Columbia Students and Locals Team Up to Build Resilience in Johnstown, PA

by |November 12, 2019
mountain hillside

Johnstown is built in a river valley in the Appalachian mountains. Photo: Sarah Fecht

The small city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania has a fraught history with its rivers. Quietly nestled in the Appalachian mountains and surrounded by hillsides that glow red, gold and bronze in autumn sunshine, the city has been both blessed and cursed by the waterways running through its heart.

Johnstown’s three rivers — Stonycreek, the Little Conemaugh, and the Conemaugh — helped to attract manufacturing facilities and turn Johnstown into a prosperous steel town in the 1800s. Yet they also brought horrific disaster.

In May of 1889, after five days of heavy rainfall combined with human negligence, a dam upstream of the city broke. The resulting 40-foot-wall of water swept through Johnstown, killing 2,209 of the city’s 30,000 residents, destroying more than 1,600 homes, and earning it the “Flood City” moniker that it still carries today. The city recovered from this disaster, only to be economically ravaged a century later when its steel mills closed.

With its characteristic grit and fortitude, Johnstown is once again trying to bounce back from disaster, repopulate and rebuild itself. In recent years, residents have turned a former bottling plant into a gorgeous art space with a green roof; an old steel mill is now an educational center for metalsmiths and artists; and the city is tearing down derelict structures.

yellow building facade with tulip

The two-day workshop took place at Bottle Works — a former bottling plant converted into art space. Photo: Sarah Fecht

In late October, Kate Orff and Thaddeus Pawlowski from Columbia University’s Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes brought urban design, architecture, and planning students to Johnstown to discuss opportunities for the city to further transform itself with resilience in mind, and to improve its relationship with the rivers that run through it. Through a workshop co-hosted with Vision 2025, a volunteer-based organization that seeks to better the Johnstown region, the students learned about the city’s challenges and opportunities from local representatives, and presented some exciting new ideas for a greener and more resilient future.

The idea of the workshop, explained Orff, was to test-drive ideas for the kind of climate-resistant infrastructure that the Green New Deal calls for. It’s also a step toward bringing the benefits of climate adaptation beyond the coastlines and into the heart of the U.S. And since Pawlowski was born and raised in Johnstown, the team thought it was a great place to start.

Accelerating Transformation

The students traveling to Johnstown by bus managed to avoid a heavy downpour in New York City — but not entirely. Water wooshed from the bus tires and the windshield wipers worked furiously to clear away the rain as the gray buildings of the city gave way to forests, fields, and farms.

Heavy rainfall events like this are becoming more frequent and more severe in many parts of the U.S. as the climate warms. This is one of the threats Johnstown will need to deal with in its future. A recent Army Corps study estimated that there will be 50 percent more precipitation in the eastern Ohio Basin by 2040. Pittsburgh saw record rainfall of 57 inches in 2018, and Johnstown received 74 inches, according to a representative from the local water authority.

empty parking lot and sign

Large parking lots like this one can make flooding worse. Photo: Sarah Fecht

Urban infrastructure such as roads, parking lots, and buildings could make the resulting floods worse, both in Johnstown and around the nation, said Orff, who is a faculty member at the Earth Institute and the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP). “When you have filled over and paved your wetlands, and when you have fortified and erased your coastal marsh systems, you are in big trouble, because these act as giant sponges. So, rather than having a big storage system, water bodies get overwhelmed by rapid runoff. This of course creates flooding,” said Orff.

She and Pawlowski, and others at the Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes (CRCL) have been helping cities all over the world adapt to the challenges of climate change through Resilience Accelerators. From Uruguay to Israel to Vietnam, these workshops have brought together designers, resilience specialists, and local experts to problem-solve around climate adaptation and mitigation.

“Climate change requires massive changes in our built environment, and we are nowhere near getting started on any of these transformations,” said Orff. “We started this Accelerator program to literally accelerate these kinds of changes in very local ways.”

students looking at map and taking photos

Three students in the class — Catherine Moskos, Nina Lish, and Munghan Zhang — walk around a section of the city gathering data, photos, and sketches.

In Johnstown, the students started by touring the city and meeting with local experts to learn about the challenges and opportunities the city is facing. Students visited the Cambria County Planning Commission, the Greater Johnstown Water Authority, the sewage treatment plant, JWF Industries (a major local employer), and more.

For another activity, groups of students were assigned a section of the city to explore and map out. Their assignment was to note how the land and water were being used, as well as identify opportunities where empty buildings and parking lots could be turned into areas that enhance the social, economic, and environmental resilience of the city.

Central to each section were the incarcerated rivers — sunken from dredging, lined from top to bottom with concrete, fenced off, and enclosed by walls up to 40 feet high. Fishing, swimming, or even just skipping stones are off limits; there is no way to access the water’s edge throughout most of the city. Signs remembering the 1889 flood are everywhere.

river in johnstown

The Army Corps canalized Johnstown’s rivers in the 1930s. The rivers were dredged, lined with concrete, and encased with high walls that protect against floods but limit access to the water. Photo: Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes

In place of the monolithic flood walls, Orff and Pawlowski envision flood protection that also provides walking and biking pathways, parks, areas to foster biodiversity, and opportunities to support a green economy in Johnstown.

When it comes to enhancing resilience, “you can’t just do one thing at once,” said Pawlowski. “If we’re looking at resilient infrastructure in the future, it should do many things. It should have multiple benefits.”

lecture hall

In a packed public talk, Kate Orff showed how other cities have re-imagined their flood walls with resilience in mind. Photo: CRCL

In a talk, Orff showed Johnstown residents how other cities have transformed their waterfronts, with a focus on how rivers can be economic engines and ecological assets. Examples from Indianapolis, Ind.; Lexington, Ky.; Jacksonville, Fla., and more showed how multi-purpose infrastructure like biking trails could offer opportunities for recreation while enhancing tourism, and how parks could offer green areas and play spaces while also absorbing and storing flood waters.

“I have worked on river cities around the world,” said Orff, “and in every case, they’re moving away from this form of single-purpose, concrete, hard flood infrastructure, and into a different paradigm of maintaining the flood protection but understanding rivers as living water bodies, and trying to understand that that is inclusive of people in addition to fish and birds and so on.”

Combining Perspectives

With multi-purpose infrastructure in mind, the GSAPP students and local representatives — including folks from city and state government, the Department of Environmental Protection, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — gathered at roundtables to exchange ideas and information. Energy, transit, arts and culture, and housing were just a few of the focus areas.

people at round tables

Students and local representatives gathered at roundtables discuss challenges and opportunities in Johnstown. Photo: CRCL

At the roundtables, the students asked local experts about the challenges and opportunities that they saw around the city. For example, residents pointed out problems with pollution from abandoned coal mines, and mentioned that the low frequency of bus routes reduced ridership. The groups also worked together to come up with potential solutions to these problems — such as starting a campaign to improve the public image of Johnstown’s bus system so that more people would ride it, and putting miners back to work cleaning up the watershed and revitalizing the area.

In another activity, students and the local representatives teamed up to map out Johnstown’s already existing assets, then find ways to connect them so that they could reinforce each other. This activity led to several multi-purpose proposals that drew enthusiasm from the crowd. One group proposed an art loop that would connect historical districts, graffiti murals, art galleries, and cultural spaces around the river. Another proposed integrating the area’s world-renowned mountain biking trails with bike paths in downtown Johnstown. These proposals and others would help to make the city a great place to live in and visit, while providing economic opportunities as well.

Katie Kinka, a senior planner at the county planning commission, said she particularly liked one student’s idea to combine a city program that demolishes abandoned buildings with an initiative to buy back properties along the riverfront. That way, the city could simultaneously reduce blight and acquire properties that could be repurposed for flood mitigation and natural areas.

“I think that that’s a really strategic and practical way to go about planning for the new rivers and how they should look and function,” said Kinka. “We have never broached that as a strategy before.”

Jacob Zerby, an economic development specialist for the city of Johnstown, said that although the city had already been looking into some of the ideas proposed in the workshop, others were new and exciting. “It’s always good to have an outside perspective,” he said. 

Man points at map on floor

A local representative points out ways that the mountain biking trails around Johnstown could connect to the city center, providing economic opportunities. Photo: Sarah Fecht

What’s Next

By the end of the Fall 2019 semester, the class will make all of their information and ideas available online. They’ll also produce a report outlining how a Green New Deal could benefit Johnstown. “It’s important to show how a place like Johnstown, which has lagged behind the nation in economic opportunity for decades, could benefit from a jobs and infrastructure program,” said Pawlowski

He and Orff will continue working with the city to get some of the ideas implemented, and they plan to expand the conversation to include Pittsburgh as well. “The whole region could benefit from some of the ideas presented here,” said Pawlowski.

Workshops can often generate ideas that never get implemented in the real world. But Zerby is optimistic that won’t be the case here, since the Columbia team is working closely with Vision 2025 representatives Ryan Kieta and Wally Burlack. The organization has already helped to draw $18 million in investments to revitalize Johnstown.

Orff cautioned that “it took us 8 years to get a bike lane in Park Slope in Brooklyn. Change in built environment takes a lot of time.” However, other cities that have successfully re-incorporated their rivers into the urban social fabric prove that it can be done.

“It all starts with engagement and conversations about where can we work together to do this, because not one entity [alone] can really achieve the vision here in Johnstown,” said Andrea Carson, a community planner with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

If a Green New Deal is passed and more funding for climate adaptation becomes available, it’s possible this small city in Appalachia could lead the charge in climate resilience, said Pawlowski. “Johnstown could be a paradigm of what a green and beautiful city could be in the 21st century.”

Columbia University’s Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture funded the students’ travel to Johnstown as part of a larger effort at GSAPP to unpack the Green New Deal.

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