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Reimaging Pittsburgh’s City Steps

An elevation of 24,545 feet high. It roughly matches the height of Gangapurna Mountain in the Himalayas, one of the top 50 steepest climbs in the world. It clocks in at over 10,000 feet higher than any mountain in the American Rockies. You might not expect to find the same test of endurance in Pittsburgh, but by climbing the city’s 739 sets of city stairs, you can save the cost of airfare and experience something the cityin a whole new light. Totaling over 4.65 miles, city steps can be found in just about every one of Pittsburgh’s 91 neighborhoods and are as much a part
of Pittsburgh culture as our prized Primanti’s sandwich (or, more comparably, our bridges).

So, imagine the task the City of Pittsburgh has ahead of itself with its initiative to begin investing and rebuilding all 45,454 steps within the city. It’s truly a mountain of a task. But rather than just rebuilding the steps, we had a different thought: What if the city and community partners rebuilt them as gathering spaces, as assets for potential development, as destination-worthy locales? If San Francisco has its streetcars and Miami has its public art, could stairs be Pittsburgh’s iconic tourism statement? Local landscape architect Nina Chase of Merritt Chase thinks so. And when we asked her to reimagine a set of unassuming stairs in Uptown, she jumped at the chance.

I love the steps because they tangibly represent the geography and culture of our city. Our hills and valleys define our rivers, our neighborhoods, and our unruly street grids, and yet the steps negotiate it all; quirkily weaving their way up and down the steep slopes, democratizing our hillsides. Unlike the bridges and the inclines, two transportation systems built to move masses of people through the city, the steps were built for the individual Pittsburgher. At around 5 feet wide, the steps are endearingly tight. Today it’s often rare to run into a fellow step trekker. The steps evoke a feeling of being simultaneously adventurous and utilitarian.

Many of the city steps were built in the 1940s and 50s and are unfortunately reaching, or have already reached, the end of their lifespans. The concrete treads are crumbling, metal pipe railings are bent and broken, and invasive kudzo and knot weed vines can overtake entire sections of a staircase. The City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure is leading a city-wide planning effort for the steps’ future. As the city schedules the step rehabs, we’ve started to think about how the city steps can serve more than one function. Can the steps also become neighborhood community spaces? Or exercise trails? Or eco-tourism routes? Or playful hillsides?

These community-centric enhancements all come from the building blocks of the standard city step: precast concrete and metal piping. With simple modifications, the same materials deliver community amenities like picnic tables, fitness equipment and more that reimagine the stairs as a parklet rather than simply a thoroughfare.

Building upon the beautiful, existing stone steps (shown above) and the availability of vacant city-owned land adjacent to the steps, Steps #402 (Wick St from Colwell to Diaz Way) have been reimagined to include a picnic grove, stepped group seating, a stage, exercise trail, and improved stormwater management.  And of course, they still are accomplish their primarily use, moving pedestrians from A to B in the most direct route possible.

So if plans like this were enacted, would it surprise us if apartments, cafes and corner markets started popping up adjacent to city steps? And visitors started to seek out step adventures?  Not in the slightest.

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