Chatham Village a model for urban planning


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As modern architects experiment with new forms of urban life, Pittsburgh's Chatham Village has been tucked away for decades on Mount Washington, the work of 1930s architects who apparently were ahead of their time.

Resident David Vater, 59, works as an architect from his home, and he heralds the work of urban planners Clarence S. Stein and Henry Wright to anyone who will listen. Mr. Stein and Mr. Wright designed Chatham Village in the early 1930s under a commission from the Buhl Foundation, hoping to create a revolutionary new neighborhood organized around shared spaces.

"The idea was that rather than having to look at all that clutter and the cars and the streets, they would hide the streets," Mr. Vater said. "Instead of putting the street up the middle [of the houses], they'd put grass lawns up the middle, and gardens. The grass lawns would be places for people to walk and enjoy and for children to play."

A look at the history of Chatham Village

David Vater explains the history of Chatham Village. (Video by Kelly Tunney; 7/5/2013)

A lifetime separates Mr. Stein and Mr. Wright from today's urban planners, but their Chatham Village project is a quiet but important predecessor for modern architects. For example, Seattle designer Ross Chapin's contemporary "pocket neighborhoods" -- small-scale neighborhoods oriented around shared spaces -- are almost identical to Mr. Stein and Mr. Wright's concept.

And Chatham Village's history, much longer than these 21st-century developments, speaks to the fact that these ideas might actually work toward more interactive neighborhoods. The scene in the village today is still true to the vision of those early urban planners. The neighborhood of 197 town houses is organized around green lawns and full trees, rather than busy streets and imposing fences. As Mr. Vater walked down a shady sidewalk past red-brick town houses, he waved to the postman across a grassy courtyard and called him by name.

"The planners had predicted that with a layout like this there would be sort of a social spontaneity that would occur," said Mr. Vater, who has lived in his two-bedroom Chatham Village town house for 29 years.

They were right. The neighbors gather together for a springtime Easter egg hunt and a Fourth of July parade, lecture series in the neighborhood clubhouse and an outdoor steak fry in August. Kids still play with their toys in communal sandboxes.

"It's not like on a street where you know the owner on the left and the owner on the right," Mr. Vater said. "Here, because we are all co-owners and we all attend the social events, you get to meet all of your neighbors."

Mr. Vater said he moved to the neighborhood for the easy commute to Downtown but also because he wanted to live in a visually appealing neighborhood.

Groups of architecture students, city planners and historians tour Chatham Village four or five times a month to see its unique design, he said. Just like these new urbanist developments that those visitors are working on now, the village is easily walkable, combining housing, recreation and community space in a neighborhood that is still close to a city center.

Angelique Bamberg, an adjunct professor of architecture and historical preservation at the University of Pittsburgh, became interested in the area when she was a student herself, and she turned her master's thesis from Cornell University into a book titled "Chatham Village: Pittsburgh's Garden City."

"Chatham Village seemed to be very contemporary in its concerns even though it had been built 70, 80 years ago," Ms. Bamberg said.

Ms. Bamberg called the Chatham Village plan a "stroke of genius in design." Chatham Village and its newer cousins, she said, also can be models for cities growing their housing plans in new and varied ways. Public housing, for example, can improve by maximizing its smaller, shared space in the ways Chatham Village and other pocket neighborhoods have done.

"The pocket neighborhood is not going to redefine cities in the way that Chatham Village planners thought they were going to redefine cities, but what we see now is a robust experimentation with different kinds of neighborhoods," Ms. Bamberg said.

For Mr. Vater, the characteristics of Chatham Village that have resurfaced in pocket neighborhood projects are more testament to the success of its design and the life he leads there. As he walked under the thick trees and past his neighbors' homes, Mr. Vater pointed to where the U.S. Steel Tower would appear if the shady branches did not obstruct the Pittsburgh skyline.

"You would never guess we're less than one mile from Downtown Pittsburgh," he said.

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Megan Doyle: mdoyle@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1953. First Published July 8, 2013 4:00 AM


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