Case Study

What Works: Revitalizing Pittsburgh Through the Riverfronts That Once Made the City Great

Objective: This What Works for Cities case study looks at the redevelopment efforts along Pittsburgh’s waterfront, an area that thrived during its industrial peak and which suffered from decades of neglect as manufacturing declined. The case study highlights how strong leadership and committed cross-sector partnerships allowed the community to realize its vision for a sustainable, livable and profitable mixed-use redevelopment alongside an otherwise underutilized natural asset.

Major Participants: Friends of the Riverfront; Riverlife (formerly Riverlife Task Force); City of Pittsburgh; Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh; Allegheny Conference on Community Development ; the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources; Carnegie Mellon University; Heinz Endowments; various other public, private, nonprofit and philanthropic agencies.

Background: Once the eighth largest city in the U.S., Pittsburgh once thrived on the strength of its industrial economy. Ironically, the bridges, highways, rail lines and rivers that fueled “Steel City’s” growth in the mid-20th century hindered the city’s growth after the collapse of the steel industry in the mid-1980s. Left behind were industrial yards, elevated highways and retaining walls that created an inhospitable environment along the eroding riverfront. Pittsburgh was “a great place to live – if you’re a car,” noted Harvard professor and urban planner Alex Krieger at the time. Water and soil were heavily contaminated, largely as a result of the toxic runoff from industrial uses and exacerbated by cyclical storm and flooding events that overwhelmed the city’s aging sewer system. Development shifted downtown; Pittsburgh turned its back on the three rivers bisecting it.

Still, residents were drawn to the riverfront. As policymakers searched for ways to modernize Pittsburgh’s economy, there was growing interest in leveraging the riverfront as a tool for economic revitalization.

How it Happened: Like most transformative economic development projects, there were many hands involved. The Friends of the Riverfront formed in 1991 to advocate for riverfront redevelopment. Then-Mayor Tom Murphy mandated that all riverfront development be set back slightly, allowing for the creation of the Eliza Furnace Trail directly along the river. The implications were huge: the heavily trafficked hike and bike trail created direct access to the waterfront. Development in the area was given a major boost by PNC Park, Heinz Field and a new convention center.

In 1999, Murphy delegated waterfront planning and design efforts to the Riverlife Task Force, a public-private partnership that included residents, urban planners, environmentalists, business leaders and elected officials. Their first mission: finding a way to create recreation, pedestrian/bike traffic and other open space in the area between the stadiums, an area then dominated by automobile traffic.

Riverlife hired Krieger, the Harvard professor, to create a master plan that would unify the downtown shoreline through a series of projects. The city had three rivers, six river banks – and a world of potential—if planned properly. The idea was to shift the center of the city to the confluence of the three rivers. It was possible, Krieger explained, if the city embraced four principles: greening the riverfront, connecting the rivers to neighborhoods, making the waterfront the city’s front door, and lining the rivers with world-class architecture. The community rallied behind this plan, and pushed the city to apply each of those four principles to any new development project that arose along the waterfront.

Implementing the master plan was no easy task. It covered 13 miles of riverfront, an interconnected system of parks, trails and riverside amenities dubbed “Three Rivers Park”. The plan area stretched from West End Bridge to the David McCullough Bridge on 16th Street and the Hot Metal Bridge to the South. Stakeholders within the plan area were diverse: there were more than 120 individual property owners, which included pro sports teams and city, county and state government. These stakeholders were represented on the Riverlife Task Force, along with leaders from the city’s major philanthropies—which would collectively contribute more than $22 million to the revitalization effort.

In 2008, the Riverlife Task Force dropped “Task Force” from its name to better reflect the organization’s growth into a well-established planning and advocacy group with its own independent governing board of directors. Riverlife continues to engage consultants in helping to steer design along the riverfront, and implement best practices around stormwater management, brownfield redevelopment and shoreline reclamation.

Results for Local Economy: Since Riverlife’s inception, more than 80 percent of the 13-mile Three Rivers Park loop has been redeveloped and improved for public use. The new linear park system has brought recreation, ecological restoration and economic opportunity back to downtown Pittsburgh.

An independent economic impact analysis finds that, since 2000, every dollar of Riverlife operating support (totaling $12.5 million) has leveraged $11 additional dollars invested in riverfront projects—totaling $130 million. Every dollar invested in a riverfront park or trail has lured $32 in related investment in adjacent property, totaling $4.1 billion. Private sector investment has been critical to Pittsburgh’s growth: it’s added to the tax base, created new jobs, boosted consumer spending, increased property values and helped to rebrand Pittsburgh for residents and visitors alike. Hundreds of new residential units have sprung up along the rivers’ edges; even more are in development today. The growth of the riverfront district is buttressed by outdoor amenities and recreational opportunities, and as a result, Pittsburgh’s pedestrian and bicycle traffic has skyrocketed over the past decade.

Key projects include the Convention Center Riverfront Plaza (2011); South Shore Riverfront Park (2012); reopening of Fountain at Point State Park (2013). Riverlife and its projects have been honored by the Urban Land Institute, American Planning Association and others as models for riverfront redevelopment and the creation of great American public spaces.

Remaining Challenges: While significant progress has been made along the riverfront, construction continues in many places. Intensive capital improvement projects must unfold in stages, and funding for many improvements remains elusive. For instance, the proposed Mon Wharf switchback ramp would create a key connection for cyclists and pedestrians on the eastern shore. A connector pathway on the western end would provide a direct connection into Point State Park. These projects have been delayed because the original costs (more than $3 million) have increased dramatically. The next decade will bring some of the most ambitious waterfront projects to date, including projects that involve stormwater upgrades and highway and utility relocations. Public money for these big-ticket items is scarce. The City has evaluated a number of value capture strategies, such as tax increment financing, but the city council and redevelopment authority remain at an impasse regarding use of such strategies. Significant private and philanthropic fundraising will likely be required to move these projects forward.

Pittsburgh also faces a classic Catch-22: the riverfront’s redevelopment has created a bustling, mixed-use district where industrial facilities are no longer considered the highest and best use. Though the city’s history is steeped in industry, and though manufacturing, processing and warehouse facilities along the riverfront provide well-paying jobs, there’s growing demand to relocate these businesses elsewhere within the city. Specifically, the city is urging relocation to a 21-acre brownfield site owned by the Urban Redevelopment Authority, which would result in an inner city industrial park and free the riverbanks for more profitable development and public amenities.

Lessons Learned: Redevelopment projects of this scale can take generations to accomplish—from the early planning and visioning to infrastructure improvements and final private investment. It’s important to stay the course, continually re-commit to the vision and celebrate successes along the way. Renovation of Point State Park took seven years to complete and only wrapped up in the summer of 2013. The project was worth the wait: by some estimates, more than 675,000 visitors visited Point State Park in June 2013 alone; today the park is one of the riverfront’s most precious gems.

And because projects of this size and scope can take decades to complete, there must be strong leadership to keep efforts moving forward. “Riverlife was a gap-filler. It still is,” said Edie Shapira, board chair of the Pittsburgh Foundation and founding member of Riverlife. “At every point it could have fallen apart. There were no laws that required development to reach high, in keeping with a grand vision. We’ve had extraordinary leadership.”

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