By Dominic Moore ’05
Rivers form the soul of Pittsburgh: its geographic center is the point where the waters of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers join to form the Ohio River. The city of Pittsburgh grew up along these rivers, drew from their waters, used them for heavy industry—for the steel mills that powered the city’s economy—and built bridges to cross the numerous waterways that define the urban landscape. Today, Pittsburgh lays claim to more bridges than any city but Venice, Italy. But by the mid-1990s, it had lost half its populations and its downtown, urban landscape had fallen into post-industrial decay.
“It was a city waking up from a hangover,” says Lisa Millspaugh Schroeder ’78, P’11. The steel mills which had dominated the riverfront were now dwindling or abandoned and years of abuse had left the water quality depressingly poor. “Morale was quite low when we started our work, but this is a city with a culture of resilience and reinvention.”
And reinvention was exactly what was on the table. In 1999, Millspaugh Schroeder moved to Pittsburgh after working on a series of urban redevelopment efforts. Her skills were a natural fit with the nascent Riverlife Taskforce, a project that would create a vision plan for the city, collecting ideas, hopes and dreams for redevelopment of the city’s downtown. After more than 100 public meetings, the taskforce released a plan in 2001, a grand vision that would reshape the heart of the city.
Riverlife, which evolved into an independent non-profit organization, would be the coordinator of this urban redevelopment effort, a neutral thirdparty tasked with drawing on experts in landscape architecture, design, environmental mitigation and other specialties and collaborating with local businesses and property owners. Millspaugh Schroeder, who would become president and CEO of Riverlife, was given responsibility to implement each crucial phase of the plan.
“A project of this scale is like one big jigsaw puzzle,” Millspaugh Schroeder says. “Each component along the planned 13 miles of park has a different use, geography and ownership. Our goal was to be a catalyst, to help connect the fabric of the city to the river.”
In order to do that, Riverlife works closely with property owners to help them achieve usable, beautiful park space that benefits the entire community without breaking the bank. Hotels, casinos, stadiums and infrastructure—each element of a vibrant city would need to be carefully interwoven with the parkland and with the rivers themselves. To this end, Riverlife advocates for certain standards: water access, a trail system, a promenade open to the public, and then provides expert assistance connecting the dots. “One whole arm of Riverlife is our advocacy for sustainable and high quality design,” she says.
The results of Riverlife’s work are dramatic: 63 new acres of green space now enrich Pittsburgh’s downtown and help make up Three Rivers Park, the crown of a $4 billion revitalization of the city’s dramatic riverfront. In just over a decade, the Steel City has become a city of waterfront parks, a place where pedestrians flock downtown to soak in the beauty of a revitalized urban landscape. “There has been an exponential rise in use of the riverfront,” Millspaugh Schroeder says. “Now it’s becoming a tradition to face the rivers again.”
Venice may be sinking, but it’s clear that Pittsburgh is on the rise.