Stamatakis: Market Square epitomizes balanced urban design

By Nick Stamatakis

After a quick journey on the 71A last Wednesday, I arrived at the quiet Golden Triangle Plaza… After a quick journey on the 71A last Wednesday, I arrived at the quiet Golden Triangle Plaza near PPG Place.

The location I speak of, Market Square, is Pittsburgh’s oldest public square and the only specifically designated public area on the city’s eighteenth-century map, and thus, probably the most Pittsburgh place on earth. The latest renovations to the location occurred slightly over a year ago, and now that they’ve settled into place, they can be viewed as a symbol of Pittsburgh’s progress.

The old square, in many ways, symbolized the old city. In the ’90s, large planters and walls obstructed many sightlines, making the square a haven for drug dealers and the homeless. Traffic, including buses from all the Oakland routes, ran down the middle in a constant flow of engines and exhaust. The square epitomized the urban grit and chaos that sent Pittsburghers and city dwellers all over the country racing to the suburbs.

Today the buses are gone, and Forbes Avenue doesn’t even run through the middle. The planters and walls, too, have been replaced by a large, stylized concrete slab dotted with trees and tables.

As is the case with anything new, some of the initial reactions to the space were negative. Last September, one student complained to Point Park’s The Globe that it looked like a parking lot. I agreed; the square was certainly cleaner, but mainly because the chaos and dirt had been replaced by nothing.

In short, the square became more suburban. Pittsburgh gave up part of its gritty “charm” to compete with the standardized world of parking lots and cleanliness. The businesses changed too: Old bars and gritty retailers were largely replaced by a combination of national and regional fast food restaurants and boutique local eateries.

I don’t see this suburban transformation as negative anymore, however. On the pleasant, autumn afternoon I visited, the quietness of the square was a refreshing contrast to the sound of car horns less than a block away. The uniformity of the decor and the familiarity of many of the establishments were also comforting. Most importantly, however, the concrete slab provided what is possibly the most gratifying quality of the suburbs — open space.

Don’t get me wrong — the skyscrapers and hustle and bustle surrounding the area mean that the square is unquestionably urban. But this slight nudge to a more suburban and balanced environment underscores how, from a design perspective, Pittsburgh is attaining balance on a broader scale.

Design improvements are the most overlooked aspects of the city’s renaissance. By failing to grow much after the sixties, Pittsburgh avoided the worst planning features of the era: the growth of distant exurbs, mega highways and volatile real estate markets.

Consequently, the undesirable economic and social consequences of these developments never fully resonated here. Land prices and commute times remained low, while the positive personal interactions associated with urban living remained high. Even in the worst of the steel recession, downtown Pittsburgh remained vibrant, at least during the day.

With the rise of urbanism and higher-density development practices, many cities across the nation are racing to roll back some of the negative changes that Pittsburgh never endured. New Urbanism, as it’s called, is hot in design schools, with graduates racing to correct socially disadvantageous urban design.

What Market Square shows is that Pittsburgh doesn’t need to do much to achieve the New Urbanist ideal. Las Vegas, Fresno and other similar cities must spend billions to urbanize their suburbs and create their own Market Squares. Our path is much simpler and much cheaper — the Market Square renovations only cost roughly $5 million. With just the small addition of suburban characteristics — open space, livability and some uniformity — we can capitalize on the charm and potential of our urban areas.

In places like Station Square, East Liberty, Oakland and now Market Square, we’ve already begun this process. Just imagine a Pittsburgh with similar successes in places like Uptown, Garfield and Hazelwood.

Contact Nick at [email protected]