Frederick Law Olmstead and Nine Mile Run

by Audra Joseph

In the early 1900s, a thick, toxic layer of soot blanketed the lofty towers of downtown Pittsburgh. Dark clouds robbed the city of its skyline, and mothers bowed their heads in prayer for their children when they escaped outdoors for play.

The innumerable industrial plants scattered throughout the city were to blame for the gloomy conditions. Outside, smoke from their stacks contaminated the air and dirtied the water streaming into Pittsburgh’s three rivers from each neighboring suburb. Inside the factories, business boomed.

By 1910, the Industrial Revolution had triggered economic and commercial growth for Pittsburgh, making it a dominant force in the steel industry. As a result, it was also one of the most polluted areas in the country.

While profit captivated the minds of Pittsburgh’s most influential figures, renowned architect Frederick Law Olmsted was brought in to help with the pollution crisis. Famed for his trademark contribution to New York City’s majestic Central Park, Olmsted had an unrivaled talent for enhancing the environmental conditions of metropolitan areas. His love affair with nature guided him down the path of landscape urbanism – a term loosely used to describe “greening up” cityscape environments, for the sake of inspiring outdoor activity. Olmsted’s love affair with nature lasted throughout his life.

On his first trip to Pittsburgh, he paid a visit to Squirrel Hill. There, he developed an uncanny attraction for the muddy waters of Nine Mile Run, a sewage-ridden stream trailing to the Three Rivers Point, downtown.

According to Michael Kraft and Daniel Mazmanian, authors of “Toward Sustainable Communities: Transition and Transformations in Environmental Policy,” Olmsted’s reputation as a “pioneer architect” brought him to the notice of the Pittsburgh Civic Commission, composed of business and professional leaders of the time.

In 1911, he shared his aspirations for improving the city’s then-shameful environmental state, starting with his hope to save Nine Mile Run. Olmsted considered the land surrounding Nine Mile Run as an escape from downtown’s dark, urban ambiance. Once restored to health and beauty, he believed it would offer a great deal of energy to locals.

Unfortunately, with commercialism, urbanization, and money as the city’s top priorities, Olmsted never lived to see his dreams for Pittsburgh come to life. And it wasn’t until over a century later that the largest free-flowing stream in the East End was finally granted the attention it deserved.

To date, the city has invested more than $7.7 million into a restoration project for the Nine Mile Run ecosystem. The addition of wetlands to the area would impress Olmsted, each one home to a string of lush vegetation conditioned for this type of setting. Aside from aesthetic appeal, the wetlands will help filter and reduce the speed of stormwater as it makes its way down the long mile stream.

Nine Mile Run flows through Frick Park, a valued asset to the beautiful Squirrel Hill neighborhood. The park itself illustrates the cohesion of city and rural environments within the boundary of one community.

Brenda Smith, Executive Director of the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association (NMRWA), says, “The Nine Mile Run stream and wetlands restoration turned what was a dangerous, polluted eyesore in a little-used section of Frick Park into a significant community amenity. Lower Frick is now a magnet for runners, dog walkers, bikers, and everyone who enjoys nature and outdoor recreation.”

The mission of the NMRWA is to spread public awareness about the watershed community, by educating local residents on how to positively contribute to its long-term restoration project. The association recognizes Olmsted as the first to acknowledge the sight’s potential.

“Perhaps the most striking opportunity noted for a large park is the valley of Nine Mile Run. The stream, when it is freed from sewage, will be an attractive and interesting element in the landscape,” wrote Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., in 1910, and it holds true today.