The University of Pittsburgh’s Hillside Framework Plan

by Laura Tenny, ASLA

The Green Ribbon concept, connecting U. Pitt’s upper campus to the urban fabric of Pittsburgh. / image: DAVID RUBIN Land Collective

University of Pittsburgh: Hillside Framework Plan, SCUP Honorable Mention Award Winner for “Excellence in Planning for a District or Campus Component”

Most of us are familiar with ASLA national and chapter awards for landscape architecture. Did you know that the Society for College and University Planners (SCUP) awards “Design Excellence” prizes to landscape architecture projects? Selected by a jury of industry professionals, the award-winning projects showcase exceptional planning and design work being done by landscape architects engaged in the realm of higher education campuses. This year, for the Campus Planning & Design PPN’s annual post for The Field on SCUP award highlights, we feature work at the University of Pittsburgh, by DAVID RUBIN Land Collective. I spoke with Founding Principal David A. Rubin, FASLA, and his University project partner, Mary Beth McGrew, to learn more about this transformative project.

Pittsburgh is a city of hills and rivers, and home to the University of Pittsburgh, affectionally known as “U. Pitt.” The Hillside District of U. Pitt comprises more than 400 vertical feet of grade change over a 68-acre site. The steep topography of Hillside distinguishes it from the lower, more urban campus. Despite the dramatic setting, Hillside lacked a strong sense of place or identity before the framework plan. A series of capital projects at U. Pitt brought increased visibility to the challenges of siting buildings that needed to navigate significant grade change, with the accompanying challenges of circulation, access, drainage, and connectivity between the upper and lower parts of campus.

A long staircase is intersected by switch-backing paths through terraces and tree groves, providing places to rest, gather, and enjoy the view over the city. / image: DAVID RUBIN Land Collective

Adding to the challenge, the eroding steep slopes and problematic drainage on the site contributed stormwater runoff to over-taxed storm drains in lower-lying parts of the city that were vulnerable to flooding. Under a Consent Decree from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the City of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority in 2021 were required to take corrective actions to improve stormwater management oversight and practices.

David A. Rubin, FASLA, talks about “making the math work.” His math-focused approach means that design starts with deep analysis of the technical constraints, such as existing topography, accessibility and circulation needs, and stormwater drainage down to the detail level of catch basin inverts. “We are math-focused and we problem solve,” he says. The question as he framed it was, how can you take a college quadrangle and lay it over a significant slope? David believes the result has to be a signature space that is inviting to all people—made accessible both physically and emotionally.

“Doing the math” is illustrated schematically in this analysis of accessible routes and elevation points. Click here to view at a larger scale. / image: DAVID RUBIN Land Collective

The resulting vison was a “Green Ribbon” of landscape, circulation, and social spaces to unify the upper and lower campuses while strategically navigating significant grade change. From the athletic campus at the top of the hill to the iconic Cathedral of Learning building and the Monongahela River at the bottom, the Green Ribbon rises over 465 vertical feet of elevation change. The path it travels changes character along the way. In the case of “Panther Run,” accessible paths switchback across a straight spine of stairs. The route winds through terraces and tree groves that make a long climb up a steep hillside attractive and comfortable, with places to stop, rest, and look out over scenic views. According to Rubin, this “empathy-driven design” provides opportunities for connection to and identification with the U. Pitt community.

Understanding the potential of landscape to unify a series of discrete capital projects took a university champion and advocate. Mary Beth McGrew, AIA, Associate Vice Chancellor of Planning, Design, and Real Estate (recently retired), took on that challenge by hiring a landscape architect as master planner. Formerly head of planning for the University of Cincinnati, McGrew was steeped in thinking about the campus landscape as connective tissue. “Landscape is one of the least expensive things you can do to positively impact the greatest number of people,” she says, comparing the relative costs of building and landscape construction. Trained as both a speech and language pathologist and an architect, Mary Beth grew up in a former steel mill town in western Pennsylvania, and she recognized Pittsburgh’s challenges and opportunities. According to McGrew, the Hillside plan contains both “poetics” of vision and the “guts” of functional requirements. The landscape plan she directed clearly advances the University’s stated core values of sustainability, inclusivity, and economic resilience.

In McGrew’s words, the Hillside planning efforts created “a quilt—a messy quilt” that took the many complex and disparate technical demands and pieced them together into a clear and cogent vision. For example, municipal staff were persuaded by a stormwater management plan to reduce the amount of water running downhill into urbanized areas. To meet the City’s urban forestry goals, the design team included a biologist to advise on how to turn an existing hillside full of invasive plants into a reforestation of native trees and understory plants. In pursuit of more sustainable transportation modes, campus enabling projects were necessary to reroute traffic from existing service drives and free up the space for landscape projects. McGrew credits Rubin’s patience, empathy, and vision along with the skills of his diverse team to create a successful and implementable plan.

Guidance on Design Standards is provided in renderings to show the spatial character, and in diagrammatic sketches describing plant palettes for each type. “Sylvan” is illustrated here. / image: DAVID RUBIN Land Collective

As a key part of master planning work, the landscape architect also developed Design Standards for future campus projects. These organize the landscape into three distinct spatial types:

  • Urbane – most populous, closest to buildings. Uses the most constrained palettes of materials and plantings.
  • Rusticated – interstitial spaces, the middle zone. Softened with more vegetation than Urbane but less canopied than Sylvan; blends the two zones.
  • Sylvan – the most naturalized and least trafficked zone. Heavy tree canopy, winding paths, and intimate seating areas offer quiet respite.
Guidance on Design Standards is provided in renderings to show the spatial character, and in diagrammatic sketches describing plant palettes for each type. “Sylvan” is illustrated here. / image: DAVID RUBIN Land Collective

As one moves up and through the landscape to the upper campus, the landscape becomes more rustic, eliciting both an emotional and physical response to the journey, in another example of empathetic design. Much more than a solution to technical challenges, the vision of the Green Ribbon is to create memorable places that invite all to experience and participate.

Project team: DAVID RUBIN Land Collective served as the prime consultant on a multi-disciplinary team. DRLC team members included David Elliott, Jessica Thorpe, Kenneth Gignac, Mandi Fung, Hanna Gold, Anna Hooker, and Rose Lee.

The character of spaces changes with the topography. Landscapes at building entries are activated by feature lighting and flexible seating areas to accommodate more intensive use. / image: DAVID RUBIN Land Collective

Laura Tenny, ASLA, is a registered landscape architect and senior campus planner at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has 25 years of work experience leading planning, design, and construction phases of landscape and building projects for higher educational institutions. A member of the MIT Office of Campus Planning since 2011, Laura’s focus is on the creation and stewardship of campus landscapes that are welcoming, accessible, resilient, and reflective of MIT’s unique spirit. Some recent and current campus projects include MIT’s “Outfinite” pedestrian corridor that transformed a utilitarian service alley into an active campus crossing, the development of a campus wayfinding signage system now being piloted in the new Kendall/MIT Open Space, and landscape projects for residence hall renovations, a relocated campus police station, and a new music building. 

Laura holds a Master in Landscape Architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. In her free time she gets outdoors to enjoy skiing, hiking, paddle-boarding, and cycling through the changing New England seasons.

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