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Keystone Crossroads: Rust or Revival? explores the urgent challenges pressing upon Pennsylvania's cities. Four public media newsrooms are collaborating to report in depth on the root causes of our state's urban crisis -- and on possible solutions. Keystone Crossroads offers reports on radio, web, social media, television and newspapers, and through public events.Our partner stations are WHYY in Philadelphia, WPSU in State College and witf in Harrisburg. Read all of the partner stories here.Pittsburgh’s WQED joins the collaboration as an associate partner. Support for this project comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

This Pittsburgh Group Built A Park In A Dumpster

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
Phoebe Downey, project manager for Envision Downtown, sits in the mobile parklet the organization made from an old dumpster.

A dumpster parked curbside, piled high with construction debris or outdated building guts, is not an uncommon city sight. But a certain dumpster just off one of Pittsburgh’s main business corridors is different. For starters, it’s painted bright yellow.

“We love the yellow,” says Phoebe Downey, project manager for Envision Downtown, a public-private partnership between the mayor’s office and the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership.

Downey is looking at the dumpster the organization converted into a fully mobile parklet. Twenty-one feet long and seven feet wide, the dumpster fits in an average parking space. A local welder cut one side wall in half and pushed it back to make a bench. The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy filled the interior to the top with soil and planted it with seasonal flowers and shrubs, just visible over the roofs of parked cars.  

Envision Downtown's goal is to make spending time in the city more pleasant. The dumpster park was one way to quickly address a lack of seats and green space, says Downey. 

“You get places like Penn Avenue in the Cultural District with really great tree canopy and then you get somewhere like Smithfield Street where there are no trees. Or, you get hot spots for public seating like in Market Square and Mellon Plaza, and then you can go several blocks without seeing a seat." 

The parklet also helps address stormwater runoff issues, says Downey.

“Any way that you can remove some of the water that’s falling on the asphalt and slowly drip it back into the system rather than getting these big storm events, is helpful.”

The parklet is a pilot project, one of several Envision Downtown will roll out this fall. They allow the organization to test ideas before making them permanent, says Downey.

“Bureaucracies are slow and we wanted to be able to kind of try out ideas that we think were going to work, but in a way that if they don’t work we can quickly take them back out and we haven’t wasted too much money.”

Unlike Philadelphia’s dumpster pools, outlawed this summer, the mobile parklet is fully permitted and insured. The project’s $15,000 price tag covers those costs, as well as planting, watering, and maintenance for a year.

The parklet will remain at its current spot on Fourth Avenue near One Oxford Centre for several weeks. Envision Downtown is accepting suggestions for where it should travel to next.

“We’re flexible to move it around,” says Downey. “That’s the beauty of it.”