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Walk this Way: Pittsburgh's Walkable Neighborhoods








At a recent Pirates game, a fan pulled over in his beige car and asked, "Excuse me, but how do I get into this parking garage?" I replied, somewhat gloatingly, "I wouldn't know.  I walked here."

In 1987, when my hair was quite a bit taller, I moved to Pittsburgh from suburban Northern Virginia and discovered the amazing world of walking.   In my salad days, Pittsburgh's accessible main streets meant walking was the means to the fun and the cool, no matter where I lived.  

As a Squirrel Hill student, I walked to films, bookstores, and bars.  Atop Fineview, civilization was just a staircase away cascading the city steps towards town.  The South Side showcased a flat street grid filled with friends and food.  Lawrenceville meant walking to work and the bowling alley, alike.  Finally, after 22 years in the 'Burgh, now it's the Northside that provides the penultimate walking world of urban parks and riverfront trails, brimming with good times for our family. We walk to just about anything: kayaking, theater, festivals, groceries, swimming, the Children's Museum, school, and yes, PNC Park.
 
The truth is, in most of Pittsburgh's 90 neighborhoods, we can hoof it - to a ballpark or bakery; a coffeshop, culinary creation or the Cultural District; Farmers Market or flotilla. And the hills mean hoofin' it is never pedestrian, as the incredible vistas afforded by Pittsburgh's topography refresh and revive, cobbling ravines and landmarks together in a landscape bar none.
 
Take a Walk on the Wild Side

Non-profit Venture Outdoors hosts group walks and hikes, including Tyke Hikes for families with children and Hi-Energy Hikes for those interested in a challenge. Urban explorers can join guided tours featuring funky places of interest with non-profit Urban Hike, finishing off a three-hour jaunt with tasty nibbles at local eateries.

With all of this hype about hip urban hiking, let's not forget that just a generation or two ago, walking was a way of life.  Lore has it that Pittsburgh women were lauded for their legs - their beguiling calves undoubtedly chiseled from Pittsburgh's hillside climbs and famous city steps.  Writer Bob Regan and photographer Tim Fabian teamed up to publish a book that details Pittsburgh's renowned City Steps, including maps of six precipitous walking tours. Advantaging the steps' aerobic opportunity are annual day events such as the Fineview Step-a-Thon and the South Side Slopes' Step-Trek.

History buffs are never lost on the trail in history-rich Pittsburgh, with walking tours of historic Homewood Cemetery throughout the autumn and several options to explore our beautifully-preserved urban architecture. While the venerable Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation provides lively guided tours of various places of architectural interest, their guidebook entitled "Whirlwind Walk," offers a self-guided walking tour of Pittsburgh's downtown architecture. Or, connect the dots between Pittsburgh's notable sculptures and art installations via the wonderful guidebook entitled Pittsburgh Public Art Walking Tour.

In addition, self-guided tours of Pittsburgh's historic districts are online at the City of Pittsburgh's City Planning website, including previews of historic downtown interiors, and multi-day walking tours of Pittsburgh's distinct neighborhoods are detailed with maps and stories at Pittsburgh Neighborhood Tours.

Nature Walks
Pittsburgh's once-blighted riverfront trails are now a haven for walkers and joggers, bikers, skaters excellent recreation for friends and family. The Three Rivers Heritage Trail offers 37 miles of landscaped, flat trails throughout the dynamic urban riverfront system.  Maps are available through Friends of the Riverfront.  

And through organizations such as Friends of the Pittsburgh Urban Forest, Pittsburghers are working together to preserve, plant and maintain our urban treescape beyond the trails. This includes the restoration of Allegheny Commons, Pittsburgh's oldest, tree-canopied urban walking park.  "Allegheny Commons was way ahead of the walkability trend," says Alida Baker, project manager for the park's master plan. "In 1868 the park's designers created a path system that directly connects neighborhood streets to a central promenade that can get you anywhere. The design even allows for people that 'cut the corner' by formalizing desire lines, creating a lovely geometric path design." The Commons hosts a sweet website that includes a map for the park's tree identification and samples of bird songs as well.  

Or, if you'd rather avail yourself to the lush interiors of the Laurel Highlands, check in with the Sierra Club and escape to nearby nature on one of their scheduled programs.  "Great Little Walks in the Pittsburgh Area" features regional outdoor trails, in a spiral-bound booklet.

Walk On
Urban neighborhoods with main streets rank high in "walkability," targeting Pittsburgh as a haven for new urbanist ideals.  On the Walk Score website, Pittsburgh's residential communities such as Bloomfield and East Allegheny rank very high (92 out of 100, and 86 out of 100, respectively) for walkability, as measured by proximity to restaurants, fitness centers, hardware stores, drug stores, and parks.  East Allegheny (Deutschtown) hosts a web-based neighborhood walking map and tour, with "Walkability" as one of their hot buttons.

Pittsburgh's walkability factor is one measure of the quality of life, environmentalism and localism that defines a successful contemporary city.  And, walking is a convenient, non-motorized, free way to travel, for sure.  But, more than anything, walking is simply a beautiful thing because we slow down our hurried lives and run into things  - from neighbors and friends, to outdoor events and newborn goslings on the trail.  Walking offers slower moments of observation and engagement that defy the drive-by moment, pointing to Pittsburgh's hidden treasures and offering the time to reflect upon the nuances and graces that make our home Pittsburgh.

Jen Saffron is an independent writer, curator and educator and recently realized how easy it will be to walk to the spectacle of the G20.


Image captions: Allegheny Commons; Liberty Avenue, Bloomfield; Three Rivers Heritage Trail interactive map (courtesy Friends of the Riverfront); Homewood Cemetery; Liberty Avenue, Downtown; city steps; more city steps, in Bloomfield

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen

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