Pittsburgh's Carson Street

How to Build Great Neighborhoods

Pittsburgh Neighborhood Ranking Criteria

The vast majority of Pittsburgh’s historic neighborhoods and towns reflect quality urban design. The ingredients that create great neighborhoods are not secrets reserved for experts. They are well observed and simple to identify. Sidewalks and curbs, for instance, are a good start, yet so many neighborhoods fail to provide even those.

Pittsburgh Planner has ranked Pittsburgh’s best neighborhoods and towns based on utilization of the below ingredients and how well the local community mixes them together, as follows:

A Front Door

A proper neighborhood front door.
Chinatowns have the best front doors. This one is in DC.
16th Street Bridge Pittsburgh
These two old sentinels on the 16th Street Bridge provide quite the proper front door into Pittsburgh’s Strip District.

Gateways create a great introduction into a neighborhood. (And I’m not talking about gated communities, which create a negative introduction into a neighborhood.) Design signals, intentional or not, communicate to visitors that they are now in a new, unique place. Gateways can be as simple as signage, as ornate as public art, or as functional as a landscaped roundabout.

An Identifiable Center

Neighborhoods are like little cities nested within a metropolitan area. In Pittsburgh’s historic neighborhoods most neighborhood centers reflect a traditional Main Street environment. In newer neighborhoods with less mixing of land uses, neighborhood centers are larger strip malls typically anchored by a grocery store or Walmart with the usual cadre of junior tenants orbiting the anchor. (The industry association for retailers, the International Council of Shopping Centers, actually calls these strip malls “Neighborhood Centers.”) The primary difference between both design models is one lends itself toward walkability and the other does not. That is to say, most suburban neighborhood centers neglect to deploy all of the ingredients on this list while historic neighborhood centers do.

Boundaries

The Allegheny River in Downtown Pittsburgh
Rivers and hills make for great neighborhood boundaries all around Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh’s rugged geography lends itself well to the natural creation of identifiable neighborhood boundaries. Crossing a bridge or going through a tunnel delivers a traveler to a completely different place. Living on one side of Frick Park feels entirely different than living on the other. Mount Lebanon and Mount Washington are on two different hilltops. The point is Pittsburgh’s natural landscape creates a sense of place as one traverses from neighborhood to neighborhood. Other cities struggle with creating neighborhood boundaries yet Pittsburgh is perhaps the best example in the country of establishing distinct neighborhoods.

Buildings That Address the Street

I’ll refrain from boring you with technical and bureaucratic explanations about how a community’s zoning code can be either a force for economic development or a force for that creates absolute crap-and-a-half. Suffice it to say, zoning codes play a key role in a building’s relationship with their streets and sidewalks. Let’s start with the basics: is there even a curb and sidewalk separating the street from the property? Are there balconies and front porches? How’s the relationship between parking and the home, apartment complex, or business? Are there windows that face the street? A structure either contributes to the street dynamic or it subtracts from it. I prefer the former.

Density

Density is the difference between one-acre residential lots out in the exurbs or skyscrapers in Manhattan. From an economic development and community health perspective, downtowns and neighborhood centers should strive for high density development that diminishes (often predictably) as one travels away from the heart of the city or neighborhood.

Detached Sidewalks

Detached sidewalks are often represented by a grassy strip between the street and the sidewalk, particularly in residential neighborhoods. In denser urban neighborhoods the sidewalk may be separated from the street by a bike lane or urban streetscaping. One can also argue that parking along the street provides for an element of sidewalk detachment. The point is establishing space between moving vehicles and the sidewalk is both good for esthetics and safety.

Diverse Architecture

If every home and building is generally distinct, then you are blessed with diverse architecture. Often times real estate developers, particularly those developing residential subdivisions, gain a financial advantage by constructing only one or two floor plans with the same garage snouting out from the house, no front porch, no sidewalks, and few ingredients that create healthy neighborhoods. If you’re looking to build a sterile neighborhood with little character other than uniform architectural traits, then the above approach gets the job done.

Mixed Land Uses

Most Pittsburgh neighborhoods do well in the mixed land use category. Are there apartments or condos located above the businesses in your neighborhood? Can you walk to a bar or a grocery store or a coffee shop? Zoning started about a hundred years ago to keep the dirty land uses away from residential areas. At its legal core, and the Supreme Court has affirmed it, zoning is a function of public safety. But us silly urban planners took the separation of land uses too far over the years and we started separated things that shouldn’t be separated. Back in the early 1990s, we started to shake our neurosis and began reconnecting land uses but the process of untangling decades of planning incompetence is a long one. Nevertheless, it’s a reflection of smart leadership at the local level if your neighborhood allows for mixed land uses, as most Pittsburgh neighborhoods do.

Street Energy

Strip District Pittsburgh
Shops and cafes overflow onto the sidewalks of Pittsburgh’s Strip District.

Pittsburgh’s Strip District is the best example of street energy in the metro. Throngs of people. Sidewalk dining. Open air restaurants. Retail spilling out of the shops onto the sidewalks. Diverse retail options, including grocers. There are food trucks and party trolleys. It’s congested and there’s lots to look at. The Strip’s street energy draws us in and it’s the big, wide sidewalks, narrow street, and a feeling of close quarters that helps to induce the commercial activities noted above. It’s also fun getting drunk there.

Streets That Generally Connect

Cul de sacs are dumb.
A scanned image from the book Suburban Nation. I suspect the caption was written by Jeff Speck, who also wrote in his book Walkable City when referring to street design and traffic engineers as a whole, “It’s as if, despite all of our advances, this one (unfortunately central) aspect of how we make our cities has been entrusted to the Flat Earth Society.”

Cul-de-sacs and dead-end streets are not helpful in building a proper neighborhood. Despite all of Pittsburgh’s challenges given our rugged landscape, the older neighborhoods do a great job of connecting streets and limiting dead-ends. Cul-de-sacs and dead-ends create traffic congestion by limiting route options for the traveler. They also make it difficult for walkers and bike cyclers to travel a straight line as the bird flies to their destination.

Street Trees

This ingredient is self-evident. Who doesn’t love a tree-lined street? In more commercialized areas, there is at times a tension between planting trees and fears that obscuring signage may impact business. In fact, street trees do impact business but to the positive. It’s science, check it out. The lesson to local leaders is don’t let unfounded fears turn street trees into an enemy. Keep the easy stuff easy. Street trees are easy.

Transit Access

Pittsburgh Regional Transit is quietly quite the dynamic transit agency. Light rail being the sexiest option, inclines being the most unique, and buses being the workhorse. They were recently awarded about $150-million from the feds to create a $291-million bus rapid transit route between downtown and the Oakland neighborhood. They also offer free wi-fi on all of their eco-friendly busses. The question as far as neighborhood livability goes is can you walk to transit access and is the stop sheltered from the elements? The question as far as metropolitan livability goes is if I can walk to a transit stop how much trouble will I have arriving at my destination? The first question is far simpler to answer than the second. Nevertheless, proper transit access is fundamental to a proper neighborhood and Pittsburgh Regional Transit is on top of their game.

Walkability

Pittsburgh Waterfront Business District
One of Pittsburgh’s newest neighborhoods, The Waterfront prioritizes walkability.

Walkability is the tie that binds. All the ingredients on this list contribute to walkability, though some ingredients are more complicated to create than others, all of this stuff is pretty easy. Sidewalks and curbs, for instance, are a good place to start, yet so many neighborhoods fail to provide even those. If you’re more interested in the quiet surroundings of a suburban neighborhood than the street energy of the Strip District, walkability need not be sacrificed. Are there detached sidewalks and curbs? Street trees? Do the streets connect? Can kids walk to school safely? Can dads walk to the neighborhood bar on game day? How does your neighborhood center look and feel? Walkability and suburban development are not mutually exclusive, it’s just that traditional suburban development has chosen to exclude walkability, which is why people like me point out opportunities for improvement.