Street-level Activity and Urban Vibrancy

Lynne Kiesling

Mike Madison finds a great quote about Pittsburgh that invokes thoughts of Jane Jacobs, complete with a book picture and link. He quotes from some reader letters to the Post-Gazette’s architecture critic:

Responding to New York architect and developer Stan Eckstut’s observation that Downtown Pittsburgh has too much public open space for a healthy retail environment, electrical engineer Alan R. Huffman of Pine writes: “The greatest damage to the retail environment in Downtown Pittsburgh has been done, in my opinion, by continuing to construct large office buildings with no first-floor retail space. I worked Downtown for many years and watched this take place along Liberty Avenue and around the PPG building as well as many other locations. Many street-front retail and hospitality locations were wiped out by this construction. It’s a trend that probably dates at least back to the Gateway redevelopment.” [NB: The Gateway Center “redevelopment” is the crowning achievement of Pittsburgh’s abysmal use of eminent domain in the 1960s.]

These letters are in response to Patricia Lowry’s column from January 23, in which she analyzes Pittsburgh Mayor O’Connor’s proposal to make Market Square into a pedestrian square, green it up, and reroute buses so they no longer proceed through the square. Lowry’s column provides a nice synopsis of the history of Market Square, which used to house a marketplace building and has always been a forum for public expression.

The discussion in these articles also hearkens back to some pedestrianization that occurred in the 1960s in other areas around Pittsburgh, with terrible consequences of desolation and retail failure due to lack of foot traffic. Chicago had this happen too; when I first moved here in 1987, State Street had been pedestrianized (except for a couple of bus routes), and other than Field’s and Carson’s it was pretty grim. Since State Street was reopened to vehicular traffic (I want to say in 1991, but I’m not sure), it’s a vibrant retail attraction again, with new shops, beautifully renovated buildings, and other signs of economic dynamism.

One of the reasons why Mayor O’Connor wants to eliminate vehicle traffic through Market Square is to make it more pedestrian-friendly and improve air quality. But these pedestrianization lessons from the 1960s are important to remember, because they remind us that the relationship between thriving pedestrian traffic and vehicle traffic is a complex one. It’s entirely likely that eliminating vehicle traffic will just make people avoid Market Square entirely, leading its businesses to suffer even more. Think about all of those little side streets in French towns that have cafes; most have traffic around the perimeter, or on one street through the center or along one side. It’s about balance, not isolation.

Lowry makes what I think is a very trenchant observation:

If the mayor wants to update Market Square, he could, as a friend said last week, make it wireless, along with PPG Plaza and that congenial connecting space between them. Marrying historic form with high-tech capability, after all, is a large part of what 21st-century Pittsburgh should be about.

Now there’s an idea! A wireless public space is a great idea, given the history of the space. But here’s my question: why should it be the city’s doing? The businesses in Market Square and around PPG Plaza would be the largest beneficiaries of a wireless Market Square. They should have an incentive to provide it. Perhaps the Mayor could encourage, suggest, facilitate, but let private initiative make it happen.

It is, after all, Market Square.