What makes a successful city planner? In the case of Ray Gastil, Pittsburgh’s new planning director, the answer isn’t simple.
Patrick Doyle’s profile of Gastil for Pittsburgh Magazine — a worthwhile read — paints a picture of an energetic man who’s a wonk, a “reckless bicyclist,” and something of an architecture critic, as well as someone who’s had an unusual career path that includes studying comparative literature and working as a journalist.
Gastil comes to Pittsburgh by way of planning-focused gigs in Seattle and New York.
“The thing about Seattle that was less interesting was that things were already decided — everything has been in the zoning code forever. Pittsburgh is going through a much more dramatic change,” Gastil told Pittsburgh Magazine. “It’s had more heroic transformations, and it will continue to do so. To me, it’s more exciting to be in Pittsburgh.”
Mayor Bill Peduto, who has been pushing hard for change in Steel City since taking office in 2014, is quoted on Gastil’s hiring: “I was really impressed with his belief in the community-development process. He knows how to break down planning to the neighborhood level and then build it back up with people in those areas.”
Gastil’s goals include luring new businesses and working on revitalization at the neighborhood level, and he’s candid with Doyle about the challenges that come with such work:
“You can’t do planning without being aware of the many pitfalls,” Gastil says, “and the many things that were declared The Most Important Thing in History turned out not to work.” Such as, for example, Boston tearing down the West End or Pittsburgh destroying the Lower Hill. “If you’re not humbled by the history of urban renewal, you don’t know jacks—t about it. Because it is a tough story.”
Jenn Stanley is a freelance journalist, essayist and independent producer living in Chicago. She has an M.S. from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.