It was an unexpectedly catalytic moment.

“There was massive public access,” says Riverlife  President and CEO Lisa Schroeder. “The riverfronts were packed with people of all ages, everybody wanting to be part of it.

She is referring, of course, to the debut of the huge yellow duck that floated down the Ohio River,  past the newly renovated Point State Park fountain, and alighting on the Allegheny River in its smashing debut last year.

It was a glorious mob scene along the waterfront in all directions, including the Point and the iconic and much-loved fountain.

“After 10 years, four phases of planning, and an outstanding public-private partnership, this 40-year-old historic landmark became a new place where people could sit and play, with benches, lighting, boat access. Now it’s crowded all the time. Everybody comes and brings a friend. It’s a party.”

“What’s more,” she adds, “the re-opening of the Fountain signaled that not only is riverfront access universally accepted, it is also encouraged. Valued. So much so that when I saw what was happening, I wrote to our original Riverlife Task Force members: ‘This is what you dreamed about.'”

Executive Director of Riverlife, Lisa Schroeder. Brian Cohen photo.

Executive Director of Riverlife, Lisa Schroeder. Brian Cohen photo.

Indeed, when the Task Force was founded 15 years ago, such ideas were mere dreams. Not anymore. Now, in Pittsburgh and many other cities, riverfronts are both highly desired locations and economic development engines of unprecedented, previously unimagined power. And Pittsburgh’s riverfront serves as a national model.

“Now,” Schroeder says, “we’ve reached a tipping point.”

Before we tip, let us cast our mind’s eye back to the bad old days, roughly 150 years of industrialization and its aftermath that separated people from the rivers. Mills, railroads, sewage, toxic dumping all marred Pittsburgh’s waterways. Rivers were inhospitable, unusable. Access was unthinkable. Back then, Schroeder reminds us, “it was a big stretch to conceive of riverfronts as a preferred location.”

By the 1980s, things went from bad to worse. While heavy industry was largely the culprit, it was also the region’s economic base. Then, by and large, it evaporated. Pittsburgh lost 100,000 manufacturing jobs—plus concomitant service-sector support. Things never appeared more bleak.

As it turned out, the collapse of Big Steel was the proverbial blessing in disguise. Because it gave Pittsburgh the opportunity to think. The city had to redefine itself—or go under.

Pittsburgh famously did just that.

Granted, while things began sluggishly, at least they began.

Discussions about land re-use, riverfront parks, two new stadia and a massive convention center fueled development interest. Suddenly, it seemed, there was a Hot Metal Bridge to a South Shore Riverfront Park. Trails along the Mon and Allegheny. And more—13 glorious miles of riverfront essentially shorn of history and ready for a new vision.

By 1999, it was clear that “the public wanted to get to the rivers,” Schroeder recalls. “Designers, planners, historians, business people wanted to make Pittsburgh a better place. They found an umbrella in Riverlife.

“Riverlife combusted into being—and when it came together, it was a diverse group with nothing in common but bold thought and action. All those people dared to think long-term. They dared to think that all riverfront projects could be connected—all the bridges, trails, communities, water landings.”

All this for good reason. Because in the highly competitive 21st Century, attracting and retaining the kind of world-class talent it takes to succeed depends not only on economic opportunities, but also on lifestyle and amenities. These days, people with marketable skills can—and will—move anywhere. They may come for a job, but are attracted by, and will stay for, an amenable lifestyle. Up-and-coming Millennials to retirees require a blend of urbanism and outdoors, one that includes river life: trails, boating, living, working.

“Our riverfronts,” Schroeder says, “capitalize on what is truly unique about Pittsburgh. I love the fact that that Pittsburgh is being discovered for its beauty and unique topography. Its intimacy. We are finally bringing the city down to the riverfront. Suddenly two plus two equals 12.”

It's a great day on the rivers. Photo by Tracy Certo.

It’s a great day on the rivers. Photo by Tracy Certo.

Yet that magic equation won’t stem the tide of out-of-town competition. Pittsburgh is hardly the lone American city with water at its core, and so must constantly compete with other urban areas presenting similar amenities. Cincinnati, Chicago, Houston, Portland and many more cities have active waterside developments. It’s a constant challenge to stay on top of trends which, like water itself, shift every day.