New Urbs

Why Pittsburgh Is a Planner’s Dream and Nightmare

The legendary urban planners of Frederick Law Olmsted and Robert Moses are well known, in different decades, for New York City projects. Both men built large amounts of parkland and Moses dutifully accented the works of the former with asphalt. But one connection is more unusual: Olmsted’s son and successor, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. authored an urban plan for Pittsburgh in 1910, and Robert Moses provided the first of several transportation plans for cities outside New York starting in 1939.

Each offers an intriguing glimpse into these two very distinct design and planning philosophies, applied to an outlier of one of America’s most vertiginous—and accordingly not-quite-easy-to-plan-for-cities.

Each sound like traffic suggestions: Olmsted Junior’s “Pittsburgh Main Thoroughfares and the Down Town District: Improvements Necessary to Meet the City’s Present and Future Needs; a Report” and Moses’ “Arterial Plan for Pittsburgh.” Neither are just that, although Moses’ is not unsurprisingly closer. Several of their road building ideas were implemented in some form. It’s no surprise whose plan aged better, and remains full of ideas that would be a benefit even today.

Pittsburgh has proved recurrently a planner’s dream and nightmare, with its growth circumscribed by dramatic terrain, with river valleys occupied by massive factories, slopes teeming with hasty worker housing and slightly more distant locations housing the better-off. The results were frequently excellent but sometimes simply jumbled and sclerotic. The city was given to intermittent waves of efforts to clean up its cluttered affairs, many the partial starts of a functioning drunk—ashamed of his chaotic appearance but unable to shake it entirely.

Pittsburgh, which doesn’t feature any of the work of Olmsted Senior (if it features other manifestations of City Beautiful-like thinking) exerted a sure attraction for his son, in part because it seemed a considerable challenge. As he wrote, “No city of equal size in America, or perhaps in the world, is compelled to adapt its growth to such a difficult complication of high ridges, deep valleys, and precipitous slopes, as Pittsburgh.” As Edward K. Muller and John F. Bauman wrote in “Before Renaissance: Planning in Pittsburgh, 1889-1943”, of the era’s efforts, “What better city than Pittsburgh, the archetypal befouled industrial metropolis, to show off planning’s wares?” Pittsburgh seems to have intrigued Olmstead, an enthusiasm that radiates throughout the report, “Throughout the city and its surroundings the one pre-eminent quality of an agreeable sort is the bold picturesqueness of the landscape — the deep ravines, the lofty hills, the precipitous declivities..”

Olmsted had a team of experts at work for a year researching the report, and he himself visited often, an amount of time evident in the voluminous document that they produced. It contains many prosaic suggestions of strict interest to civic engineers but impressionistic and ambitious improvement schemes as well.

Its eighty (!) proposed road improvements are exhaustive, many of which concern minor widening or grade changes; these principally concern roads connecting portions of the city already settled. The city’s ad hoc growth frequently resulted in dense portions of the city connected by two-lane roads and the exigencies of its topography frequently entailed that the city couldn’t benefit from the traffic dispersal merits of grid networks due to frequent chokepoints. One ambitious exception to this proposal was “some high-level bridge and tunnel scheme” through Mount Washington to the city’s south, which became the Liberty Bridge and Tunnel. This plan is encouraged, as are many suggestions throughout the report, not with examples from other American cities, most of which did not resemble Pittsburgh much at all, but from a wide range of European cities featuring difficult geography, in this case with bridges and roads from Stuttgart, Budapest, and Lausanne.

Two improvements concern linking the city’s downtown to its burgeoning East End. The sides of the hills that rise just beyond Downtown Pittsburgh were the solution. One road, Grant Boulevard (present-day Bigelow Boulevard) already ran along the northern edge of these heights, topographically separated from both the city beneath and above. Given this ideal circumstance for a parkway he proposed accentuation with “tree-shaded promenades or overlook terraces” and the reclamation of hillsides above “from their present status as free dumping grounds and barren wastes.” Some improvements were made—and then largely undone in subsequent decades.

He recommended a similar solution for the southern edge of these heights, a “Monongahela Hillside Thoroughfare” which later came into being as the Boulevard of the Allies, another avenue that shows occasional signs of aspirations to a parkway pedigree but whose reality remains a good deal more unlettered. He proposed parkways that eventually Negley Run Boulevard, Allegheny Run Boulevard, and the current Saw Mill Run Parkway, although the foliage along them is more often by accident is design.

The hillsides that line these routes (and nearly everything else in Pittsburgh) are a focus of frequent and inventive interest in Olmsted’s report. With development most often occurring elsewhere, steeper slopes often served then (and now) as either trash heaps or collections of nuisance buildings “frequently abandoned or subject to landslides.” He counseled either the improvement of these lands or that “the City ought to step in and assume the burden of maintaining the land in a decent and attractive condition, converting it from a public nuisance into a park asset of positive value to the public.”

Some of the locations that he criticized, such as the South Side Slopes, eventually became densely and interestingly settled, many others remain underutilized today, often featuring a few scattered homes or uses and frequently abandoned dwellings, decayed teeth along what could be pastoral slopes. One of his more promising suggestions was efforts to standardize building lines along hillside streets, and to concentrate development on only one side of these streets, retaining opposite slopes for park terraces (illustrated appealingly again with photos of streets in Geneva and terraced gardens in Bern).

His recommendations for the reclamation of the Mount Washington hillside, that it “should be preserved intact for all time as a monumental example of the Pittsburgh landscape” were at least fairly largely realized.

No Olmsted plan would be complete without parks: Pittsburgh had already established a respectable number of urban parks but many other locations were neglected. He proposed a park along a small creek, Nine Mile Run, which was only achieved in the mid-1990s. Several other park ideas remain on the drawing table.

He is critical of the steel town’s inferior bridges: “It is a case of the cobbler’s children going barefoot: when a man sells shoes at wholesale in every quarter of the globe, it is time for his own family to be well shod… Bridge-builders everywhere should be enabled to think of Pittsburgh not merely as a source of cheap raw material for bridges, but as all all-round leader in the bridge-building art.” This was one deficiency reasonably well addressed later.

Olmsted sketched out a concept for a new civic center on overlooked land adjoining the city’s monumental H.H. Richardson Allegheny County Courthouse. He suggested decking over a rail line in the process “and that a great public square with gardens be laid out thereon somewhat after the manner of the celebrated public gardens built over the railroad at Princes Street, Edinburgh, or, in a smaller way at Park Avenue, New York.” Civic buildings rise on the slope above (roughly around where the city’s PPG Paints Arena stands) with comparisons to the Cathedral Terrace at Bern and a hillside in Budapest. Unfortunately, the core of this area is now occupied by a Moses-proposed highway.

Muller and Bauman note that Olmsted Jr’s plan, while well-received in many quarters, had one significant and maximally influential detractor: Joseph G. Armstrong, who was director of the city’s Department of Public Works in 1910 and after being fired from that post was elected mayor in 1914. He proceeded to denude the Department of City Planning of Staff and disregard the Olmsted report, if elements of its solutions continued to shape city construction projects through the 1910s and 20s.

Twenty-nine years later, the city obtained a new plan from the most famous planner of its era. The tragedy is that this far less nuanced plan was not just considerably implemented, it was radically outstripped.

The start of this story actually dates to the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, where Moses was impressed by the Heinz corporate exhibit. Howard Heinz returned the favor with compliments about Moses’ highway planning work and asked if he might produce a plan for Pittsburgh. Moses demurred for some time but eventually replied to Heinz that “The family exchequer is low, and for that reason I have had to consider ways of adding to it.” Heinz proceeded to raise funds from Pittsburgh corporate grandees.

The Moses plan is actually more modest than one might expect: his own highway building had not quite reached stages of megalomania in New York in 1939 and his “parkways” were still generally lined with actual trees. He also not unreasonably observed that the infrastructure requirements of Pittsburgh were considerably slighter than New York’s given their discrepancy in size. His remedies still naturally involved more and larger roads, neighborhood demolition, and the scrapping of the city’s trolley system, all delivered in familiar imperial tones.

Early on he references his august predecessor:

In 1910 Frederick Law Olmsted made a plan for Pittsburgh which was a remarkably fine piece of work in its day and generation. It appeared at just about the beginning of the automobile age, and as one might expect there are assumptions in his report which appear absurd today when we face problems which Mr Olmsted could not conceivably have anticipated.

Moses does not detail the absurdities of Olmsted’s plan. He doesn’t pretend to much novel insight however. “We have discovered little that is new.”

He does make rapid early and accurate comparison of Pittsburgh’s downtown to the financial district of Manhattan:

A glance at the two maps will show astonishing similarities. In both cases a tremendous number of people converge every morning except Sunday into the business district in the two triangles and depart every evening for their homes across the rivers or elsewhere in the suburbs. The topography of the two places is, of course, entirely different. Here the analogy ends and the Pittsburgh problem become specifically difficult. The hills added to the rivers make the Pittsburgh problem unique.

Moses made some very sound suggestions, such as criticizing the huge amount of space occupied by underused railroad facilities in Downtown Pittsburgh. He unfortunately drew no distinction between the utility of unused rail yards and that of grand rail terminals however, encouraging the destruction of a Beaux-Arts station designed by Theodore Link, who also built St. Louis’ Union Terminal, and Frank Furness’ B&O terminal, “The B&O railroad station…. is an eyesore and a reproach to the city, and since its usefulness is nearly over there should be comparatively little trouble in getting rid of it.” Lamentably, that was the case.

It’s interesting, appearing as the report did amidst the very year that Moses was obstreperously encouraging the Brooklyn Battery bridge project (over the alternative tunnel eventually constructed) that he flatly rejected any proposal for a replacement of two older bridges converging at the Point:

It is useless to bemoan the bad planning which brought these bridges together at this point or to adopt the fantastic suggestions that they be torn down and reconstructed elsewhere. They are there to stay at least so far as several coming generation of Pittsburghers are concerned.

As even the most casual viewer of photos of Pittsburgh can see, these bridges were removed and replaced with expressway bridges not long after.

As for what to do with the Point otherwise, he encouraged the sort of wholesale demolition that constituted the area’s subsequent redevelopment: “The traffic at the apex of the Triangle should be unsnarled by a complete reconstruction of the Point so as to eliminate obtrusive, unnecessary and obsolete structures including the disgraceful old Exposition buildings.” He proposes that much of this land be occupied by a park, which ultimately it was, although the footprint of his proposed changes were considerably smaller than the eventual Point State Park and Gateway Center complex.

Moses then turns economical again, dismissing the idea of a new road tunnel through Mt. Washington (which would happen in the form of the Fort Pitt highway tunnel) proposing instead the conversion of the former Wabash railroad tunnel and bridge to automobile use and improvement of its connection to existing roads at each end, and the boring of another tunnel parallel to this in the event of increased need. This tunnel was eventually converted to HOV use in 2004.

The highways Moses does advocate came about, “We recommend that a genuine Parkway, to known as Pitt Parkway, be built from the William Penn Highway, east of Wilkinsburg, across the Lincoln highway, through Nine Mile Run.” This route, running to the bridges at the point, is but one part of the girdle of roads that chokes Pittsburgh off from waterfront access, if in fairness even Moses imagined more of a buffer of trees and greenery than was eventually constructed.

Pittsburgh parkway traffic in 1973 (Wikimedia Commons)

The most classically destructive Moses scheme in this plan is for a “Crosstown Thoroughfare” which was part of a much more comprehensive leveling of Pittsburgh’s Lower Hill. “Incidentally, this will take out a slum district which is no credit to Pittsburgh and which has a depressing effect on available surrounding property.” Where Olmstead proposed a grand civic center Moses suggested only connecting highways: which is exactly what happened, and has resulted in a road that the city is currently seeking to cover in part with a park.

Some were surprised at the timidity of Moses’ recommendations; The city’s postwar reconstruction efforts followed the spirit of his ambitious New York projects rather than the more modest letter of his recommendations. Both the Parkway (current I- 376) and the Crosstown Boulevard (current I-579) were constructed at greater length than Moses had suggested. The broader demolition of the Hill District and many other examples of Pittsburgh self-destruction were entirely its own idea.

The story of urban planning in the 20th century is unfortunately often that of planners wielding maximum influence when their ideas were worst, sadly again the case in Pittsburgh. Olmsted produced an excellent plan combining attention to traffic, parks, civic structures, and city beautification drawing upon a voluminous number of discerning European examples implemented only in fragments: 29 years later Robert Moses produced a more rudimentary traffic plan oriented principally around his experiences in New York whose main elements were built. The ironical and unfortunate result was that the holistic advice of an excellent physician was ultimately disregarded while a fad diet was considerably exceeded. The one encouragement is that Olmsted’s ideas are still out there, and of benefit at any moment.

Anthony Paletta is a freelance writer in Brooklyn who has contributed to the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, the Guardian, and numerous other publications.

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3 Responses to Why Pittsburgh Is a Planner’s Dream and Nightmare

  1. cka2nd says:

    “The story of urban planning in the 20th century is unfortunately often that of planners wielding maximum influence when their ideas were worst, sadly again the case in Pittsburgh.”

    I think we often have the same problem with monuments and memorials, such as the World War II memorial in Washington, DC. If memory serves, it was pushed through by the chairman of the memorial commission over objections about both its siting and its design.

  2. Conewago says:

    Long live Pittsburgh! Glory to Western Pennsylvania! The land of as yet untold local promise!

  3. Jon says:

    For those who listen to NPR they interviewed the playwright of a new production in which two characters, Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs are pitted against one another. Although this might be an oversimplification of the debate between the two urban planners, Moses stood for efficiency against aesthetics viewing the latter as useless and thus devoid of any value. Jacobs sought to humanize cities. The results have been, at best, mixed. Give us the Baron Haussmann! I am kidding of course.

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