Re-Building East Liberty

location: Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA
project status: Taught in Fall 2016

Over the past century humans have altered the environment so extensively that scientists claim we have entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. Blurring the distinction between culture and nature, human responsibility thus can no longer be measured by the preservation of unspoiled territories and the hope for a future civilization that has made its peace with nature. This new geological paradigm forces us to go beyond designing with nature (as McHargue proposed in 1970) and today’s ubiquitous claims for sustainable design. In effect the Anthropocene requires us to overcome the dialectic between humans and non-humans, between nature, culture and technology and to shift our focus from matters of facts to matters of concern. Such is Bruno Latour’s proposal for a political ecology or what he refers to as cosmopolitics that begins by recognizing the differential agency of things. By acknowledging and negotiating the differences, even conflicts, inherent to any transformation, urban designers might help reshape cities as part of a positive systems-level change toward a self-renewing resilient and adaptable future in a more inclusive way—inclusive of the other 98%, as much as of non-human species and systems. This project will investigate, in particular, the idea of cosmopolitan localism as a model for urban communities in a commons-based society.

East Liberty is a Pittsburgh neighbohood in which many of the conflictuous forces of Pittsburgh’s postindustrial revitalization converge. Like many urban neighborhoods built in the nineteenth century throughout the United States East Liberty offer the density and connectivity that would make them attractive and sustainable communities for the future. Thus today millenial begin to flock back to the city center and reclaim areas abandoned four decades prior as part of the white flight to the suburbs. In terms of urban ecology, every successful neighborhood establishes a “niche” for itself in the city by creating a distinctive sense of place that attracts and sustains certain types of residents, organizations, and business owners and patrons. But such renaissance is not free of friction as the interest of new and old residents collide and gentrification takes hold. And yet attracting investment is key to enhancing the vitality of East Liberty and move towards a more balanced and sustainable future.

This semester we will be working with East Liberty Development, Inc. (ELDI) to design a new neighborhood district for a large area that was cleared in a major urban renewal project in the 1960s. The project zone wraps around East Liberty’s historic “downtown” core, once the third largest in Pennsylvania (after downtown Philadelphia and Pittsburgh). The area was partially redeveloped for large-scale subsidized housing and suburban auto-oriented retail, but much of it has never been more than large parking lots. On the outer edge of this zone, the fabric of the neighborhood is largely intact, which situates the site between a large and diverse residential “ring” and a highly-walkable commercial core. Split apart fifty years ago by Penn Circle, a state highway “beltway”, and the empty expanse of parking lots, the project will knit the neighborhood and its center together into a potentially sustainable urban community.

From an urban design perspective, the site could serve three key functions: a community that is a destination in itself, a connector that transforms two isolated areas into a thriving mixed-use neighborhood, and a gateway to downtown East Liberty, one of the region’s major assets. Its significance and possibilities are extraordinary. With the leadership of ELDI, we will engage in community design meetings and aim to develope scenarios that will create a platform for discussion and community engagement.

The project will give you an opportunity to learn more about public interest projects and the skills needed to take a leadership role in this growing urban design field. Recognizing that development organizations and design professions are also being held to a higher standard of accountability, the studio explores the interface between practice and research. Research into localism and livable communities will be an integral part of the project.