Urban Renewal in Pittsburgh

Landscape Architecture students collaborate with urban Pittsburgh residents to spark neighborhood revitalization efforts.

There’s no religion involved in Landscape Architecture Professor Ken Tamminga’s Pittsburgh Studio, but he still compares the studio experience to a church service.

The course takes upper-class and graduate Landscape Architecture students out of their traditional studio space and into down-and-out urban neighborhoods in an effort to spark community revitalization efforts. “I emphasize to my students that the ‘studio’ is not just in the Stuckeman Family Building—it’s as much in the Pittsburgh neighborhoods as it is at University Park. It’s like a thriving congregation that understands ‘church’ is not so much a building as it is people involved in a common cause.”

In the case of the Pittsburgh Studio, the “people” are the residents of the inner-city, low-income neighborhoods who work collaboratively with Tamminga’s students to address issues such as lack of green space, vacant lots and dilapidated buildings.

Each fall since 2008, 12-14 students have taken the Pittsburgh Studio, a partnership between the Department of Landscape Architecture and the Penn State Center: Engaging Pittsburgh. “Some service-learning projects never get students past the planners and government officials, but in this studio the students work directly with the residents,” says Tamminga. “It’s very important to me that students work with users in their place, and discover the talent, energy and aspiration among community members. Working with students is a catalyst for the residents to look at their neighborhoods themselves and take action.”

A True Collaboration

Planning for the Pittsburgh Studio is a collaborative effort between Tamminga and the Penn State Center. Director Deno De Ciantis and staff landscape architect Lisa Vavro identify the neighborhoods most in need and facilitate interactions throughout the semester. “Deno and Lisa know the neighborhoods inside and out, and make sure to spread our ‘talent’ around,” Tamminga notes. “These are communities that normally would not have the opportunity to work with landscape architects.”

Tamminga and De Ciantis launched the studio—a 12-hour per week, 5-credit course—with a goal of moving from standard service-learning fare to a more robust understanding of community engagement and public scholarship. The students make eight to ten trips to Pittsburgh over the course of the semester, meeting with residents for design charrettes and more informal meetings. The semester ends with an open house and public presentation of the students’ projects.

“Community members are a core component of the design process—it’s very ‘real world,’” says Tamminga. “No one has a corner on the market of good ideas. We’re always striving for reciprocal learning and co-design.”

Malik Bankston, executive director of the Kingsley Association, a social services agency based in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Larimer, was part of that core in 2009, when the Pittsburgh Studio worked in Larimer. In a 2011 interview, he said Penn State students have helped the association come up with fresh, new ideas. “When Penn State comes to the table and offers to help us figure out several ways to do things—to solve a problem or answer a question—that makes them an important partner.”

Hands-on Learning

In fall 2012, fifth-year student Grace Byrne partnered with residents of Wilkinsburg, where pedestrian tunnels used to connect different sections of the northeast Pittsburgh neighborhood had been closed due to safety concerns. She says the experience gave her a true taste of participatory design. “In school, so much of what we do is based on theory. But in this studio, we weren’t designing for ourselves—we were designing for, and with, real people.”

Landscape architecture students discuss an urban renewal project in Pittsburgh.

Students in Pittsburgh

Landscape Architecture students and Professor Ken Tamminga (center), leader of the Pittsburgh Studio, become oriented to the city and its riverscape before embarking on West Pittsburgh and Coraopolis studio projects in fall 2010.

Image: Penn State

Byrne’s final proposal connected the tunnels—and the neighborhood as a whole—via a park that formed a loop in the center of the neighborhood. The park provided safe access to the tunnels, as well as recreation opportunities and art-filled community gathering spots. She also proposed a range of security features for the tunnels themselves.

“The residents had lots of ideas, and were very interested in the project,” Byrne says. “This was my first hands-on experience in urban studies. I definitely came out of the studio different than when I started.”

“In this studio, we weren't designing for ourselves--we were designing for, and with, real people.” --Grace Byrne, fifth-year student

In the Northside neighborhood where Nick Monroe worked in fall 2012, the problem was disused space—vast vacant lots, punctuated by clusters of single-family homes and apartment buildings. “My project established linear connections with gathering spaces in the vacant lots, with features like small playgrounds and a community garden. I thought residents of the neighborhood needed to communicate more, so my project offered ways to promote interaction.”

Knowing the Northside neighborhood where he worked had a limited—if any—budget for community improvements, Monroe, also a fifth-year student, says he relied on the original design principles he learned early in his landscape architecture education. “I couldn’t rely on gimmicky stuff,” he notes.

Student Projects Take Root

While the students’ formal relationship with the various neighborhoods ends with the semester, the ideas and possibilities are not forgotten. The Penn State Center remains a resource to incorporate the students’ projects into actual neighborhood improvement plans. In Beltzhoover, for example, where students worked in 2008, an enhancement project incorporating the students’ work is currently underway. This past December, the Northside Leadership Conference received a $50,000 grant from the Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development to help realize ideas generated during the Pittsburgh Studio. And the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation is actively pursuing funding for three of the four projects conducted this past semester, including the “Wilkinsburg Loop” that Byrne designed.

The Pittsburgh Studio has gained recognition inside and outside the University. In 2011, the studio won the Penn State Award for Community Engagement and Scholarship, and was also named the northeast regional winner of the Outreach Scholarship W.K. Kellogg Foundation Engagement Award by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) and the National Outreach Scholarship Conference.

While the recognition is nice, Tamminga focuses on how the studio can benefit both students and struggling communities. “It’s exciting to see our neighborhood partners muster their potential and tackle new possibilities. And for our graduates, I’m hopeful that the studio is a springboard to more intentional and inclusive professional practice.”

For more information on the Pittsburgh Studio, visit http://pittsburgh.center.psu.edu/projects/pittsburgh-landscape-architect....

Nick Monroe's "North Charles NOD" Plan


The North Charles Street neighborhood rests in a narrow valley in the center of Pittsburgh's Northside. Once a densely inhabited community, the neighborhood followed the downward population trend experienced by the city over the past several decades.

The gradual decrease in population has led to the removal of unused buildings throughout the neighborhood, resulting in a fragmented collection of single and multi-family houses. The remaining clusters of homes are separated by vacant lots and in some cases large open spaces, with few connections between them.

Design Intent

With the need for adequate routes for walking, safe areas for children to play, and the desire for aesthetic enhancements having been expressed by community members, this design seeks to address all of the above while also serving as a stem for a blooming community vitality.

To do this, the design creates new pedestrian routes through what is now unused open space. The new spaces created within this nod off of North Charles Street will serve as neighborhood gathering spaces, play areas for children, and productive gardens.