Pittsburgh Has Long History of Urban Planning

Issue Date: 
January 14, 2008

Pitt Professor Edward K. Muller’s book details city’s efforts

080114rena.jpgPittsburgh is going through a transformation—residential units are springing up all over town, old steel mills have been replaced with booming shopping districts on the South Side and in Homestead, a subway tunnel is being excavated to connect Downtown and the Northside, which is undergoing its own resurgence. Soon there will be a new casino and parking garage on the North Shore’s evolving landscape. Riverfront development seems to be taking hold.

But Edward K. Muller, University of Pittsburgh professor of history, will tell you that this is nothing new.

In his book Before Renaissance: Planning in Pittsburgh, 1889-1943 (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006), Muller and coauthor John Bauman recount Pittsburgh’s long and storied history of urban planning. They reveal that Pittsburgh was one of the nation’s forerunners in urban planning, long before it became a professionalized discipline in the early 20th century.

“The city was engaged in urban planning from the 1890s to World War II and was among the leading cities in urban planning during the first decade of the 1900s,” said Muller. “By 1920, we were the fifth or sixth largest metropolitan area in the country. At that time, to be engaged in urban planning was forward thinking. We were in the forefront with New York, Boston, and the other large cities.”

Before Renaissance traces the origins of urban planning to the Progressive movement of the late 1800s. Planning was a means to restore democracy, civic virtue, and moral order to the city. But by 1910, the authors note, the focus shifted from special-purpose planning to urban planning as a scientific, complex process.

Planning visionary Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (whose father designed Central Park in New York City) played a key role in Pittsburgh’s planning history along with Pittsburgh’s own Frederick Bigger. The book also stresses the importance of private and public partnerships as a major mover behind Pittsburgh planning, citing the partnership between Andrew Carnegie and Edward Bigelow, the city’s public works director.

Known as the “Father of the Parks,” Bigelow, who was assembling parcels of land above the Allegheny River to create Highland Park, persuaded Mary Elizabeth Schenley to donate 300 acres of the family’s estate with the option of purchasing another 100 acres for $125,000. The city council accepted the Schenley offer in 1890 and Schenley Park became a reality.

In 1909, the Pittsburgh Civic Commission (PCC) invited Olmsted to visit the city and devise “a complete plan for the whole Pittsburgh industrial district.” Olmsted’s plan, “Pittsburgh: Main Thoroughfares and the Down Town District: Improvements Necessary to Meet the City’s Present and Future Needs,” completed in 1911, included widened streets, a new tunnel, and boulevards linking the East End and South Hills suburbs to Downtown.

According to Muller, some of the things Olmsted proposed had already been under discussion when he came to Pittsburgh. For one, he weighed in on the South Hills tunnel and bridge project.

“Olmsted put forth the plan for a high-level parkway along the Monongahela hillside, which is now the Boulevard of the Allies,” noted Muller. “He also was responsible for a plan for Schenley Plaza. One of the more interesting things proposed in his plan that didn’t come about was a Downtown promenade with vehicular and pedestrian traffic above the Monongahela wharf.”

Muller said that same year, Mayor William Magee got the state legislature to create the Pittsburgh Planning Commission, which he staffed with the Department of Planning. “The foundation was laid,” Muller said. “Planning as a profession took hold. Important ideas were kept alive, like Point Park.”

Many things also changed, he noted. The large hump on Grant Street was leveled, changing the facade of the Court House and exposing the basement floor, which had been underground and is now the building’s first floor.

Before Renaissance also details the frustration of local planner Frederick Bigger during the 1920s. There were a lot of things planned for the city, Muller explained, but Pittsburgh became concerned about the automobile, so it rethought much of its plan. There were few gas stations and no one wanted a gas station in their neighborhood. In 1923, the city accepted zoning.

According to Muller, Allegheny County became involved in planning in the early 1920s. A major highway plan was advanced in 1925 and several plans came to fruition, including Allegheny River Boulevard, Saw Mill Run Boulevard, Ohio River Boulevard, and the Liberty Bridge that was talked about in 1911.

“In the 1930s, Robert Moses, the greatest urban builder of the 20th century in America, came to Pittsburgh,” said Muller. “Howard Heinz, H. J. Heinz’s son, attracted him here. Moses didn’t come up with anything particularly, but he grabbed the attention of the civic leaders. His visit galvanized interest and became a critical moment in the fore steps of the Renaissance.”

Prior to that time, Pittsburgh’s civic leaders acted as advisors, but Moses’ visit sparked their interest and propelled them into action. Muller said the private and public sectors joined forces to create the Renaissance.

“Pittsburgh has a heritage of planning,” he said. “Planning has been inserted into our fabric in these 40 to 50 years as an institution. Pittsburgh was not alone in planning. We’re big and important. We’re not the inventors or the leaders, but we’re certainly up there.”

Muller cited projects developed after the Renaissance: Crosstown Boulevard was built in the 1960s; other plans that were under discussion become realities, including the Parkway East and Duquesne Boulevard.

These early days of planning are a forgotten but important chapter of Pittsburgh’s history, Muller said.

“A lot of the things that were built, that we take for granted, were part of the early plans,” he said. “We don’t get the promenade, but we get the Parkway ramp. It’s a mixed bag—then and now. Some things are built, some are not, some things never leave the dusty shelves of the planner.”