and inviting and engaging, we can encourage these interactions even further. These types of opportunities for interactions are what make cities so great and appealing in the first place.
FR: Why is it important to change how we view the urban landscape, as well as how we use it? How does that influence the mission of Envision Downtown?
PD: Health, equity, diversity, sustainability, and economic competitiveness are all buzz words you hear a lot at the moment. The urban landscape can have major impact on all of these factors, both positively and negatively. Design can help people make good decisions. If it’s comfortable and convenient to take alternative forms of transportation such as walking or riding the bus or your bike, then you are much more likely to do it. Our job is to improve infrastructure—protected bike lanes, better bus stops and consistent, connected, safe walking conditions—to provide you with as many choices as possible.
FR: How does one go about re-imagining urban spaces? Do you take inspiration from what other cities have done? What are some of the ways Envision Downtown has implemented creative use of space in Pittsburgh?
PD: One of the first things we actually do is collect data. We go to spaces and see what’s working and what’s not working. We look at what public life is happening and what public life we want to happen in the space. Then we start to think of ways to support that public life, and that often involves researching examples from other cities.
If we have an alley that’s a major pedestrian connection where 700 people walk through in an hour and only 3 vehicles drive through, we want to come up with ways that we can reorient that space towards its primary user group. How can we make it work better for those on foot? Maybe we want to pedestrianize sections or create a sense of place by making an area where you can sit and stay.
We also have a small budget, so when reclaiming public spaces, we need to be open-minded and creative. It may be as simple as painting an alley and adding tables and chairs, or turning a dumpster into a parklet that can be easily moved around to provide green space and public seating in Downtown areas that are lacking.
FR: How do you see urban development in Pittsburgh progressing in the future? What transformations would you like to see next?
PD: The world of transportation is so exciting right now; there’s so much change. Electric autonomous vehicles are becoming a reality, and they have the potential to really change the urban environment. Will we always need parking garages as we have them now? Probably not. So how do we re-purpose them?
More and more people are moving to cities, and with increased mobility, they have more and more options for where to live. This provides both opportunities and challenges for Pittsburgh. How do we accommodate a growing residential population in the City? How do we create great public spaces that are open and inviting to everyone? How do we have growth without gridlock? How do we maintain our infrastructure? These are all questions we have to answer if we want Pittsburgh to remain competitive and to continue to attract and retain a talented workforce.
I hope Pittsburgh continues to stay on the cutting edge of mobility trends, trying new ideas and working towards an equitable, sustainable, competitive urban landscape. Most importantly, I hope that we continue to have a committed and engaged community: civic leaders and universities, residents and workers, who all care about their City and about each other.
For more information on Envision Downtown, their partners, and projects, visit their website at http://www.envisiondowntown.com