It used to be that Pittsburghers thought of their rivers more or less like industrial sewers. But that has changed a lot in the last decade—in part because of the work of organizations like Riverlife. Recently, the non-profit devoted to restoring and promoting the city’s riverfronts got a new CEO—Vivien Li—whose previous work included restoring beaches in Boston and helping the area plan for climate change. Recently, the Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple chatted with Li about where she thinks the renaissance along Pittsburgh’s waterfronts should be headed next.

The Allegheny Front: So, you’ve been here in Pittsburgh for six months now. What would you say is the biggest complaint people have about the riverfront?

Vivien Li: Well, Riverlife has been around since 1999, and we have been working to build this system of trails and open spaces along our riverfronts. So eventually, 14 miles will be complete—we’re about 80 percent of the way there. So people always ask us about the missing segments, and those will follow when there’s development. The other concern people have is the ongoing maintenance of the trails and open spaces. There’s a mix of public and private ownership of the various properties along the riverfronts, and [we’re] trying to get all the maintenance to seem seamless so that there’s lighting, garbage gets picked up and we’re sensitive to the needs of the homeless encampment areas. All of that is a part of the ongoing maintenance and operation of the riverfront.

LISTEN: “What’s Next for Pittsburgh’s Riverfronts?”

AF: And how can we improve sustainability along the rivers? For instance, ALCOSAN, the region’s sewer authority, is now working on a solution to the combined sewer overflow problem we have, where sewage sometimes flows directly into the rivers. And there’s been some discussion about using so-called green infrastructure to fix the problem.

VL: ALCOSAN, as it meets the federal consent decree for the cleanup of our rivers, is really starting to look at what can be done. Recently, the mayor and the county executive worked with EPA to emphasize that they were going to promote more green infrastructure. And so I think you’re going to see much more of an emphasis toward that. In the past, the more traditional thinking of how you meet water quality standards was big infrastructure and big storage tanks and such. And, in fact, that’s what we did in Boston when we met the federal mandate. But if you were doing the Boston Harbor project today, it would be very different. And that’s why the dialogue is so encouraging here in Pittsburgh, where you can look at alternatives that, 10 or 15 years ago, other cities did not. But you’re also seeing property owners talking about doing landscaping or collecting some of the rainwater. And even in terms of our energy resources—alternative energy, recycling, all of that—we’re seeing many more projects that are incorporating that into their plans.

Vivien Li has been at the helm of Riverlife for just six months. But she has high hopes for where the non-profit devoted to restoring Pittsburgh's riverfronts is headed next. Photo: Kara Holsopple

Vivien Li has been at the helm of Riverlife for just six months. But she has high hopes for where the non-profit devoted to restoring Pittsburgh’s riverfronts is headed next. Photo: Kara Holsopple

AF: Pittsburgh is not on a coast like Boston, so sea-level rise is not an immediate concern. But there has been a lot of flooding here in the past. As we face more unpredictable weather and storms due to climate change, how can we prepare Pittsburgh’s riverfronts?

VL: Well, this is my first winter in Pittsburgh, and it’s been a relatively warm winter. And, on the one hand, that’s good for us to enjoy the riverfront. But that’s not good over the long-term. So the fact that we’re thinking about how we change our transportation modes, so that we’re looking at not just single-passenger automobiles, but being sure we have a good mass transit system—that’s really key. And we’re encouraging people to walk and bike, because transportation is one of the causes of why we have climate change and sea-level rise.

AF: So are transportation issues a big part of what Riverlife is working on?

VL: As we look at development along the riverfront, we are really proposing a greater emphasis on alternative modes of transportation. So when someone suggests a parking garage, my first question is, ‘That large?’. What about bike storage and amenities for pedestrians? When you think about Millennium Park in Chicago, they have shower facilities for cyclists who commute. We don’t really have places like that. And why not? You want to get the development community and property owners to really understand what you’re talking about, and a lot of this is new to them. They’re like: ‘Yeah, it’s great that we have public restrooms at Point State Park. My tax dollars and your tax dollars pay for it. But on my private property, why should we do that?’ And so that’s why we should share a common vision for what should happen on the riverfront, and we should all work to enhance it.

AF: As we think about more development along Pittsburgh’s riverfronts, how can we make sure that everyone feels welcome there?

VL: I think about riverfronts as being democratic—lowercase D—and our riverfronts have to be for all. The most successful cities in this country are places where people can all enjoy the open spaces, regardless of whether they’re paying for it directly. And I think one of the things about Pittsburgh’s riverfront—and that’s why we want to complete all the segments—is that we really want to encourage those who traditionally don’t view the riverfront as part of their open spaces to enjoy it. So think about the development happening in the Strip District. We want to have the connections to Polish Hill and to Hill District so that everyone will come and enjoy the riverfront. And we’re talking not just about those who live and work right at the river’s edge, but the neighborhoods inland as well. And people ask, ‘Well, how far inland?’ And I say, ‘As far as we can,’ so we can get everyone to enjoy the riverfront.

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Vivien Li is CEO and president of Riverlife in Pittsburgh, a non-profit group that promotes recreation and development along Pittsburgh’s rivers.