By Eric Holmberg | PublicSource | Dec. 20, 2015
Public space in downtown Pittsburgh could be connected like never before.
More bike lanes are a near certainty. More benches and signs could invite city dwellers and visitors to linger and guide you to your next downtown location.
Alleyways could change into destinations for a walk with friends, or a latte.
Gehl Studio, the U.S. arm of well-known Danish urban research and design firm Gehl Architects, is working on a report that measures how people use downtown’s public spaces and major streets.
That data will serve as the basis for Gehl’s recommendations in January. The city can then use the recommendations to experiment with changes to downtown in 2016.
“What the mayor and the [Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership] and the foundations decided to do was basically to create a sandbox and treat downtown as an urban laboratory,” said Sean Luther, executive director of Envision Downtown, a public-private partnership between Mayor Bill Peduto’s office and the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. “So that’s where these fast-deployment, temporary, projects will come into play over the next year.”
But, as the 2011 urban planning documentary “Urbanized” said, cities will always be places of struggle for power, position and influence. Gehl’s recommendations will tug at existing tensions between motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians. Space annexed by one mode of transportation will likely be missed by the others.
The antagonism surrounding the Penn Avenue bike lane is an example of criticism that grows out of change.
Gehl Architects has a known philosophy that can be studied and applied to Pittsburgh, even before its recommendations are released.
Its founder, Danish architect Jan Gehl, has always emphasized urban design for the individual, not the car.
They were behind the transformation of Times Square as a pedestrian area; studied the increase of urban life in Copenhagen, Denmark, as portions of the city center became accessible only to pedestrians; and have performed public space and public life studies in cities around the world.
The backdrop to understanding Jan Gehl’s urban design philosophy begins with a few broader trends. According to “Urbanized,” more people are moving to cities and households are shrinking. In Gehl’s view, people are becoming increasingly isolated because of large apartment buildings, commuting by car, and nights largely spent at home.
Ray Gastil, the Pittsburgh city planning director, said the firm’s previous projects show they are skilled at inviting more people to use public space through their recommendations. They know how to give people more choices than a car to experience a city, he said.
As the first step in the public life survey, volunteers observed key locations in downtown on a Wednesday and Saturday in late October from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Volunteers recorded the number of pedestrians or bicyclists passing through as well as stationary activities, such as waiting for the bus.
“You learn so much from sitting and standing in a place up to five hours,” said Anna Muessig, a Gehl Studio urban planner working on the Pittsburgh survey.
They watched corridors such as Liberty Avenue, Penn Avenue, Smithfield Street and Boulevard of the Allies. They also observed public spaces such as Market Square and Point State Park along with commonly trafficked alleyways, like Strawberry Way.
“The point of all of this is to benchmark how the city is doing,” Muessig said.
Gehl Studio was recommended by Peduto and hired by Envision Downtown for $150,000. Envision is paying the survey fee with general operating funds, which come from The Heinz Endowments and the Hillman Family Foundations. (PublicSource also receives funding from those two foundations.)
A latent demand
Jan Gehl began studying crowds and movement through plazas in Siena, Italy, in 1965. At the time, cities were only studying cars, not people.
“Nobody knew that the way we built cities had any influence on lifestyles and people’s lives,” Gehl said in “The Human Scale,” a 2012 documentary primarily about his firm.
In New York City, Gehl Architects was able to provide the city with data and rationale for changing many of its major squares. Gehl Architects found “[t]hat 90 percent of the space in Times Square was for cars, yet 90 percent of the people there were pedestrians. This was an equation that needed to change,” according to its website.
The city tested it, changing the space overnight, and the project was deemed a success because people occupied the extra space.
In Philadelphia, Gehl Studio recently designed porch swings to invite people to sit and people-watch along Market Street near the 30th Street Station.
In Chongqing, China, Gehl Architects created a pedestrian route, which connected areas of the city with benches, signs and enhanced pedestrian crossings.
In case after case that Gehl cites, the more public space you give people, the more they occupy it. They say that proves there was latent demand for extra space all along.
Sometimes their recommendations are about reusing forgotten space. In the 1980s, Melbourne, Australia’s city center was hollowing out as more people moved to the suburbs.
Gehl Architects envisioned the alleyways, where the garbage was kept, as perfectly scaled walking districts.
“The laneways (alleys) were the crappiest space you could think of in Melbourne,” Helle Søholt, the co-founder of Gehl Architects, said in “The Human Scale.” “It was never ever thought about as a people space, but at the same time, they had this very nice human scale to them.”
One of the worst parts of downtown became a destination for cafes and shops.
Gehl Studio’s survey could be the foundation for a variety of experiments in downtown during 2016. If the recommendations work, the changes could become permanent.
For instance, the city recently changed the bus stop area near Sixth Avenue and Smithfield Street in a way that matches with the Gehl philosophy.
The city took space from the driving and parking lanes on Smithfield to create an extended waiting area at the city’s busiest bus stop. That gave more space to people waiting for the bus and pedestrians passing through.
Muessig said some of the recommendations could be to continue improving areas that are already working, such as Market Square or certain parts of the waterfront.
She said Pittsburgh has a lot of great public spaces, but they’re not connected very well.
While the recommendations haven’t been released yet, Luther hypothesized one way to better connect Market Square with Point State Park.
“Maybe you do that by painting all the crosswalks orange or painting pictures of the fountain on the sidewalk all the way down,” he said.
The Gehl firm may recommend transforming Pittsburgh’s most commonly used alleyways into more pedestrian-friendly areas.
Luther said they already have plans to paint and landscape Strawberry Way — which thousands use every weekday — for a better pedestrian experience, but there’s no announced start date.
Liberty Avenue could be another area ripe for a makeover. Both Muessig from Gehl Studio and Luther said it was overtaxed by multiple modes of transportation.
Or creating a more dynamic retail environment could be a way to entice people to shop downtown.
Don Carter, director of the Remaking Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, said much like Shadyside or Squirrel Hill, the future of downtown may rely on smaller, boutique retail locations.
An increase of smaller shops would align with Gehl Architects’ philosophy that many and varied narrow storefronts create a more dynamic street-level experience for pedestrians.
And, fortunately, Pittsburgh already has a dense, walkable downtown.
In Jan Gehl’s book, Cities for People, a grid of Pittsburgh’s downtown is presented alongside the downtowns of Copenhagen, Zürich, and Brisbane, Australia, as walkable city centers less than a mile in diameter.
“The urban scale and the way it was set up is suited for people,” Muessig said, adding that it just hasn’t been maintained well.
Limited space creates conflict
Pittsburgh does not have many wide avenues downtown, unlike other cities, Gastil said. Space is precious, and some of it will be needed to complete a network of connected bike lanes.
“There will be some more bike lanes downtown one way or another, and we need them so that we can actually have a couple of safe routes through downtown in both directions,” Gastil said. “And that takes up some of the give we have in the system…”
In addition to conflicts over space, there may be conflicts in adapting the Gehl philosophy to Pittsburgh.
“We work to ensure that Gehl’s work here in Pittsburgh is very much focused on the Pittsburgh experience and not applying a, frankly, European sensibility to our open spaces,” Luther, of Envision Downtown, said. Right now, open space in downtown is geared toward office workers, and that’s not a bad thing, he said.
“Not every single open space can be for drinking Americanos on Sunday morning,” Luther said. “It’s just not going to be the case right now for downtown.”
Gastil said he understands the benefits of pedestrian-only shopping districts replete with shops and cafes, but he worries that vision only reflects an upper middle class view of the ideal urban environment.
“The world doesn’t begin and end with interesting shopfronts and excellent bakeries because this is the gentrification story,” he said.
Gastil said while Gehl wants more people living downtown, he wants the firm to recognize a significant portion of Pittsburgh public life comes from its sporting events.
“I want them to actually understand what a game day is,” Gastil said. “I want them to spend time on the North Shore and not to necessarily dismiss it, underestimate it, be snobbish about it, frankly, because it’s a class issue.”
Pittsburgh is younger than the region, state and nation as a whole, Luther of Envision Downtown said, stressing the continued need to think about pedestrian safety and bike lanes.
“I think we’re going to be pushing the envelope on things and need to recognize that there’s a major demographic shift happening in the city right now,” he said.