Penn State program helps revitalize Pittsburgh neighborhoods

By Sara LaJeunesse

The Beltzhoover neighborhood of southeastern Pittsburgh has seen better days. Once a pleasant community with annual “prettiest-yard contests,” the area now is marred with dilapidated houses, vacant lots and graffiti. But Beltzhoover now is becoming known for its motivated citizens who are doing their best to improve their neighborhood. And with help from Ken Tamminga, Penn State professor of landscape architecture, and Deno De Ciantis, director of the Penn State Center: Engaging Pittsburgh, they are succeeding.

Tamminga and De Ciantis lead the Pittsburgh Studio, an initiative supported by Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, Extension, Outreach and Department of Landscape Architecture that aims to instigate change within Pittsburgh’s economically depressed areas while simultaneously giving Penn State’s landscape architecture students real-world design experience.

Now, just three years after its inception, the studio has been named the winner of the 2011 Penn State Award for Community Engagement and Scholarship. The award recognizes a project that best exemplifies Penn State as an “engaged institution,” which the Kellogg Commission defines as an institution that has redesigned teaching, research, and extension and service functions to become even more sympathetically and productively involved with its communities.

Finding Possibility

According to Tamminga, the work that students do as part of the initiative provides them with meaningful real-life experiences. “Students come to realize that an inner-city, low-income neighborhood -- while struggling with a slate of problems -- isn’t hopeless,” he said. “Despite the scars, they are places with heart, with genuine histories, and with pockets of culture and vibrancy. The residents know their neighborhoods better than the students ever will. But the students show the residents how to see the possibilities in their neighborhoods with fresh eyes.”

The 12-hour per week, five-credit Pittsburgh Studio is part of the required capstone sequence of the accredited five-year professional landscape architecture program at Penn State and is intended to help students transition into professionals. So far, approximately a dozen students per year have enrolled in the Pittsburgh Studio and, thus, have had the opportunity to work with community stakeholders to develop sustainable design solutions for some of the urban problems facing the communities not only of Beltzhoover, but also of Larimer, The Hill District, Sheraden, Elliot and Coraopolis.

The students meet with community members to identify their desires and needs. They then generate ideas for improving the community, focusing on re-greening and sustainable place-making: transforming empty lots and other open green spaces into community gardens, rain gardens and amphitheaters; repurposing vacant buildings as greenhouses and community centers; and reclaiming underutilized spaces, such as civic places and skate parks. In their final design projects, students present the community with a cache of concepts that are intended to catalyze environmental, social and economic regeneration.

Josh Lippert, a fifth-year Penn State landscape architecture student, took the course during the fall 2010 semester. “Working in the Pittsburgh Studio was a unique experience because I had a strong interaction with the clients and the projects, if implemented, could have lasting effects on the communities in Pittsburgh,” he said.

Lippert’s project was based in West Pittsburgh, where eight distinct neighborhoods recently have been united as a single entity in order to become a more appealing place to live and work. “The community wants to establish an arts corridor at the main entry point from the central business district as a sort of gateway to the neighborhood,” said Lippert. “Our goal was to help design the corridor so it will act as a ‘zipper’ that will unite the West Pittsburgh communities as well as engage the city of Pittsburgh.”

Lippert, who now is working on an independent study with the Penn State Center: Engaging Pittsburgh to design a green streetscape and gateway for Sharpsburg, added, “Through the Pittsburgh Studio, I learned the skills to engage community members in the design process in order to achieve their goals, while using the design skills I’ve learned here in Penn State’s accredited landscape architecture program.”

Community collaboration

Although the studio ultimately is intended to benefit students, it also is a priceless asset to Pittsburgh’s struggling communities. “It’s no exaggeration to characterize the relationship between relatively affluent suburban Penn State students and inner-city Pittsburgh residents as ‘cross-cultural,’ yet the relationship between the two groups is extremely functional,” said Tamminga, adding that both groups learn to get past stereotypes and realize the power of collaboration.

Genie Beckom, president of the Beltzhoover Neighborhood Council Inc., wrote in a note to Tamminga and De Ciantis, “I was so very proud of the great work you did for our community. Not only did you get that we are truly ready for change in Beltzhoover, you were able to capture a lot of our vision in your presentation. … Thank you, thank you, thank you for helping us take our vision and turn it into a plan!”

According to De Ciantis, the relationship is highly beneficial to residents because it not only provides them with design ideas for their communities but it also provides them with a sense of empowerment to continue the process of community development even after the students have moved on to other courses and careers. “Residents and community leaders alike cannot believe the time and energy these students put into their work,” he said.

Sam Wright, a community leader in Beltzhoover, said that he carries around the students’ plans with him. “As I meet with different organizations and officials,” he said, “I use these [plans] to show them what we’d like our community to look like. These are ideas we have for our community, and I think we will be able to get funding from some different places to get some of these ideas started.”

Tamminga said that the success of the Pittsburgh Studio has much to do with De Ciantis and his center, which has a goal of developing and strengthening partnerships between Penn State and Pittsburgh’s leaders, business and residents. “Deno and his staff have deep, robust networks that reach well into the inner city. They know where the needs are, and they know the individuals who can leverage the talent and enthusiasm students bring to community workshops and on site,” he said.

Tamminga added that Pittsburgh is “a perfect, gritty, living laboratory. And the people we work with -- neighborhood stakeholders, agency partners and others -- are really eager to collaborate.”

More than just a class

While students of landscape architecture take studio courses throughout their curriculum, Tamminga says the Pittsburgh Studio and several other advanced studios like it are unique because they provide students with hands-on learning experiences. “The students and the residents work together to solve real problems; they are concurrently learners and teachers,” he said.

Indeed, the students who have participated in the Pittsburgh Studio appreciate the combination of community service and application of theory and problem-solving skills acquired through classroom study that the course provides. Taryn Dowling, a student who participated in the fall 2009 Pittsburgh Studio and who now is in her fifth and final year in the landscape architecture program at Penn State, worked in the Larimer neighborhood. There, she and her classmates proposed community civic space plans that would allow neighbors and visitors to gather and inter¬act. In particular, Dowling and two of her peers proposed ways that Larimer could expand its existing community garden, build a green technology employment hub and inject additional amenities -- such as a multi-use performance/farmer’s market area and a community oven.

“It felt great to see the local people get excited about their community and about what it could become,” she said. “And we benefited, too. Through visits, talks and volunteering, we forged friendships with these incredible people.”

To learn more about the Penn State Center: Engaging Pittsburgh program, visit online.

This story is from the spring 2011 issue of Penn State Outreach Magazine.

Last Updated April 14, 2011