Pittsburgh wants to inject art into its urban design program

Bob Bauder
| Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012, 8:57 p.m.

When Pittsburgh was looking to connect East Liberty and Shadyside with a pedestrian bridge, city and neighborhood leaders wanted something more than a bland concrete structure.

They hired artist and former Pittsburgh resident Sheila Klein. She designed a funky, functional crossing that looks like it belongs in an amusement park.

“It is different, and it is something that adds to the neighborhood,” said David Serbin, chief financial officer at East Liberty Development, a neighborhood group.

“I don't want to overstate it. Some people take notice of art, and some take no notice of art. But we think it's worth it to be able to show that this really is about community and making it a better place for people to shop and live.”

Last week, Pittsburgh began working on plans dubbed ArtPGH and DesignPGH that will guide its public art and urban design programs for 25 years. They are part of a 12-point comprehensive master plan called PlanPGH. Mayor Luke Raven­stahl has budgeted $585,000 from the city and local foundations for the art and design components.

Ravenstahl said the goal is to improve Pittsburgh's aesthetics and neighborhood amenities with art while attracting residents, businesses and visitors. Art and planning experts said the idea is taking hold in cities across the country.

“The quality of civic design contributes to the livability of our cities, and public art is a part of that,” said Renee Piechocki, director of the Pittsburgh Office of Public Art, a joint partnership of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council and the city Planning Department.

ArtPGH will chart how the city should fund and maintain its collection of 162 public art pieces and commission works. It also will determine locations for permanent and temporary art exhibits in neighborhoods, said Morton Brown, the city's public art manager.

DesignPGH is more abstract, focusing on the look and feel of the city's neighborhoods. Its goal will be to eliminate bad elements and replicate existing ones that are successful. Kate Rakus, a design review specialist with the city planning department, pointed to the East Liberty pedestrian bridge as an example of how public art can work successfully with urban design.

East Liberty is separated from Shadyside by the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway. The bridge was designed to provide a better connection between the two communities, she said, and Klein's work makes it look much better.

At night, large globe lights sparkle off hundreds of glass discs connected to curved cyclone fencing on the bridge sides. Lines will soon be painted on the bridge deck, reflecting the abstract look of a nearby lot, where workers test paint used for highway line markings.

“The way we've always done things isn't necessarily the right way,” said Klein, who grew up in Stanton Heights and lives in Bow, Wash. “It's not enough to just have infrastructure. We should also have beauty.”

Cleveland passed legislation that sets aside 1.5 percent of the total cost of public construction projects for art, said Chris Warren, Cleveland's chief of regional development. He said Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, also passed a tax on cigarettes and alcohol that partially funds public art and artistic organizations.

“Has it by itself been a panacea? No,” Warren said. “Anybody who tells you that is giving you hyperbole. But is it contributing in a positive way? You bet.

“It has been a contributing factor to kind of a re-emergence of neighborhoods. It has contributed to our economy. It's also a way to keep talented people in town or draw in talented people.”

Barbara Goldstein, a nationally renowned public art expert who is consulting on ArtPGH, said Pittsburgh is the first city that she knows of that connected its public art plan to urban design.

Goldstein, who served as public art director in Seattle for 11 years and currently holds the same post in San Jose, Calif., said Seattle is a good example of how a city can capitalize on art.

Seattle, like Pittsburgh, suffered high unemployment and a major population decline because of the loss of industry in the 1970s. It invested heavily in public art, much of it tied to improving its aging infrastructure and mitigating problems such as water runoff, Goldstein said.

She said one artist created a large cistern with the likeness of a hand on top. A building downspout drains into the forefinger, which drains into the cistern. Water overflows via the thumb and then into a series of planters, which soak up the water.

Such pieces help “people understand what the infrastructure does and how it interacts with the environment, and it's a way to make the city more attractive,” she said.

“We all have to live with infrastructure, but it doesn't have to be ugly.”

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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