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Opening Access to the Allegheny
Aspinwall Riverfront Park, Aspinwall, Pennsylvania

Landscape Architecture by Environmental Planning & Design, Pittsburgh



The east side of Aspinwall Riverfront Park in Aspinwall, Penn., offers a bronze sculpture ('Playground') designed by Tom Otterness and loaned to the park by a local foundation. Both artistic expression and play feature, 'Playground' sits in a shady area in an otherwise sunny site and is a popular gathering spot.
Photo Credit: EPD, LLC

Six miles upriver from downtown Pittsburgh, Aspinwall Riverfront Park began as a grassroots effort by residents to reconnect their community with the riverfront. Opening in September 2015, the park realized three dreams--to turn a former brownfield site into public green space, to develop the community's first public access to the Allegheny River in more than 100 years and to link Aspinwall with Western Pennsylvania's rapidly expanding trail system.

In 2010, a group of Aspinwall residents led by Susan Crookston organized to transform 11 acres of riverfront property. A nonprofit--Aspinwall Riverfront Park, Inc. (ARP)--was formed to purchase the old marina operation and to develop the park. As ARP was not owned or operated by the Borough of Aspinwall, it could not tap into municipal tax revenues or funding from the municipality for capital improvements or day-to-day operations. ARP raised funds with contributions from 3,000 supporters, matching contributions from two Pittsburgh-based philanthropic foundations and an Allegheny County grant. A total of $2.2 million of seed money was raised.


The hill, constructed from concrete and brick rubble from the site demolition, functions as a 500-seat amphitheater and sledding spot. Crowning the hill is one the park's custom-built yellow pine 'Big Bertha' benches. The adjacent pine boardwalk connects the three park areas and conceals a sewer interceptor line.
Photos: EPD, LLC

Upon purchase of the property, ARP selected a design team led by Pittsburgh-based Environmental Planning & Design, LLC (EPD) to create the park's master plan and landscape design.

Master Plan Concept
EPD's approach was to design for "experience and sustainability," its foundation stones to successful placemaking. The firm saw the site's features and landforms naturally divided the area into three zones, and thus developed "East Park," "Middle Park," and "West Park" segments, each varying in experience and sustainability strategies. East Park is the gateway, an active zone containing a patio, a riverfront promenade, a play area and a bronze sculpture. West Park features a constructed wetland, a boardwalk, a series of "raindrop gardens," an informal amphitheater, stage and a wellness trail. Framing the edges of West Park are the Brilliant Railroad trestles, an industrial "intrusion" in an otherwise tranquil space. Middle Park offers a limited-service marina, rentals, a welcome center with event spaces and public washrooms.


The ipe (Brazilian walnut) bench (Sitecraft) mimics the curved form of the rock-filled gabions, which separate disparate areas of the park without fencing, essentially ha-has, i.e., vertical barriers that don't block the landscape view. Graded forms in the park include mounds, hills and rippled and waved landforms.

Tying the park together is a section of the 125-mile Erie to Pittsburgh (E2P) Trail that connects downriver to the Great Allegheny Passage, a multistate trail linking Pittsburgh with D.C.

The design team opted for a palette of common and cost-conscious yet high quality materials: galvanized steel; crushed limestone, sandstone and granite river rock, white concrete and porous asphalt; and native field grasses. Ipe seating, LEDs (puddle, globe and spot lights), native wildflowers, ferns and shrubs were also specified for special event areas. Rock-filled gabions were added as retaining walls, and grading produced mounds, hills and rippled and waved landforms.


The master plan divided the park into east, middle and west sectors. Railroad trestles cross under the Highland Park Bridge across the Allegheny, then diverge and run through West Park. Middle Park offers a service marina, a welcome center, public washrooms, bike/kayak/canoe rentals and a kayak launch. An event lawn will be installed during the final construction phase. A section of the Erie to Pittsburgh (E2P) Trail runs across the park along a sewer and utility easement that could not be vacated. E2P is a 125-mile greenway that connects downriver to the Great Allegheny Passage, a trail linking Pittsburgh with D.C.
Photo Credit: EPD, LLC

From the beginning, sustainability was the guiding design principle, the connective tissue that holds the park together, from its programming, landscaping and material choices to its maintenance, finances and operational considerations. The park exemplifies sustainability through the redevelopment of a brownfield of "moderate contamination" on site, and at three neighboring properties. The master plan identified appropriate development strategies for each contaminated area. The site of a former incinerator in East Park was capped by a circular boardwalk, atop which is a set of chaise-style benches, making for a sunny respite perfect for sharing river views or reading a book.

In a finer sense, the park demonstrates sustainability through its capture and infiltration of stormwater, reuse of materials and plant choices. The constructed wetland, in particular, uses rock gabions as a passive filtration system, creating a significant storage volume for rainwater and a colorful landscape element--while nearly eliminating the need for grey infrastructure. Rain gardens and bioswales further capture and infiltrate stormwater, while adding vibrant splashes of color.


West Park has "raindrop gardens," an informal amphitheater, a stage, a wellness trail and constructed wetlands with a boardwalk and linear toe-kick benches of 8" x 8" Southern yellow pine planks. Northwind' switchgrass surrounds this pond. The wetland infiltrates stormwater for nearly half of the 11-acre park. An elevated trestle is at right.

Porous asphalt and crushed stone provide a stable but permeable surface for parking spaces. Beyond the stormwater strategies, more than two acres of concrete pavement and brick rubble from demolished industrial buildings were recycled as trail base and fill for the amphitheater hill. Old curbstones were reimagined as benches and tables. Traditional turf grass was specified only in active areas. Grassy areas of a passive nature, which comprise the majority of West Park and parts of Middle Park, are covered in low-maintenance, drought-tolerant native field grasses, requiring little cutting or supplemental watering.

As a pioneer for grassroots community greening efforts, Aspinwall Riverfront Park has proven to be a resourceful model for its sustainability, its role as a social hub and its use of limited space to provide multiple park experiences. In the two years since the opening of the first phase, the park has captured the public's imagination as one of the most innovative greenspaces in the Pittsburgh region.


Public access to the river was the crux of developing the new park. The ipe chaises longues in East Park are on an at-grade boardwalk that caps an old municipal incinerator. This view is to the Allegheny River and the Highland Park Bridge (circa 1938), which carries 4 lanes of traffic from the Pittsburgh neighborhoods of Highland Park to this side of the river and the small community of Aspinwall, Penn. (pop. 2,801). This steel spandrel braced deck truss spans 266 feet, with a 50' clearance over the middle of the river.
Photo Credits: EPD, LLC


Project Team
Park Owner: Aspinwall Riverfront Park Inc.
Landscape Design: Environmental Planning & Design, LLC - Pittsburgh
Architecture: studio d'ARC architects - Pittsburgh
Contractor - Phase 1: Eichenlaub Inc. - Pittsburgh
Contractor - Other Phases: Eisler Landscapes - Pittsburgh
Engineering: Lennon, Smith, Souleret Engineering, Inc. - Coraopolis, Pa.
Illustration/Graphics: Zanetta Illustration - Pittsburgh
Programming Advisor: NIPPaysage - Montreal, Quebec
Public Survey/Market Research: 360 Intelligent Marketing - Pittsburgh

Specified Plants

(Centaurea cyanus)

(Consolida regalis)

Plains coreopsis
(Coreopsis tinctoria)

Southern Blue Flag
(Iris virginica)

'Sunny Pink' hardy water lily (Nymphaea 'Sunny Pink')

As seen in LASN magazine, January 2017.

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November 19, 2019, 10:14 pm PDT

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