Young Scenic Pittsburgh staffer gets a passion for urban planning

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All she had to do was edit 42 urban planning master's projects and theses for a freelance paycheck, but Nichole Huff didn't just edit the papers. She picked up their message and ran with it.

After completing the contractual work for Virginia Commonwealth University last year, Ms. Huff, 24, began thinking about how to translate what she had learned into a project for Scenic Pittsburgh, for which she is communications director.

"A lot of the papers were surveys of the environment," she said. "I decided I could do something like that here."

The South Hills native began talking to Greg Jones, executive director of Economic Development South, a comprehensive planning alliance of Brentwood, Baldwin Borough, Whitehall, Carrick and Overbrook. They devised a plan for Ms. Huff to conduct a scenic asset inventory of 3.5 miles of Brownsville Road.

"They do cross-municipal stuff, which is exciting in that it offers a new way of doing things," she said.

Economic Development South promotes regional transportation planning and economic development through multi-municipal cooperation. The scenic asset inventory is one of three studies that include a public safety analysis of the same stretch of road by the Community Technical Assistance Center and a planning study of eight business districts along Brownsville Road by Jackson/Clark Partners.

The Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development granted $35,000 as a portion of the total funding.

"We look at corridors in terms of comprehensive development regardless of neighborhood lines," said Steph Miller, manager of projects and initiatives for Economic Development South. "So if you're looking at the highest and best use of a place, it shouldn't matter who controls it. When we look at opportunities, we can overlay them with Nichole's recommendations to preserve an asset or remediate some issues.

"All the plans are wrapping up and we will layer them and start setting priorities within the next month."

Early this year, Ms. Huff began trekking Brownsville Road taking notes and photographs.

The graduate in English writing from the University of Pittsburgh has become a passionate devotee of urban planning.

"We talk about conservation and preservation in the abstract a lot," she said. "I wanted a tool to quantify scenic assets and to evaluate their impact on the overall environment."

A scenic asset isn't just a beautiful view, she said.

It is also a length of passable, attractive sidewalk, a stretch of attractive buildings or a modest view that isn't interrupted by utility lines.

"It's almost impossible to take a photo of a scenic asset on Brownsville Road without the visual clutter of utility lines and light poles," she said. "The vistas are exclusively cemeteries. And there are many inconsistencies -- trees and vistas interrupted by crumbling sidewalks" and a beautiful structure adjacent to a dirty building with a shabby or gaudy sign.

The corridor runs through Carrick and Brentwood along a ridge, she said, "and from the back of every building you can see rolling hills with homes and trees beyond," she said.

"That is so uniquely Pittsburgh. For the last two years I have been thinking about what defines Pittsburgh as a space. What tells you you are in Pittsburgh? I can't think of anything more Pittsburgh than these neighborhood views. And the greenery. The greenery here riots."

As for Brownsville Road, she said, "There is a definite point at which things start to change" -- when you cross from Brentwood to Carrick. "We want to see that line blur. Some TLC needs to be paid to the visual environment in Carrick."

Her report recommends that Economic Development South target the blight beside strong scenic assets first. It recommends the burial of utility lines and a consistent aesthetic for Brownsville Road.

Ms. Miller said burying utility lines is "a long-term planning effort" but that utility lines could be relocated to the backs of buildings as was done on Western Avenue in Allegheny West.

"It's amazing what that's done for Western Avenue, but that was a five-year process."

Scenic Pittsburgh's most public campaign in recent years has been against billboards and outdoor advertising, but it also advocates for community and transportation planning, conservation, scenic byways, easements and view protection.

"My passion is for the city," Ms. Huff said. "I'm excited to be one of the young people working to make Pittsburgh a vibrant, healthy place."

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Diana Nelson Jones: or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at


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