Atlantic Cities

David Lewis, Urban Design Pioneer

Few people have been as integral to the urban design of Pittsburgh – and to the field of urban design as a whole – as David Lewis. Founder of the community-based design firm Urban Design Associates and a professor emeritus at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture, Lewis has been heavily involved in shaping the city of Pittsburgh, not to mention teaching the students who would eventually do the same. He recently turned 90, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette marked the occasion with a terrific profile.

Since moving there in the early 1960s and founding UDA in 1964, Lewis has had a huge influence on the urban design and architecture of the city of Pittsburgh, contributing to a variety of projects ranging from neighborhood development to master plans to historic preservation. He's also been a champion of the field of urban design, helping to bring it to prominence. At CMU, he established one of the first urban design graduate programs in the country.

UDA created the urban design plan for Pittsburgh’s Crawford Square, a residential area targeted for slum clearance in the early 1900s that suffered from decline in the aftermath of 1960s-era urban renewal. In 2000, with the project completed, the space had been replaced with a New Urbanist-style 500-home mixed-use and mixed-income community, serving as a model for the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Hope VI mixed-income housing program. Lewis was also involved with a UDA project to remake Pittsburgh’s disused train station into a mixed-use riverfront destination now known as Station Square.

UDA has worked all over the country, creating a master plan for downtown Norfolk, Va., building homes in post-Katrina New Orleans, and setting design standards for the Disney Corporation’s town in Celebration, Fla.

Lewis’ work earned him the Athena Award from the Congress for the New Urbanism in 2007, given for lifetime achievement in urbanism.

But probably his main impact on the field has been the way in which he prioritizes the community through citizen empowerment. UDA was one of the first design firms to emphasize the importance of community participation in the design process, a factor that has become common if not ubiquitous in urban design, planning, and architecture. Lewis, in his Athena Award acceptance speech, pointed to the civil rights movement and the 1960s as formative experiences in his thinking about the process of participation in design.

“We learned a basic lesson from the groundswell of courage that lay at the heart of the Civil Rights movement and its dedication to the principles of democracy.  Our accountability as urban designers is always to the voices of citizens, and to their vision for the future of their communities,” he said.

Lewis was also instrumental in the creation of the Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team program of the American Institute of Architects, a program that focuses on pairing citizens with design professionals and helping communities find solutions to the design problems they themselves are most concerned about.

He celebrates this type of interdisciplinary urban design, “which demonstrated over and over again that citizens, when they are openly enfranchised, are well able to team up with specialists in achieving mutual goals, and to strive for urban quality.”

And as the profile from the Post-Gazette notes, Lewis is still practicing this community-led approach to design. He's actively involved in trying to revitalize the local economy in his neighborhood, West Homestead, where he is an active artist and recently opened a new solo show of his sculptures.

He and his wife, Judy Tener-Lewis, have spent years trying to revitalize Homestead's decaying business district, purchasing buildings and fighting developers intent on tearing down historic buildings, encouraging their re-use instead. Chiodo's Tavern was one battle they lost, but its bar survives today at The Tin Front Cafe, whose facade is festooned with Mr. Lewis' sculptures.

Next door, Ms. Tener-Lewis runs Annex Cookery, the Homestead version of a much-loved cookstore she owned and operated until 1998 in Shadyside. Other buildings have his sculptures in storefront windows, and more and more are finding their way into people's gardens and homes.

Lewis’ passion for his neighborhood is a clear continuation of his work in cities – and a mark of his dedication. Throughout his decades in architecture, urban design, and academia, Lewis helped to establish a new way of thinking about how places should be designed and how they should evolve in response to their people and conditions. This work is evident in nearly all urban design today. It has helped to create the belief that design can make a city better, as long as the community’s will is driving the process.

Photo of David Lewis courtesy Carnegie Mellon University

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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