Vivien Li is the new president and CEO of Riverlife, a nonprofit that works to reclaim, restore and promote Pittsburgh’s iconic riverfronts. NEXTpittsburgh caught up with her to discuss how she views our riverfronts now, which of the 20 Riverlife projects has her most excited, and yes, since she brought it up: what’s the next Duck?

You’re a legend in Boston for your work in transforming the Boston Harbor. How did you end up in Pittsburgh?

When a headhunter called about the Riverlife position, it was really the first time in a long time I thought about doing something different. My husband passed away 11 years ago when our children were still in junior high and high school and they were the priority in my life. I wanted stability for them so I knew I would not move from Boston until they finished college.

When I came to Pittsburgh to meet with the search committee, I came a day early so I could explore the city and riverfront on my own. I did a lot of homework and I realized it was an exciting city and an exciting time to be here.

You’ve been on the job about two months – what’s your early assessment of Pittsburgh’s riverfront potential?

Pittsburgh is a city that continues to move forward in a very constructive and innovative manner. And to some extent, it has been overlooked for what has been done and the continuing potential.

Wouldn’t it be great if all our riverfronts were 24/7? To achieve that type of vitality, it means more housing and more jobs. Then we would see more restaurants and shopping follow.

I’d like to see more sustainable and renewable energy projects. There are solar panels on the lights around the Cork Factory that could be done all over the riverfront. I like all the public art and I think we can do more of that.

There is also the potential for water taxis. In Boston, it took several tries to make this idea economically feasible and reach critical mass, but now there are 35 locations where you can be picked up by a water taxi. I think we have the potential for that in Pittsburgh.

One of your success stories is Boston’s 41.5-mile HarborWalk. Do you plan to bring some of those ideas to Pittsburgh?

What made HarborWalk so successful was it wasn’t just the path. It wasn’t just the walkway. It was the amenities that people want to see when they’re on the riverfront. Things like free binoculars, bags for dogs and public restrooms. On a hot day, I’d like to see more places to refill your water bottle or buy a snack, and more places to rent bicycles and kayaks.

Do I plan to try to bring this kind of work to Pittsburgh? Absolutely. I want to work with waterfront property owners on these and other amenities.

Photo courtesy Riverlife

Photo courtesy Riverlife

Riverlife has momentum with over 20 riverfront projects underway or in the pipeline. What has you the most excited?

The Mon Wharf switchback is coming to fruition as well as the Allegheny Landing project. These are really interesting projects that Riverlife has been talking about for a long time. The riverfront park and open space area in the Strip District are also moving forward. I think when people see it they are going to be very pleased. It’s what we hope the riverfronts will be in the 21st century.

What I have also been so impressed with in Pittsburgh is the focus on sustainability.

The mayor and county executive work closely with a shared vision of how to foster what’s going on along the riverfronts. They are talking about green infrastructure and renewable energy. There is a real understanding and appreciation and I’m impressed with that.

Railroads and industrial sites have barricaded communities from the rivers for decades. What happens when you restore public access?

One of the things that comes up a lot is whether we should be thinking beyond the areas where Riverlife traditionally works. How far from the river’s edge should we focus? And how can we better knit the riverfront together with communities?

We’re seeing some good examples of that with the Almono site and connecting with the community of Hazelwood. We’re working on it in the Strip District.

We are starting to think more about it and I’ve brought it to the attention of the board. Foundations are also interested in public access and restoring community connections with the rivers.