Photo by Renee Rosensteel
Lareese Hall always follows her heart. It took her first to Ohio to study English; to Boston to teach; to Vermont to earn a graduate degree in literature; to New Mexico where, after first entertaining thoughts of a medical career, she became director of a family education center and began considering a career in architecture and urban renewal; to Virginia to study architecture. In 2003 Hall visited Pittsburgh after reading an article that referred to the city as the “San Francisco of the East.” As she recalls, “I couldn’t imagine what that would be, so I had to visit. And it was just magical.” Magical enough for Hall to pack up, again, and move to Pittsburgh’s Northside, where she’s been happily residing near and advocating for Pittsburgh’s famous three rivers—first as design manager at Riverlife Task Force and today as project manager of Carnegie Science Center’s Eco-Experience initiative. She says the project is part riverfront attraction, part ecological research center, part environmental education program—and all about the experience. And her heart’s telling her it could be something truly “visionary.”
By Betsy Momich
Your education and career paths are pretty diverse. How did that happen?
I was the first person in my family to go to college, so I didn’t really have a template. I’ve always been the kind of person who believed in following your heart. If your passion leads you somewhere, you follow it. And I’ve always wanted to do things that make the world a better place if at all possible. I wanted to do things that are healing to the world.
What brought you to Pittsburgh?
I came to Pittsburgh because I was studying architecture at the University of Virginia and I wanted to be in a city that was reinventing itself; that had good cultural resources and was sort of an interesting place to live.
Pittsburgh is so visually dramatic—the architecture, hillsides, bridges, and rivers. Every time I walk over the bridges at night, I’m always struck by it; it’s like you’re on a stage set. I don’t think people realize the extent of the treasures here. Pittsburgh also has such a good energy—you have the room to create here and take chances.
What kinds of projects did you work on as part of Riverlife Task Force?
I essentially spent three and a half years working with a variety of groups and individual stakeholders, learning about the rivers and learning about all of the issues related to developing something on or near the rivers: What does it mean to have a park on the river? What does a flood mean to the landscape? What is the ecology of the rivers? How have they changed over time? What is their future?
I was able to work on the development of projects relating to landscape management guidelines for riverfront ecosystems, public art guidelines, and a lighting plan for the riverfronts. One of my last projects was the West End Pedestrian Bridge competition, which was fantastic. We brought designers in from all over the world, and we really ended up with a wonderful design.
What does the Science Center want to accomplish with its Eco-Experience project?
It will be a large-scale attraction; and we define ‘large-scale’ as something that involves the public, visitors, and residents alike. In it, we’ll be addressing issues of environmental education: ecology, sustainable living, biology, global warming. It’s all part of the Science Center’s strategic, long-term plan to develop experiences and attractions based on its own traditional strengths and the strengths of the city.
The rivers and the location of the Science Center act as the portal into this new attraction. We have this unique location—at the confluence of three incredible rivers, facing downtown Pittsburgh. In my research so far, there isn’t a science center anywhere that’s using its outdoor area as a kind of a portal into its urban environment.
It’s really important to recognize that we are in an urban environment. When people think about environmental education or ecology, a lot of times it’s, ‘let’s go out to the forest.’ But at the Science Center, we’re also interested in urban ecology, because that’s where we are. And we’re interested in riverfront ecology, because that’s where we are. We have an opportunity to use our location in the city, and our location on the three rivers, to our benefit.
What kinds of topics could you explore at this new attraction?
“Experience” is the word that we keep coming back to as we talk about this project. We can have both indoor and outdoor experiences that both educate and entertain. One of the things the Eco-Experience could have is people doing actual scientific research. And we could also have an artist-in-residence program—approaching environmental research and experience from a totally different vantage point.
One of the topics we’ll probably explore is global warming. I just came back from a conference on global warming, and a lot of the research so far is looking at sea level rise. Well, I started asking, how does that affect a river? We’re very inland from any sea, but how does something that’s happening in the Atlantic Ocean affect our rivers? And how does that relate to climate change? How do we translate these questions into experiences?
Will the other Carnegie Museums be involved in this project?
Absolutely. The Museum of Natural History and Powdermill are fantastic assets and natural connections for this project. They have extensive resources: researchers, scientists, librarians—we can learn a great deal from them. And the two art museums also have program and education resources that will be valuable. This isn’t just about exhibits, and it’s not just scientists working. It’s about educating people: children, adults. It’s about creating something fun and interesting and hopeful. So capitalizing on the best practices and educational experiences of the four museums will definitely add value to the project.
What will the Eco-Experience be, physically?
It will be kind of like a nature center, kind of an environmental education center, kind of a scientific research center—all blended together. It has the potential to be a model for conscientious sustainable design and development on the riverfront. It has the potential to be a truly green building that is run on renewable resources. And there’s an incredible opportunity to have a really cool building and a really great park. It could, it should, and it will deal with wastewater and storm water management; there may even be a constructed wetland.
Right now, we have the potential to be truly visionary. To say, ‘this is how we should treat water; this is how we should place buildings on the land; this is how we will interact with the riverfront.’
Too often people aren’t allowed to be inspired, or don’t have the time or the resources to be inspired. I think this project has the real potential to be an inspired and inspiring experience for the entire region for years to come.