Spotlight on Sustainability: Pittsburgh's Waterfronts

The existing freight rail line along Pittsburgh's waterfront
After facing a major economic downturn in the 1980s due to a drop in steel business demand and production, Pittsburgh is on the rebound, with city leaders looking to transform former industrial corridors into vibrant riverfront neighborhoods.

Today, the former “Steel City” is known as a growing hub for high-tech innovation, education and health care. Pittsburgh’s art scene, job prospects, safety and affordability recently earned it the title of “Most Livable City in America” by Forbes Magazine, and the city’s economic rebound has proven so successful that its story is serving as a model for other recession-hit cities.

Still, Pittsburgh’s comeback is not without obstacles, as many of the areas best suited for in-demand development were not originally envisioned as such, said Lena Andrews, senior planning specialist at the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh.

“Pittsburgh’s riverfronts were used as transportation corridors for industrial production, and were characterized by factories, barges and pollution,” Andrews said. “While the environment has improved since then, the land surrounding them has remained relatively unchanged. The riverfronts were designed around industry rather than the community, and the land around them does not connect to our neighborhoods.”

Concerned community members are working to make better use of these parts of town, which otherwise would continue to deteriorate.

“Today we recognize the riverfronts as our most treasured assets that have tremendous potential to improve our quality of life,” stated Mayor Ravenstahl, when he announced the Allegheny Riverfront Vision, a plan to restore the riverfront corridor.

In 2010, the city received 1.5 million in funding from the Department of Transportation’s (DOT’s) TIGER II (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant program and a Community Challenge planning grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to implement a central aspect of Allegheny Riverfront Vision: the Riverfront Green Boulevard Plan.

“I want to thank all of our partners in the federal government for recognizing the importance of this project that will spur economic development and ensure that Pittsburgh sustains its ‘most livable city’ status for years to come,” Ravenstahl said.

The grant allowed the City of Pittsburgh, Allegheny Valley Railroad, Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh, and Riverlife to create a plan to transform an existing 6.45-mile stretch of freight rail along the Allegheny Riverfront into a multi-modal transportation corridor that includes park access, open space programming, neighborhood design, stormwater management and habitat restoration.

“Not only does the Green Boulevard Plan lay out an exciting vision to connect Pittsburgh’s urban neighborhoods to the riverfronts, it also strives to be a model for sustainability and environmental best practice,” said Lisa Schroeder, president and CEO of Riverlife, a public-private partner in the project. “The Green Boulevard encompasses 6.45 miles of urban riverfront. That’s a huge opportunity to create riverfront parks and landscapes that restore lost wildlife habitats, manage and cleanse stormwater runoff naturally, and create destinations that people will be drawn to for recreation and relaxation.”

“To reimagine an active freight line that was used to transport material to steel factories lined with open space, riverfront connections, a bicycle pedestrian path and potentially transit is incredibly exciting, and is a part of the vision of a green, healthy, riverfront Pittsburgh that we are all working so hard to make a reality,” stated Andrews.

Mayor Ravenstahl said the revitalized corridor would sustain and attract new residents and businesses.

“By improving this neighborhood transportation system, job creation and development will continue to flourish along these riverfront neighborhoods,” he said.

HUD and DOT received 700 applications from around the country and awarded funding to 62 projects. The Allegheny Riverfront Green Boulevard was the only project in Pennsylvania to receive planning funding under the program and was one of only 13 projects to receive funding from both HUD and DOT.