Last week NEXTpittsburgh published the article 4 reasons why Pittsburgh is becoming a Buzz City. We reported that the term Buzz City was coined by former mayor Tom Murphy who says there are four types of cities: World Cities (international), Buzz Cities (thriving and attractive to young people), Resilient Cities (surviving but not growing significantly), and Legacy Cities (struggling and risk averse).

Here we present part two, with four more projects that are securing Pittsburgh’s reputation as a thriving city where change is possible, where networks are electric with connection, and where the buzz is palpable.

The redevelopment of Larimer

In June 2014, the neighborhood of Larimer received a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods Implementation grant from HUD to build 350 units of mixed-income houses and mixed-use development. Pittsburgh was one of the four cities to receive this grant.

“I went to Washington to meet with the secretary of HUD, to really make the case of why this was the project that they wanted to get behind—because it wasn’t created by city government; it was literally created by the people who lived in the neighborhood and people who put in 15 years of work to be able to get to complete consensus around it,” says Mayor Bill Peduto.

Not only will the Larimer development be one of the greenest housing developments in the country—with watershed management and green space—it will also “show that sustainability will be something to enhance neighborhoods from low-to-moderate income,” says Peduto.

And Larimer will demonstrate that bottom-up works.

For years, citizen groups, like the East Liberty Concerned Citizens, worked toward a vision of a better Larimer. “There was no capacity, there was no investment—there was nothing but disinvestment and decay, but they continued to plug along and do whatever they could to move the community forward,” says Pat Clark, managing partner at Jackson/Clark Partners. At one point, Larimer had more than 750 vacant properties.

In 2008, Jackson/Clark, the Urban Redevelopment Authority, Kingsley Association, and East Liberty Concerned Citizens Corp., drafted a community plan.

“It was a four-page document. We intended to be short and sweet so people could put it up on their fridge and keep track of it. I think this plan is probably as good as an example as any of people really having and maintaining ownership over things. People that work in the community—leaders in the community—still carry that document around to this day to make sure they are doing the stuff that is listed in there,” says Clark.

Lessons learned? “Ask first before we show up with solutions. Listen and learn before we plan,” says Clark. “A big part of that is getting neighbors connected to neighbors and getting information and opinions about what’s important to them, what are the issues in each household and in the neighborhood as a whole.

“This is often really surprising and kind of liberating for people,” says Clark. “They’ll say, ‘You’re asking me what I think?’”

The community’s voices were heard—and are evident in the early phases of physical construction.

A Blueprint for Urban Agriculture

The decline of Pittsburgh’s steel industry yielded one unexpected result: an opportunity for the growth of the urban agriculture movement.

“Disinvestment in this city led to a lot of vacancy,” says Julie Butcher Pezzino, executive director of Grow Pittsburgh. “For us in particular, vacant land creates a very real opportunity to do some interesting things involving food growing that a lot of other cities—like New York, Boston, or Washington, D.C.—simply don’t have the opportunity to do because there is not as much open land in those places.”

But in its first decade Grow Pittsburgh “discovered firsthand what many other would-be food growers are discovering—municipal policies are limiting the burgeoning urban farm movement.”

To tackle this issue, the Larimer-based nonprofit created an organizational strategic plan to remove the roadblocks and further the farming initiative in Pittsburgh.

They wrote and distributed a lengthy Urban Grower Survey questionnaire; they held focus groups with farmers and gardeners; and in December of last year, they hosted a Symposium on Urban Agriculture and Public Policy for 80 nonprofit leaders, government leaders, community-based leaders, and growers.

“It was the first time all those folks have gotten together in the same room for a conversation committed to talking about urban agriculture opportunities and potential policy changes in the city,” says Pezzino.

From that symposium, Grow Pittsburgh drafted a set of urban agriculture priorities that have acted as the blueprint for making changes. Their goal? To work together with the new city administration and urban growers to make it easier to grow food in Pittsburgh.

“What I’d like to see Pittsburgh be, and what I hope urban agriculture creates, is an opportunity for young people—transplants to Pittsburgh—to find a home here, to be able to get involved in things like growing their own food,” says Pezzino. “But a vibrant city is one where we are also ensuring the long-term residents who have lived for so many years in disinvested communities are also able to reap the benefits of that city’s growth.”

A rendering of the Strip District and Lawrenceville riverfront development.
A rendering of the Strip District and Lawrenceville riverfront development.
Strip District Green Boulevard public transit_AFTER
Strip District Green Boulevard public transit rendering.

Allegheny River Green Boulevard

“It has been a cataclysmic time on the riverfront,” says Lisa Millspaugh Schroeder, president and CEO of Riverlife.

In 2012, the city received two federal grants to support a 20-month planning process and feasibility study of the Allegheny Riverfront Green Boulevard, which is a 6.5-mile stretch of Allegheny riverfront that extends from 11th Street upriver to the Highland Park Dam.

Along with the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the city planning department, Riverlife created a plan for “how we can fully develop public open space, multimodal transportation, and green infrastructure as a means of tying together what is already so distinct and wonderful about all of those neighborhoods,” says Schroeder.

And the neighbors are paying attention. “They are being proactive. They know who they want to be, know what parts of themselves they want to preserve, know where they would want to see change,” says Deb Gross, City Councilwoman of District 7, which includes the riverside communities of the Strip District, Lawrenceville, Highland Park, and Morningside.

“These are very dynamic real estate markets and very distinct neighborhoods that are greatly in need of being better connected— better connected to the water and better connected to the city,” says Schroeder.

The plan aims to convert the rail line into a multimodal corridor that accommodates both active rail freight (so green does not come at the expense of local business) and a bicycle pedestrian path.

“We’re really looking at the connections along the river to be the next game changer waterfront project for the city,” says Schroeder.

The first phase of the plan will rehab the trail from the Convention Center to the 31st Street Bridge. “It seems appropriate to start from what is currently the end of Three Rivers Park,” she says. The 13-mile Three Rivers Park extends along the riverfront from the West End Bridge to the Hot Metal Bridge on the Monongahela to the 31st Street Bridge on the Allegheny.

Ours is a story, a model, on how to open up the riverfront by reorienting it to be the “front door—rather than the back door—of the city,” says Schroeder. “Connect the riverfront seamlessly to other riverfront property and into the city itself, so the rivers become the center of the urban fabric.”

The Goats of Polish Hill

In Polish Hill, the invasive species known as knotweed had overtaken the forest. The woods that older residents used to play in as kids became impenetrable and to complicate matters, the steep hills didn’t allow for machinery to be used to eradicate the pervasive weed.

What to do? Residents called upon their neighbor, Tree Pittsburgh, for help. Their recommendation: Goats. They found a farmer in Baltimore who brought 30 goats to the area where the creatures feasted happily on knotweed.

“It was brilliant. It really sparked some interest,” says Councilwoman Deb Gross.

In a story for NEXTPittsburgh this past July, Danielle Crumrine of TreePittsburgh explained that it was “something that’s not being done in Pittsburgh.” That’s why her group organized a working group after the event, inviting nonprofits and others to talk about the possibility of someone in Pittsburgh starting a business here using goats for this kind of purpose.

“Grow Pittsburgh took leadership in keeping the ball rolling,” says Crumrine, “and they’re working on ag policy at the city level. It’s a good example of how livestock can be used in the city.” Not only that but “it brought attention to the idea and brought groups together that traditionally don’t work together. So collectively there is a will that this is an option for groups and property owners in the future.

“Ron Baraff of Rivers of Steel is now interested in using goats at Carrie Furnace, she notes, and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy got goats into a proposal for Mt. Washington.” One of the hurdles is finding a farmer who will do this business in Pittsburgh, she adds.

The goats of Polish Hill are key for what they represent: a three-legged (as opposed to four) stool of change that includes citizens with a need, a non-profit/community group with know-how, and an administration ready to enable the people and get things done.

That buzzing sound you hear…

“It’s important to say that what’s going on in Pittsburgh is not just a bottom-up movement, but it’s a convergence,” says Pat Clark. “There are so many examples of people doing weird, goofy, groovy stuff that really reflects the spirit of Pittsburgh. It’s just really innovative.”

Peduto senses a sea change. “All these stories paint a mosaic, and people who are interested in cities start to see it, and they start to see that buzz,” he says. “That’s what a buzz city is; you can’t generate it. You can’t mass market it; you can’t even brand it. It comes up organically, and it sort of captures its own wind. And we are there—we are literally there.”

Councilwoman Gross agrees. “There are times in history when everything happens at once, and we’re there,” she says. “It really is a historic moment.”

Woods wanderer who was an an editor at New England’s regional magazine, the research director of a Colorado newspaper and a farm hand in Vermont before returning to Pittsburgh to write about and explore her hometown.