Buzz is defined as, “an atmosphere of excitement and activity.” Buzz is “a feeling of euphoria.” Buzz is an “interest in someone or something, as reflected in or generated by media coverage or word of mouth.”

Buzz is…the new Pittsburgh?

“A lot of what drives a Buzz City is a growth—and interest by people from the outside who begin to pay attention to it—but at the same time, it is what’s happening within the city organically that drives people to start to look at it,” says Mayor Bill Peduto.

The term Buzz City was coined by former mayor Tom Murphy, who has in the past five months spoken in 27 cities about Pittsburgh and urban revitalization. Murphy 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).

Make room, Portland, Austin, and Denver, because Pittsburgh is ready to join the ranks of the Buzz City.

“In Pittsburgh’s case, you could arguably say it’s been 30 years of process that has now has us poised to be that next Buzz City,” says Peduto.

When Pittsburgh died in 1979, “we doubled down on Arts and Culture and created new industries,” he says. The med/ed economy was a different model than what the city had seen before.

“We just did what Pittsburghers do: we dusted ourselves off, we worked hard, and we re-identified ourselves. And that is what has created the buzz,” says Peduto.

The past 15 years brought in a second phase of reinvention when “pioneer advocates were trying to create an atmosphere that was inclusive of younger people,” says City Councilwoman Deb Gross. Think the Sprout Fund, Bike Pittsburgh, Attack Theatre— organizations that started on small budgets and made big impacts—and are now the models for change. These innovators created an “openness, availability, and inquisitiveness for every next generation,” she says.

“This is definitely a space that the millennials have broken wide open,” says Gross. “We have really activated grassroots networks,” she says, “who are pushing the limits and trying new things. There’s so much action.”

Pittsburghers are turning brownfields into sunflower fields, planting native orchards in abandoned playgrounds, and harvesting wild edibles to sell to our nationally recognized restaurants. We’ve transformed vacant lots into social clubs and organized festivals that blend tech and music. We’ve got start-up accelerators, river keepers, and nomadic indie craft marketplaces. There’s small-batch distilleries and community meetings in people’s living rooms.

“One of the great things about Pittsburgh as a Rust Belt city, and I say that with love not disparagement,” says Pat Clark, managing partner at Jackson/Clark Partners, “is that if you want to, you can step up and get something done and make a real difference.”

And our new administration embraces this energy.

“I think our role, the way we’re looking at city government, is different. We’re not looking to create initiatives, but more so to enable those who were doing it,” says Peduto.

Gross agrees. “We’re happy to make phone calls open doors, more than happy to connect people to the other people. There’s a revolution going on out there.”

Here are a few of the buzz-worthy ideas in part one of a two-part series.

Penn Ave. bike lane. Photo by Tracy Certo.
Penn Ave. bike lane. Photo by Tracy Certo.

1. Pittsburgh’s Multi-Modal Model

In March 2014, PeopleForBikes chose Pittsburgh as one of the six cities to receive financial, strategic and technical assistance in an “intensive two-year program to build new bike lanes.” The plan is to build up five miles of protected bike lanes that connect through the city and to the trails along the river. In seven months, two protected bike lanes have already been built.

“We will be able to show that even in cities with hills and rivers and bridges and winters, that you can brainstorm, develop, plan—and then build the infrastructure that will create multi-modal opportunities in the community,” says Mayor Bill Peduto.

In the 1990s, we were rated one of the worse cities for bikes. Thanks in large part to BikePGH, we’re moving up. In the past seven years, bike commuter rates doubled. In September, we hosted the Pro Walk, Pro Bike, Pro Place conference.

The goal? To become a top 10 bike-friendly city.

“It’s all about enabling community-based groups that already have the support from within that community in order to make change happen,” says Peduto.

A bike share program in the works will offer some 500 bikes at stations strategically placed throughout the city. Pittsburgh Cultural Trust seized the opportunity to infuse public art with function and installed five artist-designed bike racks—like the yellow bridge bike rack near the Convention Center—in downtown. In October 2014, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust put out a call to artists to submit designs for the next installation in 2015.

Also on that multi-modal docket, there’s a plan to ramp up the bus rapid transit (BRT) between Oakland and Downtown, an expansion of the light rail system, and the construction of the pedestrian/bike bridge incorporated into the West End bridge to link the neighborhoods on the north and south shores of the Ohio River.

Seventy percent of the Millenials—the largest generation in U.S. history—use multiple modes of travel every week, according to the study Millennials and Mobility. “This could be a game changer for public transportation and America’s transportation system as a whole,” cites the American Public Transportation Association.

With Pittsburgh’s pro-active approach to going multi-modal, we’ll be ready.

2. Bottom Up City Administration

Mayor Bill Peduto is out there seeking the opinion of—and actively working to help—his fellow Pittsburghers.

In the spring of 2014, Peduto initiated a series called Mayor’s Night that invited Pittsburghers into a conversation. The kickoff event, Mayor’s Night Out was a “way to get out into the neighborhoods with the whole team,” says Peduto, ”not just attending a community meeting, but scheduling it, and bringing all the people responsible for decision-making with me.”

Another new series, Peduto’s Mayor’s Night In, opened the doors of City Hall for anyone who wanted to have a word with the mayor—and after a 15 minute talk, he directly referred the constituent to a person who could help solve the problem.

Mayor’s Night On Air aired on WESA radio and featured the new police chief; any and all were invited down to the studio to ask questions.

His effort has been noticed: Mayor’s Night Online was on Reddit’s ‘Ask Me Anything’ platform with the Mayor and the administrations’ chiefs and directors online to answer questions over the course of two hours. Reddit featured this exchange on their homepage and later sent word to Peduto: “When we created Reddit,” they said,”we were hoping that this would be exactly the type of way it would be used.”

Next in this series? “Mayor’s Night Off,” cracks Peduto, ”where I will be at home watching a Penguin’s game and eating a pizza.”

There’s more. During his first year in office, the mayor scheduled a series of four roundtables that brought in more than 100 leaders from Pittsburgh’s highly innovative organizations. The roundtable themes were: Clean Tech, Maker’s Movement, Coworking & Accelerators, and Entrepreneurs & Innovators.

“The mayor’s office wants to understand what’s going on right now,” says one participant of the CleanTech roundtable, Andrew Butcher of GTECH Strategies. “He and his team are tremendously receptive, and the message is very consistently,’we don’t want to get in your way, we want to help enable.’ And that is a real different shift.”

This culture helps build the buzz, “If you want to start up a small business,” says Butcher,”if you’re an entrepreneur, Pittsburgh is the place to come.”

The mayor’s desire to welcome all ideas and people translated into how he hired his administration. Peduto quoted Grant Oliphant, then CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation, as saying, “it was the first time in American history that any administration from a federal level to the state level to the city level had opened up the doors and basically let a community process steer the hiring of all the key people.”

“That went all the way down to the last position we hired, which was the police chief,” says Peduto. To hire the chief, ”we went one step extra and had meetings in every part of the city—we went to six different police zones.”

They listened to the citizens; they met with the rank-and-file police.

“We put all of their comments into an algorithm that then weighted each of the resumes and interviews to make sure that the candidate who was selected met the needs that the public and the rank-and-file were looking for,” says Peduto.

First time in history. That’s the kind of thing you hear in the Pittsburgh now—and that’s why we are creating a buzz.

Pittsburgh has one of the best tree canopies in the country. Mt. Washington lookout photo by Tracy Certo.
Pittsburgh has one of the best tree canopies in the country.  Mt. Washington lookout photo by Tracy Certo.
Pittsburgh has one of the best tree canopies in the country.  Mt. Washington lookout photo by Tracy Certo.

3. Homegrown Green Master Plans and Community Stewards

We’ve got a green master plan for our rivers, a green master plan for our forest, a green plan for our neighborhoods: Oakland, Etna, the Hill District, and “I think every neighborhood in District 7 has its own green plan,” says Deb Gross. “Our stack of community plans is a five-inch binder.”

“Most of our neighborhoods, because they have such strong community organizations, have their own plans. They hold the builders to them, and we will do our part to back them up. That is key—to feel like you’re participating in the change—not that change this happening to you. That’s the critical difference,” says Gross.

Communities have their own traffic plans and while some people sit at corners and count cars, others hold community meetings in their living rooms to the discuss water and sewer initiatives.

”They’re serious. They really manage and steward their neighborhoods, Gross says. “It’s really impressive, really impressive people. They live it, they breathe it, they do it daily.”

We are a city not taking leaving things to chance anymore.

In the 10th ward, near Allegheny Cemetery, they have their own green plan: they  took  out the old playground that was neglected to create an edible orchard of native species with storm water mitigation. “That’s from a handful of people from a little corner of the city,” says Gross who has vowed to do whatever she can to help.

“It’s completely neighborhood-led development,” says Gross. “It’s empowering people power.”

With 42% tree cover, ”we have urban wilderness, and it’s on a scale beyond most any other city. That phrase urban wilderness is incomprehensible to most cities,” says Pat Clark, managing partner of Jackson/Clark Partners, who helped draft the Urban Forest Master Plan with Tree Pittsburgh.

With great forests, come great responsibility.

“It’s really important on so many different levels. A lot of cities don’t know how to approach their urban forests, let alone have stewardship organizations like Tree Pittsburgh and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy,” says Clark. “By having a master plan in place, we have a heads-up on carbon sequestering.”

And with emerald ash borer and pine tree blight, we’re going to have dead wood, and thanks to Tree Pittsburgh, we have an action plan. “Other cities don’t have a systematic approach on that yet,” says Clark. “That’s a good example of some of the things that we have that we can definitely show off to other cities.”

Our citizens are informed and action-oriented; our nonprofits are forward thinking. “These are incredibly knowledgeable problem-solving people,” says Deb Gross.

And they know how to make a plan.

Rendering of plan for Almono. Photo courtesy of RIDC.
Rendering of plan for Almono. Photo courtesy of RIDC.

4. Almono

Almono, so named after the first three syllables of Pittsburgh’s three rivers—Allegheny, Monongahela, Ohio—is a big, empty former Coke plant and mill site in Hazelwood.

“It is one of the most remarkable opportunities in the country to have a site of this scale that is adjacent to the riverfront,” says Lisa Millspaugh Schroeder, president and CEO of Riverlife, about the 178-acre brownfield just 15 minutes from downtown.

In 2001, a consortium of four foundations formed the Almono Partnership and bought the site with the goal to set a “new standard for urban riverfront property development.”

The buzz words? Environmentally sustainable. Alternate sources of energy. Storm and waster water management. Innovative transportation. Far sighted. Green space. Symbiotic process between developers and community. Integrated. Place-based, peopled-based investment.

These investors wanted to do this right, so they prepared the site to attract the ideal developer. RIDC, which is managing the development, hired Rothschild Doyno Collaborative to create the master plan and get zoning approval.

The site will include four sections: a technology center similar in character to its neighbor the Pittsburgh Technology Center; a central green with recreation opportunities, urban agriculture, and historic elements; an eco-tech park housed in the refurbished mill that will bring back industrial jobs—clean industrial jobs; and a mixed-use residential development named Hazelwood Flats.

Rothschild Doyno completed its job and now RIDC has spent the last year grading and will start the infrastructure soon.

This plan was no top-down effort.

Rothschild Doyno held countless community meetings which generated community involvement and provided the Almono Partnership with data about what people wanted. “They have put a high priority on integrating the new development plan with the existing community,” says Schroeder.

Hazelwood had been cut off from the Monongahela River for years, and one of the first initiatives was to build a bike trail to connect the Eliza Furnace trail to Hazelwood, giving community members access to job and riverside recreation opportunities. It opened as a temporary trail, says Sarah Stroney of RIDC,  to give a preview of what they could be doing. “Our infrastucture that we’re building is probably going to be the best this city has seen in terms of bike access,” she says. The “protected cycle track” trail will likely open in spring of 2016.

“It is such a great example of a truly Pittsburgh opportunity. We have a riverfront edge that was once occupied by commerce and then was razed and empty; now the development plan will seam the city together from the community inboard all the way to the river’s edge,” says Schroeder.

“Exciting things are happening on both sides of the river. This will open up a quadrant of the city.”

Read part two of this series:  4 more reasons Pittsburgh is turning into a Buzz City.

Lauri Gravina

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.