Reviving the Hill, One of the Oldest Residential Neighborhoods in the Steel City

by Udday Shankur Datta, Student ASLA

Aerial perspective. The project explores the opportunities to connect the Hill District with downtown Pittsburgh to restore the once vibrant neighborhood that was uprooted and forced to move due to urban redevelopment projects. / image: Udday Shankur Datta

This post is based on a class project for the fall 2019 course “Land Development Principles” at West Virginia University; it received the third place prize (course project category: landscape architecture) at the 11th Yuanye Award International Competition. The story of Pittsburgh’s Hill District and the struggles of the people living there have mostly remained untold. Through my design, I want to give them a voice and raise awareness about the existing problems of this historic African-American neighborhood.

Click here to view project graphics at a larger scale.

The Hill District is one of Pittsburgh’s oldest residential neighborhoods. It is a significant African-American neighborhood in the country, famous for its contributions to music (jazz in particular), literature, and sports. During the late 1950s, the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh declared the historic Lower Hill blighted and cleared 95 acres of the Hill District neighborhood as part of Pittsburgh’s urban renewal efforts. An entire neighborhood of the lower Hill District was uprooted and forced to move. The remaining Hill District is still cut off from the downtown by enormous expanses of parking lots and an old highway.

The primary goal of this project is to connect the Hill District to the surrounding areas. To align with the target of making Pittsburgh a biophilic city, an urban food forest and community parks are proposed to create a green network. The project addresses the existing problems faced by the people living in the Hill District and proposes an integrated planning and design strategy that includes housing proposals, improved transportation networks, and street design to revive this once-thriving neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

Historical Context and Current Challenges

As part of the City of Pittsburgh’s urban renewal efforts of the late 1950s, the historic African-American neighborhood of the Lower Hill was declared blighted, and 95 acres of the Hill District neighborhood were cleared, including 1,300 buildings, 413 businesses, and 1,600 families (more than 8,000 people). A new cultural center was planned, which was to include an opera house, playhouse, art gallery, upscale hotel, and apartment buildings. But by 1966, the area contained only a new public auditorium (that became known as the Civic Arena), an apartment building, and an apartment/hotel complex. Significant portions of the land were never developed and remained surface parking.

Site analysis highlighting the problems caused by being detached from downtown Pittsburgh by the I-579. / image: Udday Shankur Datta

Interstate 579 opened in 1962 and separated the Pittsburgh central business district to the west with the historic Hill District to the east. As a result, the Hill District became isolated and soon the once-vibrant neighborhood became degraded. The Hill District is a Black majority neighborhood. Many households are mid- to lower-income and many residents work outside the Hill District. In recent years, the Hill District has gained a reputation for being an unsafe neighborhood, thanks to vacant land and dilapidated buildings; crime rates are also elevated in this area.

The project aims to develop a comprehensive design strategy that integrates existing development proposals, utilizes the vacant lots by infill design, and increases connectivity that prioritizes non-vehicular transportation. / image: Udday Shankur Datta

Opportunity

The neighborhood is physically cut off from downtown Pittsburgh by the highway. To reduce travel time, the Hill District needs to be linked with the downtown area and must be accessible by walking. The proximity to Oakland and the downtown area can play a crucial role in reviving the economy of the Hill District. Therefore, it is important to increase connectivity. Although Pittsburgh has a functional bus network and that is heavily used, the situation is different in the Hill District. Only a few bus routes are connected to the Hill District and the bus stops lack many basic facilities. Alternative bus routes can be proposed, with bus stops that include places to sit and shade structures, for a more user-centric, transit-oriented transportation system.

The masterplan integrated planning and design strategies that include housing proposals, green connections, improved transportation networks, and street design to revive the once-thriving neighborhood. / image: Udday Shankur Datta

Design Proposal

The project aims to develop a comprehensive design strategy that integrates existing development proposals like the I-579 Cap Urban Connector Project and connects the different parts of the Hill to create a unified Hill District. By generating an infill plan to properly utilize the vacant lots in the Hill District, new residential development areas are proposed. As part of Pittsburgh Biophilic Cities initiative, the project connects the existing green with new urban forest to create a green network with pedestrian walkways and bicycle paths, so people can enjoy increased connectivity to the natural environment.

The masterplan connects lower Hill District with pedestrian trails and a bike path to downtown Pittsburgh. All vehicular access was limited only to peripheral roads. The central pathway also functions as a route for emergency vehicular access. / image: Udday Shankur Datta

To attract students and new businesses to move into the Hill District, new connections are proposed. The increased connectivity will make the Hill District easily accessible by walking, bicycling, and public transportation. The design connects the I-579 CAP with the lower Hill District by removing the existing vehicular road, which makes the greater Hill District physically connected to downtown Pittsburgh.

The vacant parcels in the neighborhood were analyzed to create an infill plan that connects all existing open spaces with new green connections and urban forest to generate a green network with new housing and civic amenities in between. / image: Udday Shankur Datta

The development plan comprises the following strategies:

  • Create a biophilic community
  • Make it walkable
  • Create connections
  • Make it dense
  • Provide choices

To promote urban farming and to encourage small businesses, a pop-up neighborhood market with semi-permanent structures is proposed. This space can accommodate various activities like the farmers market, art exhibitions, annual cultural events, and more.

Renderings of Wylie Avenue reimagined show how different infill design elements connect with each other to create a compact and efficient plan efficiently utilizing the land resources. / image: Udday Shankur Datta

To summarize, the project addresses the existing problems faced by the people living in Hill District and proposes an integrated planning and design strategy that includes housing proposals, improved transportation networks, and street design to revive this once-thriving neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

Designer: Udday Shankur Datta
Location: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania
Instructors: Dr. Shan Jiang, Dr. Stefania Staniscia, and Charles Yuill, West Virginia University
Click here to view project graphics at a larger scale.

Udday Shankur Datta, Student ASLA, is a graduate student at West Virginia University (WVU). Udday wants to bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical implementation to create robust, livable communities. His path towards landscape architecture stems from his passion for cities, human and ecosystem health, and a sense of urgency to preserve the environment. His passion for travel and photography has taken him to different places where he got the chance to get involved with the community. He is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in Human and Community Development at WVU. Udday plans to work on community development projects and continue to research contemporary urban challenges as a designer and educator.

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