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University of Pittsburgh: A “University of the Community”



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University of Pittsburgh: A “University of the Community”


The University of Pittsburgh (Pitt), a research university of approximately 25,000 undergraduate and 10,000 graduate students, is located a few miles east of downtown in the Oakland neighborhood, one of Pittsburgh’s most ethnically diverse and culturally rich areas.1,2,3 For four decades, university faculty, staff, and students have been working with numerous community organizations on targeted programs in Oakland, an area which experiences poverty in its student and permanent populations, and are collaborating with other anchor institutions to revitalize many parts of Pittsburgh.

Ranked “Best Neighbor” among public colleges and universities in a national survey in 2009, the university’s relationship with Oakland has evolved since the mid-twentieth century. In the 1960s, Pitt’s planning and development strategy involved expansion with minimal interaction with neighborhood groups and other stakeholders.4 In response to continued implementation of the university’s master plan, community activists became more vocal and residents organized as People’s Oakland. Matters came to a head with Pitt’s development application to the city planning commission for the construction of Hillside Dormitory. In the early 1970s, Pennsylvania Governor Milton Shapp stepped in and required a new planning process that involved the university, the city, and the Oakland community. Oakland residents and businesses began forming community organizations, and Pitt engaged with those organizations in joint planning processes to guide development.

Targeted Investments in Oakland

In 2000 and 2004, Pitt received Community Outreach Partnership Centers (COPC) grants from HUD for students, faculty, and staff to collaborate with community organizations on topics such as housing improvement, neighborhood revitalization, job training, education, and youth development in Oakland and surrounding neighborhoods. In one COPC-funded activity, Pitt students hosted business development and job training workshops and one-on-one consultations for interested residents.5

Key to the COPC program are the continuing activities and partnerships in the university and community that foster revitalization after the grants have ended. According to Tracy Soska, a social work professor and then-codirector of the COPC program, this means working with communities to “enhance the capacity of community partners, not to supplant that work.”6 Toward the end of the COPC program, Soska met with neighborhood organizations as they considered options to improve economic conditions in Oakland. This work culminated in the organizations’ launch of a Neighborhood Partnership Program (NPP) under Pennsylvania’s Neighborhood Assistance Program in 2008. Oakland’s NPP is a six-year initiative to spur investment in programs and facilities for human services, business and workforce development, housing, and other areas.7 Many Pitt graduates, including former NPP interns now working on Oakland’s NPP, still live in Pittsburgh and have formed the new generation of community development professionals — a point of pride for Soska.

Also under the COPC program, student athletes and faculty, staff, and interns from several schools — including Education, Public Health, Medicine, and Social Work — developed health, wellness, nutrition, active living, and youth development activities on campus, as well as in Oakland and the nearby Oak Hill neighborhood. Health and wellness initiatives continue to be an important aspect of Pitt’s partnerships with Oakland residents.8 The School of Education’s Community Leisure-Learn Program, restructured as part of the COPC program, educates adults and youth about wellness, preventing chronic disease, and reducing stress while offering opportunities for exercise at nearby campus recreational facilities. Continuing its commitment to Oak Hill after the end of the COPC grant, the university’s Physical Activity and Weight Management Research Center moved to a new building in the neighborhood in 2013, where it will continue to research obesity and the links between physical activity, fitness, and health outcomes for people of all ages.9,10

When Pitt began its COPC-funded activities, the community lacked easy access to data that could help with its development activities. The university pulled together information from COPC’s housing-related programs and Pitt’s University Center for Social and Urban Research (UCSUR) and expanded access to the data at events on community information systems and through a partnership with Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group´s Vacant Property Working Group.11 Building on these initial efforts to gather data that state and local governments and community organizations need, UCSUR set up the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Information System (PNCIS) in 2006. The system contains geographically coded public data on various social and economic conditions, including property ownership, vacant property, tax liens, and crime.

Collaborating with Other Institutions in Pittsburgh’s Anchor Districts

With the help of the COPC program, Pitt successfully institutionalized community outreach as part of many of its academic programs and its administrative structure. The university’s Office of Community and Governmental Relations has been instrumental in promoting and involving the university in community outreach work throughout the city.12 One of the University Senate’s standing committees, the Community Relations Committee, provides a forum for discussing and promoting community relations.13 The committee seeks to understand Pitt’s and others’ needs by hosting plenaries on community engagement and fostering partnerships to address mutual needs.14,15 Several departments have made community engagement a priority for many years, including the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, the School of Social Work, and the University Center for Social and Urban Research.16

Pitt has expanded its work beyond the communities adjacent to its main campus. East Liberty and Hazelwood are two examples of what Georgia Petropolous, executive director of the Oakland Business Improvement District, calls “satellite anchor districts,” city neighborhoods where recent investments by several anchor institutions have generated job growth and additional development.17 Pitt located its Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology in East Liberty’s Bakery Square mixed-use development, which houses other tenants including the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Technology Development Center and Carnegie Mellon University’s Software Engineering Institute.18 Pitt is also considering office development in Hazelwood, where Carnegie Mellon has already completed research and planning projects and where a commitment from Heinz Endowments has been instrumental in making the redevelopment of riverfront brownfields possible.

Oakland’s Long-Term, Community-Driven Planning

Pitt has participated with community stakeholders in the preparation and early implementation of Oakland’s current master plan, Oakland 2025. The result of a year’s engagement among community stakeholders, the comprehensive plan focuses on five areas of life in Oakland: housing, transportation, business and institutional development, open space and art, and community building. As part of Oakland 2025, Pitt has launched projects to improve student-resident relations including community block parties and good-neighbor campaigns and, along with Carnegie Mellon, is a partner in a bus rapid transit project that is currently in the planning phase.19

Pittsburgh has benefited from the collective work of its anchors, community organizations, and residents. Pittsburgh offers a favorable environment for grassroots efforts, as well as institutional approaches to economic development. As Soska notes, the city is not “too big that you can’t make a difference in the neighborhoods.” G. Reynolds Clark, the university’s chief of staff and vice chancellor for community initiatives, is fond of saying that Pitt identifies itself as a “university of the community,” not just a university in the community.20 Pitt’s Office of Community and Governmental Relations, School of Social Work, and other departments have reinforced the truth of this statement through their diverse, sustainable community development programs. While improving the well-being of Oakland residents and businesses, Pitt has benefitted from lessons learned during the process and from now having neighbors who are ready to work as partners with Pitt and other anchor institutions.

  1. Oakland Business Improvement District. “Only in Oakland.” Accessed 12 November 2013.

  2. University of Pittsburgh. “About.” Accessed 12 November 2013.

  3. University of Pittsburgh. “Neighborhood Descriptions.” Accessed 2 December 2013.

  4. Sabina Deitrick and Tracy Soska. The University of Pittsburgh and the Oakland Neighborhood: From Conflict to Cooperation, or How the 800 Pound Gorilla Learned to Sit with — and not on — its Neighbors. Accessed 12 November 2013.

  5. Sabrina Deitrick, Tracy Soska, and John Wilds. University of Pittsburgh Community Outreach Partnership Center: Final Report on Work Plan and Activities, August 28, 2000 – August 31, 2004. Accessed 12 November 2013.

  6. Interview with Tracy Soska, professor, University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work. 25 November 2013.

  7. Oakland Planning and Development Corporation. “Oakland Neighborhood Partnership Program.” Accessed 27 November 2013.

  8. Interview with Tracy Soska.

  9. University of Pittsburgh. “Physical Activity and Weight Management Research Center.” Accessed 25 November 2013.

  10. City Council District 6. “Oak Hill Commons Building Ribbon Cutting.” Accessed 26 November 2013.

  11. University Center for Social and Urban Research (UCSUR). “History of PNCIS.” Accessed 26 November 2013; Sabrina Deitrick, Tracy Soska, and John Wilds.

  12. Interview with Tracy Soska.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Ibid.

  15. University of Pittsburgh Community and Governmental Relations. “Welcome to Community and Governmental Relations.” Accessed 12 November 2013.

  16. Interview with Tracy Soska.

  17. Interview with Georgia Petropolous, executive director, Oakland Business Improvement District. 22 November 2013.

  18. Interview with Georgia Petropolous.

  19. Oakland Planning and Development Corporation. “Oakland 2025 Master Plan Implementation Chart.” Accessed 15 November 2013.

  20. Speech by G. Reynolds Clark, vice chancellor for community initiatives and chief of staff, University of Pittsburgh, at Anchor District Forum, 24 October 2013. Transcript obtained from G. Reynolds Clark through email communication, 20 November 2013.


The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.