Pittsburgh, a Beacon for Walkable Neighborhoods

When I first moved to Pittsburgh in 1999, it was described as “a bunch of small towns all crammed together.” That’s a pretty apt description. Unlike many, often newer, cities I’ve visited, Pittsburgh is very much organized in a way that keeps residences close to business districts. I’ve lived all over the city — from the North (Allegheny Center, Bellevue) to the South (Beechview, Dormont, Southside) to the East End (Shadyside, Oakland) — and while I have different opinions on different areas of the city, one thing holds true: every one of those places had me within a few blocks of the necessities (ie, a grocery store, public transportation, restaurants and bars.) I only owned a car while living in Dormont, and rarely used it except to visit in-laws who lived further south in Pleasant Hills.

Many college students, of course, live without cars. It’s easy to do so in Oakland, where you not only have a bustling business center on Forbes, but no matter where you’re located you’re within a couple of blocks of a corner store. Many consider that part of the rigors of being a college kid: sure, you don’t have luxuries like cable TV or the automobile, but you get to do shots of beer just for throwing a dirty ping pong ball around. When you become an official adult, however, you’re obligated to buy a car, wear a tie and contribute to global commuting polluting like every other self-respecting tax payer.

I’m happy to say that while living in various locations around Shadyside, my family (that’s right, the kind with a husband, a wife and even a real live boy), flourished without a car. Shadyside, East Liberty, Squirrel Hill and Bloomfield are prime examples of excellent urban planning. People complain that East Liberty took a dive from being the “Second Downtown” to something closer to a slum over the past three or 4 decades, and I do realize that parts of East Liberty are less appealing than others, but for the most part you can walk around East Liberty fairly easily. Giant sidewalks abound and there are the types of destinations you would want: banks, grocery stores, a place to buy twinkies, cigarettes and fake coffee in one stop.

All of these neighborhoods provide the three necessities: work, play and a grocery store. Squirrel Hill is the cream of the crop, perhaps: steak or sushi, coffee or tea, two movie theaters, your choice of religious sit down, libraries and enough buses to get you to Oakland and back twice an hour.

This type of lifestyle isn’t exclusively relegated to the East End, of course. When I lived in Allegheny Center I was only three blocks from two main streets, a 10 minute walk to the stadiums and downtown, and a hop on the 500 to Oakland and the East End. Beechview, while dirtier and a bit more yinz than any other part of the city I had the pleasure of living in, gave me a Foodland on my block, enough bars to keep my kids from being fed and the convenience of being able to look out your window to see the T rolling down the track, only to step out of your front door and into it’s loving embrace, well that’s a pleasure immeasurable by mortal means.

Not all cities are like this. When I lived in Portland — the elusive mecca for all things cycling, hip and progressive — we had to walk nearly a mile to reach the closest main street, and it was decidedly more lavished with vintage clothing stores, eco-friendly chocolateers and specialty cigarette shops than real world conveniences like somewhere to buy band aids and bananas. Austin, Texas is very similar: the streets here are 5 laners, and corner stores are rare. Business areas are much more focused, more centralized, so that you’ll get neighborhoods 3 miles square with all of the business in the center, rather than 1 mile square with two smaller main streets dotted in.

Pittsburgh may not have had the greatest planning — thin streets that can get even the locals lost — but it’s a product of the 1800s and slow development. It was planned out perfectly to keep all of this here and all of that there, and that has worked in our favor. Pittsburgh simply has all of everything everywhere. I think many advocates of more walkable neighborhoods who’ve never been outside of Pittsburgh for a significant amount of time would be pleasantly surprised at just how wonderfully efficient our little city’s neighborhoods are.

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