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November 6, 2008

The future of Oakland: Roundtable discussions

The Oct. 23 Senate plenary session included summaries from roundtable discussions, where intermingled groups of Pitt students, faculty, staff and administrators sat down with local residents and community organizers to brainstorm on Oakland’s future.

“The purpose of these roundtable discussions is to create representative dialogue on the issues and the strengths that we see in our community, as well as the opportunities and action steps that we can take forward if we are to truly realize this 2020 vision of our future,” said Pitt social work professor Tracy Soska, who facilitated the discussions. “Hopefully, this will lead to an initiative to create a new master plan for here in Oakland.”

Soska, a member of the Senate community relations committee, which organized the plenary session, said he would report on the observations and recommendations that grew out of the discussions at upcoming Faculty Assembly and Senate Council meetings.

The roundtable discussions centered on three themes:

• The major concerns and challenges associated with the quality of life in Oakland now and in the coming decade.

• The community’s assets that should be built on and sustained.

• University-community partnerships that address the concerns and build on the assets.

Observations reported on collectively by the groups at the plenary session included:

Concerns and challenges

• Transportation. Several participants said that transportation boils down to the tension between making Oakland a favored destination and the desire of motorists and commuters to have a quick pass-through between Downtown and other areas. Participants agreed that there is no panacea for transportation problems, that an array of options should be considered and that both short- and long-term solutions are needed.

• Housing issues. Code enforcement, while improving, remains a concern, participants said. There also is less investment in the quality and upkeep of housing by students and transients compared to residents and owners. While there is a high demand for housing in Oakland, the supply of housing and the number of available housing options are limited.

There also are few financial or other incentives attracting institutional employees, such as Pitt faculty and staff members, to live in the neighborhood.

• Public safety. Participants expressed concern that there are sections of Oakland that are considered safe, while others are not. Safety also is a concern in the business community if patrons feel threatened.

• Negative perceptions of Oakland. Perceptions of Oakland as a dirty, unsafe destination linger, despite community efforts to change these perceptions.

• Environmental issues. Again, improvements in the Oakland environment have been ongoing but more could be done, participants maintained. One example is increasing promotion of recycling efforts.


Roundtable participants pointed to a number of Oakland’s assets including its diverse population, strong community organizations, the medical center, established businesses, stable tenants, cultural and entertainment options, parks and other green space, libraries and museums, restaurants and major employers.

Action plans

• Promoting Oakland. There need to be efforts to make Oakland more esthetically pleasing through facade and other improvements to provide a better-defined and more pleasing ambiance, discussion participants suggested. Oakland’s amenities also need to be better marketed to encourage people to come to Oakland, they recommended.

• Developing a culture of service and cooperation. The community should look for ways to engage student residents to care more for the quality of the neighborhood and environment. Neighbors could be urged to be more proactive in educating those in close proximity on recycling and code enforcement efforts, for example, participants said.

• Extending the Port Authority agreement. Pitt and other universities have programs to pay a flat fee for fare-free rides, a program that should be extended to other institutions as one way of encouraging public transportation use.

• Strengthening and extending the Adopt a Block program to provide litter pick-up to more areas.

• Continuing to educate students and residents on how to be respectful and cooperative neighbors. Perhaps Pitt’s new outside the classroom curriculum program could include activities that improve Oakland, participants suggested.

• Sustaining multi-institutional master planning, as suggested by the speakers at the plenary session.

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 41 Issue 6

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