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Photo Credit: Source Books in Landscape Architecture: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

A Case Study: Allegheny Riverfront Park Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Laura Sokol LAR 4304: Urban Open Space December 14, 2011

“A park can no longer be seen ‘as a thing-in itself,’ but rather as a process of ongoing relationships existing in a physical region—the park becomes a ‘thing-for-us’.” --Artist, Robert Smithson

Qoute from Michael Mercil’s Article: “Surface and Form/Shadow and Light: Artwork for the Allegheny Riverfront Park.”

Introduction Allegheny Riverfront Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania creates an interesting connection to the larger system of the city and of the wild and urbane context of the open space itself. A former industrial waterfront that denied access to the city’s edge, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates transformed the inaccessible strip into a linear waterfront park that interweaves the river’s edge with the dominant infrastructure of the highway. To understand the significance of this park it’s important to examine the role the park serves in and of itself and in the open space system of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh’s strongly connected and cohesive open space system is one reason why Allegheny Riverfront Park works so well. In fact, Pittsburgh’s dramatic parks and miles of green riverfronts may appear as the cities salvation from its industrial past which filled the city with poor air quality, noise, and little to no open space. (Harnik 87) Allegheny Riverfront Park is part of a larger system of connected trails and open spaces. While being designed, lack of connection and access to surrounding districts and spaces were issues that were resolved throughout the creation of the park.

Pittsburgh is shaped and surrounded by its rivers (Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio) they are not only major identities in the city but are heavily utilized waterways. The waters edge is a major visual element seen when crossing over one of the many bridges into the downtown of the city. It’s the first image one has of the place. Less than twenty years ago, the waterfront was primarily filled with highways and parking. Residents and visitors of Pittsburgh were limited in access to their rivers. The river serves as the “geographical capital” of the city which is a result of its location, surrounding beauty of the landscape, quality of the built environment as the city’s image and the power to create a sense of identity. (Petrow 6) This all feeds into the symbolic capital of a place. It provides images strong enough to successfully communicate the qualities of a city. The culture has the power to create the image, to frame a vision of the city. (Petrow 7) The industrial heritage of the city is still a major image of the culture and is evident in parts of the park which will be discussed later on. This park was an initiative of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust as part of the development of the cultural arts district. Since the parks creation in 2001, a convention center, performing arts high school, hotel, and two sports stadiums have been built. The walkable district connects to the water by way of the park. In Helen Wooley’s book, Urban Open Spaces, open spaces can be partially defined as “wide-open areas that can be fluid to the extent that the city can flow into the park and the park can flow into the city.” (2)

Allegheny Riverfront Park does this through many of the sites aspects such as: Materials, access, walkways, linkages. They all flow and connect to the surroundings of the park. The role of the park itself serves as a respite from the hustle and bustle of urbane life without the full sense of actually being absent from the city. Sounds of the highway, echoes from the bridges and the city skyline serve as the constant reminder that one is still in the city. The materiality and structure of the site makes the parks characteristics unique to the city’s culture and region, it provides various opportunities physically and visually. Another role of the park is the experiences it offers through the more open, linear spaces or to smaller closedoff spaces. Being physically constrained by the highway and the water, the narrow space allows for active recreation such as: running, walking, and biking. The space also serves as a way to get from one place to the next by walking or boat. The park is responsive to the issue of flooding through the design, a major problem during high rains and winter. It’s response is an environmental benefit not only to the site but the city as well. This study will evaluate the value of the park through the function of economic, environment, health, social and cultural benefits. The parks linear, narrow form will be evaluated on legibility, views, access, circulation, concept, and seating. In the overall context, the park will be evaluated on how it connects to a larger open space system. This study will exemplify the role of the Allegheny Riverfront Park as a civic waterfront that provides access and connection.

Location: Southern Shore, Allegheny River off of the central Business District Date Designed: 1994 Construction Completed: Lower Tier-1998, Upper Tier-2001 Client: Pittsburgh Cultural Trust Cost: 11 million, 10 million for road alterations. Size: 4,000 foot long linear strips. 50 ft. wide at most on upper tier, 15 ft. wide walkway- lower tier Landscape Architects: Michael Van Valkenburgh Artists: Ann Hamilton, Michael Mercil Associated consultants: Ove Arup and Partners (structural engineering), Frederic R. Harris, Inc. (civil engineering), GAI Consultants (geotechnical engineering), Phillip Craul (soils), Accessibility Development Associates (ADA), Inter•Fluve (hydrology), Urban Design Associates (planning). Funders: Vira I. Heinz Endowment, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust/Campaign For a Dynamic Downtown, Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority.

Context: Allegheny Riverfront Park is located on the Northside of the downtown on the shore of the Allegheny River. It is located on the edge of the central business district of Pittsburgh.

Location of Site

Site Analysis Allegheny Riverfront Park is bounded by the river on one side and highways on the opposite. The Tenth Street Bypass and Fort Duqeunse Boulevard are both busy roads that surround the site. The park offers great views of some of Pittsburgh’s Historic bridges (Rachel Carson, Andy Warhol, and Roberto Clemente Bridges). The skyline of the city serves as a backdrop for the city as well. The park is bisected by the highway creating two different experiences on the upper level of the park and lower level. The upper tier is the more civic open space that extends from the cultural district. The lower tier is more naturalistic and responds to flooding which is an issue on the site.

Photo Credit: Source Books in Landscape Architecture: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

Site History

Pittsburgh has always been known for it’s strong industrial heritage. The city’s riverfront was filled with ship yards and their was no real access to the waters edge. In 1911, the Olmsted brothers envisioned a park system for the city’s riverfront but it was never initiated and instead the site became a series of highways with leftover spaces. In 1994, the existing site was being used as an overflow parking lot with a 25 foot sea wall for when the space flooded.



Site Flood Photo Credit: Source Books in Landscape Architecture: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

The development of the Project “It was a piece of land that nobody would think twice about.� -Michael Van Valkenburgh 1984- The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust was formed to create a cultural district in a neglected fourteen-square block of downtown. Initial planning began with arts and entertainment and enhancements to the districts built and natural environment, including historic loft buildings, public art, open space, streetscapes, and the Allegheny Riverfront. They chose Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) for the design. (Amidon) MVVA were challenged with the existing site conditions but used them for the strengths of the project. Issues: Small amount of open space, six-lane highway on upper level and a four-lane highway on the lower level with parking, 25-foot high seawall, limited access, flooding, and it is a divided space. The park was constructed to give people a positive experience of the downtown before the redeveloped cultural district was in good shape. While conceptualizing the designers examined the parts of the park that each piece of the park could represent. From this, they developed three contextual paradigms: 1. Infrastructural- landscape of the highway 2. Natural- the river and the floodplain 3. Civic- cultural landscape on the upper level (Amidon)

Implementing the Design Given the narrow spaces of land, MVVA needed to expand and widen the limits of the park this mean’t taking space from the highway and building over the water. Fifty feet of space was gained on the upper tier by taking out the existing 50-foot median and restructuring the road. On the lower tier, the walkway was cantilevered over the water where the ramp coming down to the lower tier made it too small of a space to walk. Permission from the city was not an easy task and much collaboration was done with various parties for the restructuring of the road. (Free

Photo Credit: Landscape Architecture Magazine, July 2003

Role of The Landscape Architect The role for MVVA was to reclaim the site. Making the site responsive to the environmental factors of flooding, connecting the people of Pittsburgh back to their waterfront front to promote health and well-being and creating a strong image for the city’s district were some of the major tasks. The specific detail of materials and artwork is what distinguishes this place from many other parks. MVVA wanted to make a space that weaved together the structure of the place and the artwork so they weren’t stand-alone pieces of art.

Park as Urban Open Space System Examining the park system of Pittsburgh, it was evident that the city has a strong initiative in promoting open space development through multiple partnerships and organizations. The city has an extensive trail system that connects different districts together. The park itself forms the edge of the cultural district and is easily accessible and walkable from any point in that area. (Freeman) The park extends to Point State Park, a well-known recreational space of Pittsburgh, through the Three Rivers Trail system which is an extensive trail system that connects different districts together. (refer to trail map on next page) The trail plans to extend to the newly constructed convention center which would make the waterfront a better connected edge. (ASLA) The rivers are a popular place for recreation- boating and canoeing. Residents will use the river as a mode of transportation instead of dealing with traffic on the roadways. (Rayworth)

Image Credit:

The city’s green spaces within the Central Business District. Point State Park is the mass green space at the tip and Allegheny Riverfront Park extends from that.

Pittsburgh’s trail system in red.

Image Credit:

A 152-mile long trail that connects Pittsburgh, PA to Cumberland, MD.

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FIT FORM FUNCTION: Examining the Park

The Upper Tier

The upper level offers urbane walkways with plantings and materials traditionally found in Pittsburgh public spaces, while incorporating elements that resonate with the city’s industrial past to create the civic landscape. (Amidon) The linear walkway has dense canopies for shade. There are areas off of the path for seating that take one away from the mainstream of the walkway. Being next to a busy highway, the space is divided by mounded earth to create seperation.

The upper tier with it’s unique civic landscape extends from the cultural district so it provides access for many people during working hours. From here one can walk along the railing and enjoy the views of the river and city’s bridges. Many of the materials and vegetation in the park require little to no maintenance.

Photo Credit: Source Books in Landscape Architecture: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

FIT FORM FUNCTION: Examining the Park

The Transitory Space

One of the issues with the park was how a connection would be made from the the upper tier to the lower tier of the park since it is divided by a four-lane highway. A 350-foot long ramp on both sides of the 7th Street Bridge (Andy Warhol Bridge) was constructed to bring people down to the water. The ramp provides a gentle transition from city to river. (Lowry) The added features of the sculptural railing and living walls makes the experience from one level to the next comfortable and enjoyable.

The ramp offers a clear distinctive entry through the features of the railing and the vines growing on the fence which guides one into the naturalistic theme of the lower tier.

Photo Credit: Source Books in Landscape Architecture: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

FIT FORM FUNCTION: Examining the Park

The Lower Tier

The lower park is themed “Willfully Wild.� It offers an escape from the urbane lifestyle. The park has an informal planting of native trees (river birch, silver maple, red maple, cottonwood, red bud.) These trees are used because they are able to regenerate themselves after a flooding. Large bluestone boulders are also an added feature to the naturalistic setting. The walkway is not a strict linear path it actually undulates on and off the land over the water by way of a cantilever wall. The walkway goes under and through the iconic bridges of the city and offers significant views to other areas of the city.

Photo Credit: Source Books in Landscape Architecture: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

“The artwork weaves directly into the structure and fabric of the place rather than standing apart as an object or event. Both in space and through time art and park reinforce one another as a singular system of natural and cultural encounters.�

Program Elements

Materials and Artwork

Photo Credit: Source Books in Landscape Architecture: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

Materials and Artwork The materials and art are what gives the park unique character and variety. On the upper tier bluestone pavers were used to create the civic landscape. Bluestone is a material often seen in other open spaces of Pittsburgh. On the ramps, curvy, rippling handrails mimic the waves of the water and bring one down into the lower space. The living fences that contain Virginia Creeper block views and sound from the the neighboring highway. The ramp itself is solid concrete instead of hollow so that it will also block noise from the highway. When one reaches the bottom of the ramp they are greeted with a distinct paving texture. The artist pressed bulrush leaves into wet concrete to add to the wild-nature of the lower tier. The use of native trees, grasses and boulders adds to the effect. T-shaped bronzed cleats tie back to the city’s industrial heritage and provide opportunity for seating. The existing infrastructure and skyline serve as major vantage points in the park as well.

User Analysis Activities: Seating Jogging Walking Boat Dock Meeting Place River viewing Biking

T-shaped bronzed cleats were implemented so boats could dock along the park. They are also utilized as seats when numerous boats are not occupying the edge. The park is often used for occasional meet-ups, a place to sit and relax, to exercise, and to get from one place to the next. It offers both active and passive recreation. Being such a linear, confined space there is not a wide open area other recreation so activities are limited.

Photo Credit: Source Books in Landscape Architecture: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

Significance and Uniqueness of the Project: Allegheny Riverfront Park is not only significant in what it offers to it’s users but also to what it offers to the city. It provided a strong image for the redevelopment of the cultural district and still provides a strong image of the city on the waters edge. It captivates viewers and draws them into the space and it shows that Pittsburgh cares for their waterfronts. Lessons Learned and Importance: It’s not just a linear space that gets you from one area to the next it’s a space that offers: -Sequential experiences -Different opportunities -Variety of materials and seating -It is a project that reconnected the city to it’s waterfront -It’s an exemplary project of how such a constricted site can be work with and turned into something much more valuable. Overall Critique of Space:

In conjunction with the matrices of open space and open space systems, the evaluation of the park proved to be successful. The site fit the context of the city through it’s unfiying theme that provides an image to the city’s waterfront. The spatial connections through trails, green spaces and districts makes the site fit into the context of the city. The park provides visual access onto the sites location upon crossing the bridges. As far as the form of the park, direct access is marked by the park-like atmosphere off of the fort Duquesne Blvd. The clear concept creates a distinctive atmoshpere that distiniguishes it from other areas of the city. The spatial context of the allows for prominant views onto the water which one can enjoy by strolling through the park or sitting in on one of the many seating opportunities throughout the park. The overall function of the site benefits people, the city, the environment and the econonmy. The site reconnected people to their waterfronts, the natural beauty and major identity in the city. It’s environmental function is evident through the sites responsive elements to flooding. Economically, the park was in a sense, a catalyst for the development of the cultural district of Pittsburgh being one of the first spaces developed during the phasing of the project.

Works Cited "Allegheny Riverfront Park | The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust." Trust Arts | The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. Web. 01 Dec. 2011. <>. Amidon, Jane. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates: Allegheny Riverfront Park. New York: Princeton Architectural, 2005. Print. ASLA. Analysis and Planning. Allegheny Riverfront Park Extensions East and West Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. ASLA Online, 2002. Web. 01 Dec. 2011. "City of Pittsburgh Maps." City of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania - Web. 01 Dec. 2011. <>. Freeman, Allen. "Going to the Edge." Landscape Architecture Magazine July 2003: 86-91. Print. Gleeson, Rachel. "Allegheny Riverfront Park - Great Public Spaces | Project for Public Spaces (PPS)." Project for Public Spaces - Placemaking for Communities. PPS. Web. 12 Dec. 2011. <>. Harnik, Peter. "Pittsburgh." Inside City Parks. Washington, D.C.: ULI-the Urban Land Institute, 2000. Print. "Heritage Trail." Friends of the Riverfront. Web. 01 Dec. 2011. <>. Lowry, Patricia. "Park Utilizes Native Amenities." Post-Gazette. 30 Nov. 1998. Web. 01 Dec. 2011. <>. Mercil, Michael. "Surface and Form/Shadow and Light: Artwork for the Allegheny Riverfront Park." Michael Mercil, Dec. 2003. Web. 01 Dec. 2011. <>. Petrow, Constanze A. "Hidden Meanings, Obvious Messages: Landscape Architecture as a Reflec tion of a City's Self-conception and Image Strategy." Journal of Landscape Architecture (2011): 6-19. Web. Rayworth, Melissa. "A Tale of Pittsburgh's Three Rivers." Pittsburgh Web. 01 Dec. 2011. <>. Woolley, Helen. Introduction. Urban Open Spaces. New York, NY: Spon, 2003. 1-4. Print.

Profile for Laura Sokol

Case Study: Allegheny Riverfront Park  

A urban open space study of Allegheny Riverfront Park in Pittsburgh, PA

Case Study: Allegheny Riverfront Park  

A urban open space study of Allegheny Riverfront Park in Pittsburgh, PA

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