Namely, members of the Southside Slopes Neighborhood Association, who take charge of their steps. In the top photo, a group of residents paint the railings along the Eleanor Street steps. In the photo at left, the Cologne Street steps have been closed since October, said Adam Jette, a resident who volunteers for Step Trek.
This old school is not an anomaly in the city, where we have more and more of them not being used. This one sits largely unseen, behind the vacant Saints Peter and Paul Roman Catholic Church on Larimer Avenue in East Liberty.
If you’re out that way on Saturday, you can watch the Explorer’s Club doing “roof” repairs. Roof as in steeple. So they’ll be dangling from ropes.
The school, the church and the rectory have all been vacant for a long time and have suffered degrading abuse by vandals and thieves. East Liberty Development Inc. is conducting a feasibility study to help Kenneth Stevenson, the owner — a pastor and former charter school director — decide on the best reuse.
Meanwhile, people further abuse the site by using the parking lot between the church and school as a dump site.
Even though we’re on the national radar as an up-and-coming-back city, Pittsburgh has an awful lot of evolving to do.
First, we have to grab these yokels and trashheads up by the collar and shake them into some sensibility about pride and respect, for themselves and others. In other words, as a city, we must begin a strict campaign and enforcement measures to stop the abuse of dumping and litter in its tracks. Fine the hell out of these people. Catch them. Chastise them. Make them visit Portland. Introduce them to Boris Weinstein. Whatever it takes.
This behavior is disgusting, degrading and embarrassing.
Second: We have to get some great minds together to figure out what to do with all the buildings that sit vacant. Something other than what we’re doing now. I don’t know what that is. But we have a ton of blight and the national spotlight is on us. We’re expecting to keep growing.
We need to be getting ready yesterday, y’know?
Mitchell Silver speaks internationally about global population changes that should be compelling planners to study trends the way stockbrokers follow the stock market, and he spoke today to an almost-full ballroom of people at the Community Development Summit at the William Penn Hotel Downtown.
His message was so challenging, so informative, inspiring and entertaining that I am posting long here to share as much as I think you might want to read. He's all over YouTube and Vimeo if you Google his name, so check out some keynotes and interviews. If you ever get the chance to hear him speak, especially if you care about the vibrancy and future of your city, do it. It might make you feel charged up to become a more active citizen.
The chief planning and development officer for the city of Raleigh, he said the cities that stay or become vibrant are already planning to meet the needs of a very different country by 2050. "The smart cities understand the sense of urgency 10 years before it is urgent."
The summit is an annual exercise of the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, a non-profit planning organization, to bring together community development specialists and advocates to share strategies that move cities forward. They came from throughout the region, including Cleveland and Baltimore, to discuss how they do transit, bust-up poverty pockets, manage stormwater, employ innovative housing strategies and maintain community in the face of population shrinkage.
PCRG has dozens of member groups and is based in the Hill District.
As if Mr. Silver knows how things have always been done in Pittsburgh -- and maybe he does-- he said, “Plan making is not deal making,” eliciting chuckles from the crowd. “I have no problem with the deal but it must work with the plan.” A smattering of applause broke out. “A development’s life cycle is 20 years. We are not a commodity, we are a community, which is generational.”
Mr. Silver said the resistance to planning that he hears as a city official and a consultant is resistance to change that is already happening and means no harm. It just is.
"When you say no to something," he said, "you’re saying yes to something else. If you say no to multi-family housing, you might be saying no to old people and children." To say no is to bear the consequences when your city is not equipped to handle the realities of 2025, 2030 and 2050, he said.
Although Pittsburgh is in the top 10 cities with the greatest population losses since 1950 — St. Louis and Detroit are #1 and #2 — we are in the top in another category: “the comeback kid” cities.
“People have been paying attention to you, so you’re on the map,” he said. “The question is: How do you keep the momentum going? The regional approach will be the driver in the coming years.”
Remarking on the number of Allegheny County mayors and school districts, he said, "130 mayors and 41 school districts? Lord, how do you deal with that?”
I will pause here so you can digest his astonishment, maybe register your own and update his number: There are 43 school districts in the county.
Connections between a city, its inner ring “suburbs,” outer suburbs and rural areas have to do with transit, infrastructure and investment corridors. On a national level, young people are seeking the amenities of the city and more people are choosing not to drive alone every morning from home to work and back, so regional planning and collaboration “is the way to move forward. You rise and fall as a region, so you focus on what connects you.”
The nation’s future will depend on smaller houses and millions more of them, more density to get greater return on investment, more and better transit options and opportunities for young people to be part of the planning process.
“One in three children born today will live to see the 22nd century, when we will have half a billion people. For planners, the time horizons should be 50-100 years,” he said.
The bulk of growth continues to trend south while trending away from the west. Climate change “could be a game changer,” he said. And a trend changer. This is me talking now: Pittsburgh is a good city to be in when coasts are inundated and water becomes scarcer.
Other trends he cited include one he called “the silver tsunami”: By 2030, one in five Americans will be older than 65. Today, one in five in that age group is disabled and that number is likely to grow. Because people will be living longer, the age group over 85 will triple by 2050, he said.
Family make-up is dramatically changing and has been for several years. His presentation included a graph of the marriage rates from 1965 to 2010. They look like a slope for an experienced skiier. By 2025, the number of households with one person will equal family homes.
“If you are a developer,” he said, “what kind of housing will you be building in 2025?”
Mr. Silver said trend-watching is critical to planning for the future of any city that people want to live in.
Raleigh has updated old zoning codes and built a comprehensive city plan using social media to engage Generations XYZ, whose century the current one belongs to.
Finally, the big S word: “Sustainability,” he said. “Don’t tell me you are sustainable if you are working on the environment and the economy but not equity. People ask me what that means. It’s this: Are you being fair?” It’s about race, ethnicity, culture, age, sexual orientation, housing choices, access to jobs.”
He said the graying and browning of America, which will have no majority race by 2043, the changes in family structure, urban sprawl and aging suburbs, climate change, antiquated zoning and obesity are among the challenges that will need solutions and answers that you can’t get by Googling.
The people who will be solving these challenges are the best generation to come along since our grandfathers and grandmothers sacrificed in the Depression, served in World War II and saved today for our tomorrow, he said. Of Generation Y — those born between 1982 and 1995 — he said, “We have never seen such a purposeful generation. I am confident that we will be served well by this group.”
But cities need to plan for them because they don’t just want choice they demand it. They demand bike lanes, they demand flexibility, they care more about finding the right place before finding the right job and they are environmentally conscious, he said.
After his talk, he was swarmed by people who wanted copies of his presentation or to say how much they appreciated this point or that one. As the staff were taking the table linens up and moving tables, he was one of three people still in the room talking to a member of Gen Y.
The city has 716 sets of hillside steps to maintain, and anyone who regularly uses them knows that the city doesn’t have enough people or money to make step maintenance a priority.
Bob Regan, the “father” of the annual Step Trek event in the Slopes, said that since many sets of steps are officially streets on city maps the city should regard them as streets. “Their maintenance should be considered street maintenance,” he said.
In a perfect world, Walkabout agrees. Even in our current situation, it would be sweet to see the city take infrastructure action that favors people who ambulate.
But the city really does have to make the kinds of decisions that struggling families do: pay the mortgage or go without heat, eat ramen and cat food to pay the water bill. When people carp about how the city doesn't do this and doesn't do that, I wonder whether they're the same people whose hackles shoot north at the idea of paying more taxes.
I wonder whether some of them actually live in the city.
Slopes residents say Public Works has responded pretty well to their 311 calls when steps are in disrepair, but it's good to know there are people out there who are doing it for themselves.
In time for this year's Step Trek on Oct. 5, maybe the city could get those steps repaired so people can walk them.
Our city’s abundance of hillside steps — we top all cities in number — are more charming than streets and more historic since the original ones predated paved roads. Most important, they're a necessity for many people.
Honor the walker.
Photos by Adam Jette
Logan Byers, the 10-year-old boy from Sheraden whom I featured in my blog several weeks ago, has a new commercial for would-be litterbugs: Don’t trash my turf! It is part of a campaign of the Pennsylvania Resources Council.
Logan has been working with the city by adopting a 'redd-up' zone on his street. He is the conscience behind Logan's Litter League, a loose collection of neighbors and family who are making an effort to clean up his street regularly.
If a little boy has the gumption and initiative to undertake an anti-litter campaign, can’t the rest of us just hang onto our litter until we find the nearest trash can? Seriously.
The transition of Detroit's income taxes. Source: The Daily Beast
On my visits to various neighborhoods, some strike me as too far gone to save. It’s painful to think and to share this message, but back-to-nature seems to be a smart option for many parts of outlying neighborhoods given that the population growth we are seeing citywide is still too modest. Will enough people move to Pittsburgh in time to save vacant houses that are falling apart right now? And that question presumes that newcomers would choose to move into (and save) them.
While riding around Wilkinsburg recently, where entire blocks of houses are empty -- or one or two households shy of being empty -- it struck me and my tour guide that local costs will continue to drastically outgrow local populations, and as they do, so will blight.
Why not draw circles around areas that have almost no occupants and inform the remaining people that they live in a zone that will be released to nature? They can stay, but they will get minimal service and no improvements, and when they move or die, that area will no longer be the responsibility of the municipality to maintain except as a habitat for wildlife.
The hue and cry would be piteous. People are tied to their places. But, as Megan McArdle points out in an article in The Daily Beast, “when a business runs into this sort of problem, we know what to do: liquidate and sell off the non-performing assets.”
Her article “Saving Detroit: When a Big City Stops Being Big,” is well worth reading.
Like Pittsburgh, Detroit has lost 60 percent of its population since its peak years. Our good news is that we are growing... a little. How do we plan for the continued growth we anticipate? How should we plan?
Here are some excerpts from her report:
“The problem is that the old infrastructure is still there, and still needs to be maintained. Detroit might have the makings of a nice 50 square mile city within its population. But it has to maintain 139 square miles of water and sewer, electric, police and fire coverage, transportation, and so forth. It also needs to maintain legacy pension costs that were incurred when the city was more prosperous. For the last five or six years, Detroit has made up the mismatch between taxes and spending by borrowing money and deferring its pension contributions. But this only means bigger bills in the future, when Detroit may be even less able to pay.
Radical action is needed. But what sort of radical action is feasible? You can imagine a sensible plan that would essentially condemn all the houses in the outer rings of Detroit, arranging land swaps to bigger and nicer houses closer in, in order to compress the city into a manageable size. But you can’t actually imagine it being implemented. The politicians whose districts would go away would freak out. So would many of the home and business owners. The downsized public service departments would also be none too pleased.”
Can anyone within the sound of my voice imagine enough Pittsburgh and Allegheny County politicians manning up to even have a discussion about bringing the functioning assets of the city in closer to the core and abandoning the rest? It's hard enough to get people in an auditorium to cluster near the speaker. But it may be important to the financial survival of cities like Pittsburgh.