Looking in on Johnstown’s Way Out

A Columbia University seminar led by Kate Orff, FASLA, brings fresh eyes and new ideas to western Pennsylvania.

By Zach Mortice

Wally Burlack of Vision 2025, with Kate Orff, FASLA, and Thaddeus Pawlowski (standing, left to right, on the right side of the frame). Photo courtesy students of Columbia University’s GSAPP.

On a visit to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, with a group of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP) students in late October, Kate Orff, FASLA, a professor and principal of SCAPE Landscape Architecture, happened upon a landscape metaphor for this section of steel mill country that’s been battered by decades of environmental degradation, an epic history of flooding, and a declining industrial economic base. After a 1936 flood ravaged Johnstown, the three rivers that define the city were excavated and covered in concrete. The moves tamed the river, though Johnstown itself seemed to be as entombed as its riverbanks.

“This seemed to be a metaphor for Johnstown being stuck,” Orff says. “That massive relic [is] not necessarily supporting the needs of the people that are living there now.”

The seminar Orff taught with Thaddeus Pawlowski, the director of the GSAPP’s Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes, focused on ways to break down these barriers. The students toured Johnstown with Orff and Pawlowski, taking notes on its river infrastructure and related cultural and historical destinations, such as the Johnstown Flood National Memorial and museum. They met with federal, state, and local officials, as well as citizens, and ended with a workshop and presentation that offered an exhibition of relevant case studies. The seminar’s output was gathered in a story map website of these case studies, as well as broad design and planning aspirations for the city: adding rail transit; pivoting from extractive industry toward an economy of boutique entrepreneurs; converting idle infrastructure into renewable energy infrastructure; turning disused houses into shelter for climate refugees; and transforming the denuded riverbanks into living, green flood-control infrastructure.

“The end result was some really productive and respected academic thinking,” says Ryan Kieta, a local landscape architect and a coordinator of Vision 2025, who’s been hired to facilitate efforts to set a new direction for Johnstown. (To learn more about Vision 2025, see “Let My Rivers Go,” LAM, May 2018.)For their work with the Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes, Orff and Pawlowski (a Johnstown native) have often focused on broad, systems-scale approaches to resilience. But for this seminar, they zeroed in on a specific, geographical grounding, one where the place at hand was “not in the center of the design and planning discourse,” Orff says.

The Columbia students’ case study exhibition showed residents how other cities have approached redeveloping riverfronts and repositioned struggling economies. Photo courtesy students of Columbia University’s GSAPP.

So far, Kieta says Vision 2025 has directed $18 million worth of public investment into the community. Today, Kieta and Vision 2025 are in the early stages of planning the city’s first riverside park. But perhaps the most exciting recent development is growing enthusiasm for a Green New Deal, which could graft a nationwide policy mandate onto Johnstown’s push for transformative infrastructural investment.

The trip was funded and sponsored by the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture and the McHarg Center as outgrowths of their study of the Green New Deal. But in Pawlowski’s op-ed in Johnstown’s Tribune-Democrat newspaper about the visit, it’s mentioned only once, at the end. Discussion with the Vision 2025 team made it clear that it would be best to portray the context for Johnstown’s plans selectively.

The banks of the Stonycreek, Little Conemaugh, and Conemaugh Rivers were encased in concrete after a 1936 flood. Photo courtesy students of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation.

“That’s something we’ve really struggled and thought hard about,” Kieta says. “We’ve structured our workshops around thinking of how the federal government can invest in a river city and create economic opportunities, and I think [it’s] basically one and the same with the Green New Deal.” There’s already broad support for what the Green New Deal is; the partisan associations of the specific phrase itself are the only thing to soft-pedal.

“There is already consensus on the need for coordinated federal policy to not just address environmental issues, but to try to rebuild the economy of these places,” Pawlowski says. “People are largely in agreement that cities like Johnstown have been left behind by globalization, and the environment has been degraded by extraction.”

Orff delivers a lecture in Johnstown. Photo courtesy students of Columbia University’s GSAPP.

For Orff, the visit revealed that Johnstown’s more prosperous past was not really so long ago, and that people have been pushing against its slide all the way through. (She met one person who reminded her that Johnstown used to have dozens of trains a day pulling into its station.) “We went there with a certain set of eyeballs, [that] it’s always been like this, but the fact is that there’s a series of human decisions to take that service away,” she says.

The presence of students new to Johnstown helped. “They were able to appreciate it without the burden of history,” Pawlowski says.

With the case studies they assembled, students sorted through riverfronts in Buffalo, New York; Pittsburgh; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and others that have woven together yesterday’s industrial production, ecological parks, and strong regional identities. In Johnstown, Candelaria Mas Pohmajevic, an urban design student, recognized the same landscape beauty, industrial past, and strong social infrastructure holding it all together. “I was amazed and surprised,” she says, “to see how all of those things work together.”

Johnstown residents hope for a more naturalized riverbank, with active recreation opportunities and green space. Photo courtesy students of Columbia University’s GSAPP.

Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram. 

2 thoughts on “Looking in on Johnstown’s Way Out”

  1. Loved these fresh ideas..look at why people settled here in the first place, the land in center of river..trading, access, trading..canels,much this city has lost…so diverse cultures added to it..when large Dept store closed…movie left, diners closed town died ..better housing in center of town, brings people back and excited..trains, where buzzing .huge quaint hotels, , in town….green spaces,, things to draw people attention to move here .wish’s for a better future

  2. This was a awesome event but i think its more to fixing the community then just thinking about the landscapes even tho its well needed how do you make johnstown pretty or more economically friendly without fixing the problems thats making it ugly u can make parks and beautiful landscapes but the ugly will overcome it and i feel it would be a waste pf money because all yhe problems would still exist in the community thats bringing it downhill even tho it is needed if the community dont come together to fix all the problems that goes on in this beautiful area no matter how u make it look it will not strive as a community and maintain the beautiful visual that you are looking for i had a yalk with ryan and i think the key to the community is the children out here that have no where to grow and be successful and want to give back to this beautiful place on the verge of making this what it should be i think the main thing is to help the children understand why this is so important to do and make them apart of it

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