In Pittsburgh, Merritt Chase wants to help the city capitalize on its biggest unsung assets: stairs.
By Lesley Perez, Associate ASLA
Growing up about an hour south of Pittsburgh, Nina Chase, ASLA, always admired the bold natural beauty of the city’s dramatic hills. But relocating to the city two years ago gave her a new appreciation of the incredible amount of human ingenuity that went into transforming that terrain into a livable, connected place. “There’s this whole motley crew of infrastructure that helps people navigate the topography,” Chase says. With elevations ranging from 710 feet above sea level where the rivers meet to 1,300 feet at the highest points, Pittsburgh relies on a vast network of bridges, inclines, stairs, and tunnels to knit itself together.
It’s the stairs, however, that have come to be most emblematic. There are more than 800 stairs scattered across Pittsburgh, which according to the city’s website is more than any other city in the United States. They scale steep hills, open up vistas, function as sidewalks, and provide critical links between neighborhoods and public transportation. In 2016, when city officials began outreach to find out more about how residents use the stairs, they were surprised by just how much people cared about them. Kristin Saunders, a principal transportation planner in the city’s department of mobility and infrastructure, recalls the level of engagement and general sense of pride expressed during public meetings. She remembers one community member who declared: “No matter what you do, make sure we still have the most steps.”
This comes as no surprise to Chase, who calls the stairs “very Pittsburgh.” While the city has been focused on building up a comprehensive data set on its stairs, Chase has started to imagine an expanded role for these vital pieces of Pittsburgh’s pedestrian network. Together with Chris Merritt, her partner in the local landscape architecture practice Merritt Chase, she has begun investigating ways to layer functions such as recreation, play, performance, and green infrastructure in these narrow corridors in the hope of broadening ideas about public space in the city. “We’re always looking for opportunities to insert landscape architects into the conversation around things that might just be thought of as infrastructure,” Chase says.
Chase and Merritt launched their practice roughly a year ago, energized by the fact that “there are a lot of really hearty, robust conversations around equity” now happening as smaller cities start to reverse years of stagnant or declining growth, Chase says. Earlier this year, Pittsburgh emerged from Act 47, the Pennsylvania state recovery plan for distressed municipalities it had been operating under for 14 years. As the city shifts its focus from stabilization toward investment, Merritt Chase is taking on a proactive role in seeking out the types of projects that can help make it a more socially equitable place.
Around the same time that Chase was getting to know Pittsburgh’s stairs personally as a new resident, the city kicked off an official Steps Assessment. Funded through participation in the City Accelerator project, an initiative by Living Cities and the Citi Foundation, the assessment is meant to help Pittsburgh better understand its stairs network to help prioritize staircases for repair and replacement and to develop a strategic investment plan. In its application the city stated that it “only repairs or replaces a few sets of steps each year, which is not enough to preserve the century-old assets.”
Chase says that through regular use, the firm started to form ideas about the stairs becoming more than just connectors, and began informally talking to others in the community about the ways in which they experienced them. “Some of these places are just total examples of the urban sublime,” Merritt says. These informal conversations led to something more concrete: The editor of the local magazine Beaux Arts expressed interest in a set of steps in the Uptown neighborhood that had been identified as a key connectivity element in a recent planning document and wanted to feature them in the magazine. He asked Merritt Chase to share some ideas for publication in an upcoming issue.
For the firm, it was an ideal opportunity to be aspirational about what the stairs could become. “We started thinking, what if there was an opportunity with these priority steps? Could you leverage the money that the city is getting for those priority step replacements and think about the steps in a broader sense?” Chase asks. The idea was to pitch them as small vertical parks that could help address some of the city’s equitable connectivity, open space, and green infrastructure challenges. Chase and Merritt started sketching and developed a concept of reconfiguring the basic physical building blocks of the stairs—precast concrete and metal piping—into a range of community-centric enhancements such as picnic tables, fitness courses, bird blinds, and performance stages.
“[The stairs] are incredibly utilitarian, both in their function and also in their construction,” Chase says. “They’re so wonky and weird and wonderful.” In the colorful axonometric renderings produced for the magazine, Merritt Chase’s proposals consciously built on that character to show the stairs working effectively as both access and destination.
Chase says that she sees their design work as complementary to the city’s mammoth task of rehabilitating stairs that have fallen into disrepair. Because of the logistical challenges relating to access on Pittsburgh’s steep slopes, only one set of steps on Joncaire Street in Oakland has been fully rebuilt in recent years, and that project cost roughly $750,000, excluding engineering and construction administration. “We definitely have some deferred maintenance issues,” Saunders says. The city has now been able to prioritize about 150 “top steps” for attention.
Chase is clear-eyed about the city’s budget challenges, but because she understands the municipal decision-making process she also sees great potential for landscape architects to help communities get creative projects off the ground and into the public eye. She points out that compelling renderings and narratives can be critical tools in attracting funding, enthusiasm, and support. “It’s about projecting alternative futures and our skill set as landscape architects to be able to communicate visually the potential for some of these places,” she says.
As colleagues at Sasaki, Chase and Merritt were part of a research team at the firm looking at sea-level rise and its impacts on Boston. In 2013, shortly after Hurricane Sandy narrowly missed the city, they noticed that there weren’t yet a lot of designers discussing landscape-based solutions. What there was plenty of, however, was research from scientists, academics, and nonprofits. The Sasaki team decided to try and translate some of that material for the public. Partnering with the city and the Boston Harbor Association, they put together a symposium, exhibit, and summary body of research called Sea Change: Boston with the aim of kick-starting conversations between designers, city officials, developers, and academia. For Chase, the experience was revelatory: “The fact that we can create images to show what different futures could look like goes so much further than just talking about solutions,” she says. Soon after, Sasaki was appointed to work on the climate action plan for the City of Boston, which went on to initiate a host of projects that landscape architects are now working on across the city. The experience impressed upon both Merritt and Chase the critical role landscape architecture has to play in local activism. “I couldn’t believe how quickly people saw the ideas and got excited about them and change started to happen,” Chase says.
With these lessons in mind, Merritt and Chase have been taking their visuals to nonprofits and foundations across the city focused on open space, connectivity, and green infrastructure and advocating for the potential of the stairs as a uniquely Pittsburgh cultural amenity. They are framing their initial proposals as a sort of kit of parts that could be selected from or combined based on a particular set of steps’ surrounding conditions and its neighborhood’s assets and needs.
Although all of this advocacy takes both time and resources away from paid work, the firm’s principals see it as an investment that they are willing to make. Chase says that by speaking publicly and sharing visually compelling material, they are trying to help people understand the unique capabilities of landscape architects as thinkers and planners, while also building excitement around the possible use of this infrastructure as an amenity. “The steps are a kind of civic pride,” Merritt says. “You don’t really find this anywhere else.” He hopes for a future where when someone says that they are visiting Pittsburgh, the first reply is, “you have to go see the steps!”
Lesley Perez, Associate ASLA, is a landscape designer with DLANDstudio in Brooklyn, New York.