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River City Reflections: Insights from Austin, Texas to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

By March 18, 2024March 20th, 2024Blog
Lady Bird Lake

Every city has its own heartbeat—a pulse that resonates through its streets, its people, and its culture. Here in Pittsburgh, that heartbeat is palpable, echoing through our love for fries on salads, our unwavering pride in black and gold, and, perhaps most visibly, or most often noted, the joining together of our three rivers that intersect the network of neighborhoods that make up our hometown.

Hello! I’m Emily, the new Director of Communications at Riverlife. As a life-long Pittsburgher, I am humbled and honored to be serving in this role at an organization charged with holding such a tremendous, world-class riverfront vision for my hometown. 

I had the privilege of joining my colleagues on a learning field trip to Austin, Texas in November 2023, just a few months after joining this team. We centered our visit on a 10-mile trail loop that surrounds Lady Bird Lake, a Colorado River reservoir. This man-made waterfront space first built in the 1960s as a cooling pond for a power plant. Today, the power plant structure remains, in spite of being decommissioned in 1989.

Our visit to Austin felt familiar to many of the realities of the work that has been done here in Pittsburgh to reclaim our riverfronts. Like this space with an industrial history in Texas, Pittsburgh’s riverfronts have experienced a similar story of industry transitioning into the needs and preferences of the community living in a 21st century city.

Join me as I recount our recent journey to Austin, Texas, where we sought inspiration from their vibrant riverfront scene to further our mission here at home.


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Austin’s advancement of the development, curation, and management of the trail loop offered inspiration that brought the Riverlife team home energized. The complete infrastructure emphasizes amenities that enhance safety and inclusivity. Visitors find restrooms, drinking fountains for humans and canines, and a variety of spaces along and near the water to gather groups for a variety of experiences. 

We met a number of peer groups while we were in Austin, but of particular note, the Trail Conservancy, a nonprofit organization with a mission to protect, enhance, and connect the trails at Lady Bird Lake for the benefit of all, offered our team insight into their strategies for care and maintenance. Our team has been grappling with similar questions as we strive to “Complete the Loop”—and, significantly, to care for these spaces.

We found extraordinary value in the way to build permanent strategies through our colleagues’ challenges and successes, and will continue a dialogue with the team at the Austin Trail Conservancy as our plans progress.


In Austin, we had the chance to experience “Creek Show,” a free public art festival along Waller Creek. Thousands of visitors flocked to experience eight immersive, light driven public art displays. The success of the event was notable: The line to get in extended several city blocks, and even this queue had a lighthearted festival-like atmosphere. The Festival has been captivating audiences for nearly a decade, confirming our collective draw toward the artful and unexpected experience. 

Pittsburgh has many extraordinary experiences that delight audiences near our rivers, and as we continue to shift the landscape, Riverlife will support new moments of catalytic experimentation as we dream about what the experience along the rivers can be. 

Great inspiration can be found in taking in the magic that other cities have found, like Creek Show, and considering how that might translate to our city.

Infrastructure and Nature Connection:

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In Austin, we had the opportunity to witness the nightly migration of millions of bats that make their home in the slats under the Congress Street Bridge for a nightly feeding. While the infrastructure in Austin was not built for such a habitat, nature found a way.

Our projects and planning teams came back from Austin considering what kinds of choices might be made that do support Pittsburgh’s natural ecosystem. We were reminded of the profound bond between waterways and wildlife. While Austin’s infrastructure unintentionally accommodates its winged residents, we are challenged to make intentional choices that support Pittsburgh’s natural ecosystem. 

From thoughtful restoration efforts to meticulous planning, every decision contributes to the delicate balance between urban development and environmental stewardship.

As we unpack the wealth of insights from our Austin journey, the Riverlife team is energized. With a vision for a 15-mile loop adorned with world-class amenities and vibrant experiences, we remain relentlessly committed to enrich our city’s waterfronts for generations to come.

Stay tuned as we delve deeper into our reflections from Austin and unveil our plans to transform Pittsburgh’s riverfronts into thriving hubs of community, culture, and conservation.