When I make the time for it, it’s always a treat to go down to the Strip District on the weekend. The Strip is Pittsburgh’s local market district, with fresh foods and artisan crafts. This Sunday I was able to see (all in about 5 blocks) live bass and lobsters, fresh local produce, hand-knit hats, a local winery, and spring rolls being wrapped. And that’s a short list from one side of the street. Pittsburgh, like any other city, is full of these distinct neighborhoods that have maintained their character for decades throughout dramatic demographic trends over the greater region. So what creates a neighborhood?
I recently listened to this episode of Radiolab that helps to explain. This particular podcast is an hour long and totally worth it, but I’ll be referencing things from about 15 minutes in to about 21 minutes in. Emergence is what happens when you look at the behaviors of a group, instead of the behaviors of a single member of the group. This part of the show compares the formation of neighborhoods to the way that ants colonize. One ant (or type of store) might start off randomly, but if other ants (or stores) begin to follow suit, the result is a snowball effect leads to the creation of these unique neighborhoods. (Planet Money, another podcast that I have referenced before, points out that there are economic benefits to this arrangement as well) As it happens, the Strip was the historical home to many mills and factories, and received meats and produce in addition to industrial goods. Many wholesalers took up residence due to easy access to transportation, and restaurants and merchants filled in around them to serve shift workers at the mills. What is interesting, though, is that long after the mills, factories, transportation access, and even most of the wholesalers (with the notable exception of Wholey’s fish market) have gone, the neighborhood maintains its vibrant character as a merchant hub. The individuals and businesses in the neighborhood, then, are at once extremely important yet not at all. The character of the neighborhood lives on even as old businesses die, as long as new ones are able to take up the slack.A recent offshoot of architecture called urban design has risen to investigate what makes good neighborhoods in order to reproduce them. By most counts this school of thought is less than a century old, which in the timeline of cities is very young indeed. Locally, the failures of urban design have ranged from the merely awkward (the Waterfront development) to the truly devastating (the Civic Arena). These two examples show that a top-down approach to community planning usually does more to destroy neighborhood character than to foster it. More recently, the thought process behind urban design has shifted to the more gentle, bottom-up ideas that provide infrastructure and incentives for neighborhoods to grow. Witness things like the riverside walks, and the grassroots “Design Corridor” initiative through Lawrenceville which, while slow to show results, both have much more promise long-term.
If you’ve ever been to a neighborhood and immediately felt at home, or if you’re an urban designer and I just made you mad, or if you’re a scientist that wants to knitpick my definition of “emergence”, leave a comment!