#3 Downtown Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh’s Best Neighborhoods
Downtown Pittsburgh Neighborhood Description
Downtown Pittsburgh is a bit of an enigma from an urban planning perspective. Despite its flawless Monday Night Football skyline, it’s not the best neighborhood in the metro. Architecturally, it’s stunning, but it suffers from a lack of mixed income housing and it just hasn’t quite caught on like other metro neighborhoods, like the Strip District or Lawrenceville. Nevertheless, downtown Pittsburgh is not far from tapping into the market for middle-aged divorcees with disposable income, moving out of their suburban McMansions into 800 square foot lofts and condos seeking to feel like a 21-year-olds again, only this time with money. Count me in.
A Front Door
Downtown Pittsburgh’s front door is Fort Pitt Tunnel. For the uninitiated visiting Pittsburgh for the first time, when traveling from the airport into the city there’s not much to see. Then you start seeing signs that a tunnel is approaching. You go down a hill into the tunnel and on the other side downtown washes over you all at once. It’s a view that never grows tired, but don’t dwell on it because you have have quick decisions to make regarding what lane you need to be in. On the other side of downtown the orientation of the street grid changes, thus marking one’s transition into Duquesne University neighborhood, the Hill District, and the Strip District.
An Identifiable Center
Downtown Pittsburgh’s boundaries are clear and distinct – the rivers is on three sides, and then I-579 bisecting the neighborhoods to the east.
It’s a big city downtown, of course there’s density. The buildings are tall and there’s not whole lot of wasted space, such as surface parking lots, that subtract from the urban environment.
Detached Sidewalks and Street Trees
Not too many detached sidewalks downtown. Street space is at a premium, and this comes from an urban planner that is quick to sacrifice street space for sidewalks or bike lanes or transit or whatever. The sidewalks downtown are wide and spacious but you won’t find any detached ones.
There are places downtown that thrive with street trees, and then there are places downtown that are as barren. The city would do well to plant more trees downtown.
Diverse Architecture and Buildings That Address the Street
This is the category where downtown Pittsburgh shines, it’s also a category where all of Pittsburgh shines, but downtown provides a superior mix of modern and historic. The trouble with skyscrapers is they do a notoriously poor job of interacting with the street. Good news is between all those tall buildings exists a rich historic stock of stone and brick buildings built right up to the sidewalk with large windows and even a few balconies.
Mixed Land Uses
Pittsburgh leadership is well aware the mix between residential and commercial downtown is weighted far too heavily toward commercial. Particularly since the pandemic, the city and its civic and municipal authorities are actively incentivizing converting the upper floors of commercial buildings into residential.
Is it game day or not? The answer to this question very much dictates the street energy of downtown Pittsburgh. On a Steeler’s home game, throngs of people jam the streets, and it’s quite the party if they win. It’s also quite the party if they lose, just a little darker. Don’t forget the Bucs and the Pens, it’s just not quite as active unless one of them is in the playoff hunt. Otherwise, on a day-to-day basis, street energy downtown clusters in different places depending on what’s going on. The best measurement for street energy is how does it look on a rainy Monday in February? There are people out and about, for sure, but how to draw people into downtown during the slow season is always worthy of more discussion.
Street That’s Generally Connect
Being on the river flats, downtown Pittsburgh maintains its grid street pattern, which allows for excellent connectivity.
All transit hubs can be found downtown, which is the way the universe intends it.
The best way to get around downtown Pittsburgh is by walking. Jane Jacobs would approve, so would your mother.
Opportunities for Improvement
Perceptions of high crime downtown are just that. It’s perfectly safe to walk at all hours of the day and night. But if the locals are staying away from downtown due to negative perceptions, then building a narrative around public safety is a wise idea. Otherwise, continuing the persistent effort to add mixed income residential space in lieu of under-utilized commercial space is an obvious tactic to improve the neighborhood environment downtown. Plenty of books, research, and scholarship have been pledged toward studying downtowns, so those of us that read such things understand that the answers are obvious and hidden in plain sight. Trouble is downtown Pittsburgh suffers from too many neighborhoods within its orbit applying the ingredients on this list better than it. All and all, not a bad problem for a metro to have but when the heart gets healthier, so too does the body.