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Keep it spicy: why good riverfront design matters

By April 9, 2012October 25th, 2016Blog

by Eric Osth, AIA, LEED AP

Whenever I ride my bike along the Pittsburgh riverfronts, I am reminded of the famous quote by Thomas Jefferson: “How wonderful are the rivers in Pittsburgh and how I long to stroll alongside them.”  I am kidding; he didn’t really say that.  However, I am confident that he would if he were alive today.  We know that Pittsburgh’s rivers are one of the trademark characteristics of our city. Pittsburgh deserves great waterfront edges to accompany our rivers.

When I travel to Salt Lake City on business I am reminded of what we have at home in Pittsburgh. Interestingly, over many years of visits, I have never been close to the edge of the Great Salt Lake.  The very resource that gives the city its name is only a distant blue stripe (and quite a beautiful one) from a few key vantage points.  By contrast, our rivers are much closer to home – Pittsburgh waterfront is already integral to the city’s design.

As we work through new projects along Pittsburgh’s wonderful rivers, there are three design criteria that we should keep in mind to build upon our strengths:


Monotonous design attracts little attention.  Although we do consider the Pittsburgh river edges as just ‘one’ park, we should insist that individual places maintain a good spicy variety.  Just as the rivers themselves vary according to location and topography, each pathway, lookout, and park, should be a unique and interesting experience.


At one point in the movie “Blazing Saddles” the sheriff strolls on his horse toward a western main street.  But instead of the backs of actual buildings, we are seeing the back of movie set facades.  The conceit is indeed funny, but the scene is also a serious lesson in urban design.  Effective development cannot just be a pretty facade but must connect and integrate into its surroundings.

Pittsburgh’s river edges are at the heart of the city.  Very few people actually live on the river; but many travel to the river edge.  The approach to the river should be as enjoyable as the time spent along the river itself.  Imagine a network of attractive riverfront connections spread across the urban grid: each neighborhood with several appealing ways to reach the river.  When people can easily access the river, they will us the space along side it.  In addition, living space and office space that ‘feels’ close to the river and part of the river experience would undoubtedly benefit from its design.


You never feel lonely strolling about the streets and parks of Paris.  Around you are open windows and balconies on human-scaled buildings.  Even if you don’t see people in the buildings, it feels like there are people inside.  Something that we have learned from our affordable housing work is that the idea of “all eyes on the street” is not just critical to improving the safety of a challenged neighborhood – it is critical to the design of ALL places.

Generally, Pittsburgh river edges are very safe.  However, they will feel even safer and more comfortable if, where appropriate, new development shapes the edge – meaning that buildings facing the river should be active with balconies, windows, and porches.  The presence of people and suitably scaled architectural elements will make for a lively and very safe riverfront.

Here in Pittsburgh, as we transition from using our rivers as an industrial resource (a back door) to a community resource (a front door), it is important that we design these spaces correctly.  I am sure Jefferson would agree that Pittsburgh is worth the investment!

Eric Osth, AIA, LEED AP, is a Principal at Urban Design Associates (UDA) and member of Riverlife’s Planning and Design Committee.  Prior to joining UDA, Eric worked at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, where he worked on projects in California and China.  Eric served as the 2011 President of AIA Pittsburgh, a chapter of the American Institute of Architects.  Generally, Eric really likes shoreline.  Prior to moving to Pittsburgh, he never lived more that a few blocks of a waterfront.

Riverfront Photos: (Top) The water steps at Pittsburgh’s North Shore, photo courtesy Urban Design Associates; (Bottom) Paris promenade by Vince Mig

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