Successful Cities, Fabulous Parties, and the Rededication of Mellon Square

Exploring a city for the first time can feel like making your way through a party.

There are all those new people around you, yes. That’s an easy comparison to draw. And the senses — smells of cooking foods, seeing new faces and places, noise and music.

What I’m talking about is the less obvious ways we experience these new settings: The excitement of being somewhere unfamiliar; feeling welcomed or lonely; sensing that you’re a stranger in a strange place or like you’re somewhere you belong.

Photo by John Altdorfer

Listening to a recent TED talk by Amanda Burden, New York City’s chief city planner, I remembered that I often forget that so much of a city’s experience has been designed (much like a party). The way one feels in a city — welcomed, hurried, gritty, safe, what have you — is shaped by the hands of those who created that space.

Pittsburgh is not New York. New York is not Pittsburgh. But listening to that TED talk, all I could think about was how one wonderfully designed Downtown space fit into so much of what she said.

“When I think about cities, I think about people. Where people go and where people meet are at the core of what makes a city work. So, even more important than the buildings in city is the public spaces in between them.”

Photo by John Altdorfer

How could she not be talking about a space like Mellon Square? Amidst four walls of skyscrapers, this public greenspace’s roof reaches to the sky, yet is cozy enough to be called “an elegant outdoor living room” by the architectural historian James van Trump. An elegant outdoor living room that is loved and used by so many people year after year, at that.

Mellon Park’s timeless and welcoming design makes it a true treasure in Downtown Pittsburgh, and a place to recharge and appreciate. Currently, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy is putting the finishing touches on a complete renovation, giving this public space the attention it deserves. Amidst Ms. Burden’s stories of creating New York’s High Line and Battery Parks, she throws the audience a pearl of wisdom: “Public spaces always need vigilant champions, not only to claim them at the outset for public use, but to design them for the people that use them, then to maintain them to ensure that they are for everyone, that they are not violated, invaded, abandoned or ignored.” The Parks Conservancy’s renovation of Mellon Square will be completed next month — the continued maintenance of that space will keep it shining for years to come.

Ms. Burden finished out her talk with a fantastic point that I’d like to echo. She says, “I believe that a successful city is like a fabulous party. People stay because they are having a great time.” People definitely want to stay in successful cities like Pittsburgh. Successful cities also warrant fabulous parties. Next month, we invite you to join us for the rededication of Mellon Square on May 29th. We’ll be celebrating our successful city and the rebirth of an iconic public space.

Lauryn Stalter for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

The original party in Mellon Square. The dedication of the Square, circa 1955. Photo courtesy the University of Pittsburgh Archives.

Lead Your Child Outside: Fun, Affordable, and Family Friendly Happenings

Few voices have resonated deeper or carried further in the crusade to encourage kids to explore and find joy in nature than Richard Louv.

“We have such a brief opportunity to pass on to our children our love for this Earth, and to tell our stories. These are the moments when the world is made whole. In my children’s memories, the adventures we’ve had together in nature will always exist.”
- Louv in Last Child in the Woods

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The Parks Conservancy is in the business of nature discovery. The hundreds of acres of public parkland within Pittsburgh are our classrooms; on dirt trails, in streams, and through meadows, our educators guide thousands of children to learn about the natural world around them. Last year, over 600 students from 1st through 12th grades made countless discoveries with our small but mighty team of educators in our park classrooms through our school programs.

This year, we’re joined by even more outstanding educators from the Frick Environmental Center. With these extra passionate nature lovers, we’re determined to leave no child inside. We invite you to lead your child outside and join us in enjoying our world-class outdoor spaces and battle nature deficit disorder with these family-friendly events:

Earth Day in Frick Park
“Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our chidlren’s health (and also, by the way, in our own).” 
Carrying on the longstanding tradition of the Frick Environmental Center, we’re jazzed to invite the entire community out for this annual celebration of Earth Day. This two-day party is all about spending time outside in the parks. Did we mention it’s free?! Here’s what you need to know:

Community Campfire
Saturday, April 12th
6 – 9pm
Pack your favorite campfire treats (s’mores, hot dogs, veggie dogs, and mountain pies are all fair game!), and we’ll provide the fire and roasting sticks. This is an all-ages community campfire under the stars is the perfect spot to spend time with your family on a Saturday night.

Nature Walks and Hikes
Sunday, April 13th
Every hour between 11:30am – 4pm
Sign up for any number of hikes with themes like Bald Eagle Nest Building, Critters in the Litter, Nature Story Hike – The Lorax, plus many more on this full day in Frick Park led by expert naturalists. No prior registration is necessary, but arrive early to sign up for preferred hikes.

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Ultimate Play Day
“If getting our kids out into nature is a search for perfection, or is one more chore, then the belief in perfection and the chore defeats the joy. It’s a good thing to learn more about nature in order to share this knowledge with children; it’s even better if the adult and child learn about nature together. And it’s a lot more fun.”
Let loose and play with the Pittsburgh Play Collaborative! We’re cooking up a day of fun, free activities in Oakland for kids and adults. Play on the Imagination Playground, run with giant cardboard soccer balls, crawl through the Lozziwurm, and of course, discover nature!

Sunday, April 27th
Schenley Plaza, Carnegie Museum of Art, and Carnegie Library
1 – 5pm

Summer Camps
“Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart. If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.”
Pittsburgh’s parks aren’t only our children’s classrooms. They’re also the coolest spots for summer vacation. Whether your young one is three or 13, we have an age-appropriate camp to challenge their skills and creativity. Camps run on a weekly basis, and the price can’t be beat. See which camps have openings here.

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PNC Carousel
“If you can’t live in the land you love, love the land you’re in.”
Bopping sea horses, humpty-backed camels, and mythical dragons make for imaginative family memories in faraway lands never forgotten. For less than the price of one video game, score your family a season pass to the PNC Carousel, valid for two adults and up to four children. The carousel is wheelchair accessible and open extended hours throughout the summer. Purchase your season pass here.

Get Outside!
“The Environmental Protection Agency now warns us that indoor air pollution is the nation’s number one environmental threat to health — and it’s from two to ten times worse than outdoor air pollution.”
Rally your family to make a long-term pledge to play outdoors. Be active, have fun — and go outside! Take the pledge with your family, organization, or neighborhood to connect to nature all year long. We think the best place to start is bringing the gang out to volunteer with us during one of our upcoming volunteer days.

See you outside!
All quotes from this blog are taken from Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods: Savings our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. Read more about Louv and Children and Nature Network here.
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Volunteer Spotlight: The Keeper of Mellon Park

Standing at the junction of four neighborhoods is one man who scares the thistles off of invasive plants.

“That over there is Garlic Mustard Heaven… at least, it was,” points out John Olmsted, Shadyside neighbor and volunteer extraordinaire, triumphantly. He’s taking three Parks Conservancy staffers on a personal tour of Mellon Park, showing us the spots he knows like his own backyard and telling us about how he came to have such an impact on the park.

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“John is definitely the keeper of this park.”

Angela, Parks Conservancy horticulturist, has pulled weeds alongside John for years. After moving around post graduate school, John and his wife returned to Pittsburgh to be closer to children and grandchildren. And he has since become a quiet but significant change-maker in this historic community park.

IMG_1738Mellon Park, situated at the junction of Regent Square, Shadyside, Squirrel Hill and Point Breeze has never been adopted entirely by one group over the years. This setup has made for some interesting development throughout the grounds: The Parks Conservancy restored the serene Walled Garden as a Capitol Project; Phipps houses a greenhouse and has experimental show gardens around the grounds; groups like the Herb Society handle particular plots, such as the Shakespeare Garden; and a number of community members take other small plots in their own garden-gloved hands when they have the time.

That’s where John comes in. After moving to the perfect house just across the street from Mellon, John made his way over to the park during his free time, pulling some invasive plants here and there until, five years later, he’s tackling whole beds. “So far, none of the maintenance people have complained that I’m taking work away from them,” he jokes. With only a bit of previous gardening experience (John’s father grew a victory garden during WWII, his mother had a garden of her own), John first tackled whole sections of garlic mustard and Canada thistle from established daffodil and daylily gardens — and then kept them cleared.

We especially appreciate John’s story of dedication to Mellon Park because 17 years ago, that same drive inspired the creation of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. Faced with the deteriorating conditions of the parks, a cadre of concerned Pittsburghers decided to start an organization to work towards maintenance and restoration of the parks. John, too, has stepped up to fill a need to keep the greenspaces he appreciates in really fantastic condition.

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Daffodils peeking through the soil in the beds John tends

 

As we stroll through the park with John, we give him all the kudos we can for his work in Mellon Park. He’ll be out there again this spring, whacking away at the weeds that creep up in the daffodil beds. He has a standing offer to anyone that wants to join him on his crusade to bust burdock.

Lauryn Stalter for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

Wondering about the name? John is indeed connected to the famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. “Four generations back and four steps over,” as he says.

Daffodils like those pictured above will be welcoming Spring soon. Support our efforts to keep these gardens growing by contributing to the Daffodil Project.

Never an Off Season

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Dogwood on ice (photo by Taiji Nelson)

For many park users, the wooded trails they know and love during the spring, summer and fall are out of their minds from December to March. Long, lazy hikes seem like a distant memory. So when I tell people that I’m an environmental educator they often ask “how do you keep yourself busy in the winter?” My typical response is that I finally have a chance to get around to all of the projects and e-mails that have fallen to the bottom of my checklist.  It’s a time to regroup, catch my breath and prepare for the storm of back-to-back programs, busloads of excited students and constantly changing plans in our active seasons. To the outside world all seems quiet, but internally, the winter is by no means a time for hibernation for Pittsburgh Conservancy’s environmental educators. Plenty of planning, preparation and anticipation always preclude the crazy rush of school programs, volunteer days and summer camps.

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Students study a promethea moth cocoon (photo courtesy The Ellis School)

Similarly, to the unknowing eye, it could look like winter is the off-season for nature. Many woodland animals spend months storing energy as fat, before they migrate or enter torpor (a state of lowered activity and body temperature) for winter. Plants also spend much of their year storing energy in the form of sugars in their roots, stems, and buds before going dormant. On winter hikes, we tell our students that the trees around them aren’t dead, they’re waiting.

The plants and animals who stored energy weren’t just working to survive winter, they were also planning ahead to make a strong start in spring when the competition is fierce. The increase in sunlight, temperature and water in spring is like a starting gun at the beginning of a race. Right now, outside, something amazing is about to happen as the ground thaws. Plants and animals are stirring and patiently at the ready. Soon, buds will burst and eggs will hatch. A new year and life for some is about to begin.

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Our education staff hiking at the PAEE conference (photo by Taiji Nelson)

At the Parks Conservancy, our education team has also been preparing for spring. Our reach continues to grow as six new schools have signed up to participate through our K-12 programs this year. We’ll share outdoor experiences and adventures with hundreds of students from a diverse range of schools, as well as through family programs, like Earth Day and summer camps. We’ve hired and trained a passionate and talented crew of seasonal educators to use best-practices to connect children with nature through observation, exploration, inquiry and restoration. We’ve developed new programs and partnerships while making tweaks to improve our existing programs. At the Pennsylvania Association of Environmental Educators Conference, our staff gained skills from expert naturalists and educators while sharing our own knowledge about connecting with nature in cities.

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Lydia, long-time Frick Environmental Center educator, now a Naturalist Educator with the Parks Conservancy

The most exciting winter development for me was the merger of the Frick Environmental Center and Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. Our two organizations have been jointly running programs for the past few years, but by moving into the same office space and working side-by-side every day, I’ve gotten to know their personalities and talents. We’ve inherited an outstanding staff and a legacy of excellent programming.  When construction of the new Frick Environmental Center is completed, our staff, programs, and facilities will be the best they’ve ever been. We’re ready and waiting for this spring and beyond.

Taiji Nelson, Naturalist Educator at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

Seeing the Park for the Trees

This guest post comes from Jason, a student at Science and Technology Academy and a High School Urban EcoSteward in Schenley Park. Through High School Urban EcoStewards, schools adopt a plot of land in Frick, Riverview, or Schenley Parks. Students visit their site five times throughout the course of the year to complete ecological restoration projects to control erosion, clean up dumpsites, manage invasive species, and plant native species. At each session, the students document their experiences, make observations, and reflect on the value of their service in nature journals. 

Jason also opted to work with the Parks Conservancy on his Gifted Individualized Education Program, whereby he will be doing hands-on research to determine the survival rate of 84 trees planted by the SciTech High School Urban EcoStewards.

Science and Technology High School Urban EcoStewards absorbing sun, lessons in Schenley

On a cold fall afternoon, I ventured into Panther Hollow in Schenley Park to begin the task of counting every tree that was planted by the dedicated High School Urban EcoStewards of Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy to study tree health. My name is Jason Ferrante and for the next couple months, I will be working with the Parks Conservancy on a species survival project to figure out which tree species are best adapted to survive in Pittsburgh.

Students measuring DBH (diameter at breast height)

Given, most people would wonder why I would choose to spend hours of my time out in the cold, trying to decide if leaf veins lead directly to or curve away from the tooth (the serrated edge of some leaves). It may not sound that fun, but for me, this is a way for me to express my lifelong passion for nature.

Ever since I can remember, I had a passion for the conservation of the environment. In kindergarten, I remember doing a project where every week for a year I watched a tree in front of my house grow. I took such fascination in watching the cycle of the tree, the way the leaves fell in fall, the way the seeds (which I called “helicopters”) fell in the spring.

Last week, I was cleaning out my bookshelf, and found an old project from kindergarten. It was titled, A Year in the Life of My Tree. Over the course of a year, I took pictures in front of the maple tree in my front yard. The pictures, along with measurements, reminded me of the amazing power a tree has, not just physically, but emotionally. It was next to that tree where I helped family members out of their cars as they arrived for the holidays, it was next to that tree that I high-fived the winning runner of the Pittsburgh Marathon.

SciTech Urban EcoSteward planting a tree in Schenley

SciTech EcoStewards in Schenley

During this project, I will count all 84 High School Urban EcoSteward-planted trees in Schenley Park to determine tree health. While this is not an exact science, the method I will use gives a good estimate based on the number of leaves on the tree. I’ll plug this leaf estimate, the DBH (diameter at breast height), and the health of the tree into an application called iTree to determine the benefits of the tree to our city.

SciTech EcoSteward presenting on tree classification

The hardest part of this project is identifying tree species. When Urban EcoStewards plant a tree, they mark the species down on a chart, so that we know what kind of trees we planted. However, the sheet does not give a location for the tree, so it is my job to locate that tree in the park.

This survey is important in assessing the benefits of trees planted by the Urban EcoStewards. After plugging in all of the specifications, iTree calculates the average stormwater, carbon, and pollutants that the tree absorbs. How amazing would it be to see these benefits of each tree in the City of Pittsburgh?

Trees have been an amazing part of my life. As I move forward in this project, I am reminded that each tree tells a story. From smoky skies to political unrest, these trees have many stories to tell — you just have to listen.

Stay tuned as the weather warms up! Jason will be checking back with a sequel to this post, plus pictures of his studies. 

Want to support students like Jason? Ask your employer if your company participates in the Education Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program. Encourage them to support the Parks Conservancy’s educational programming!

When You’re 84 and Live in the Park

When you’re 84 and live in the park, you’ve got to be tough. You’re going to get drenched, frozen, and sit through the sunniest and windiest days. You’re going to shift a bit, crack under the pressure, and start to show wrinkles — all a natural part of aging.

When you’re 84 and live in the park, sometimes you don’t get the respect you deserve. Kids come along, and they just don’t get it. These whippersnappers get out their pens and pocket knives and leave their mark, not even taking the time to get to know you or your history.

Photo courtesy Carnegie Mellon University Architecture Archives

But when you’re 84 and live in the park, there are tons of people that have your back. They keep you shiny and clean, put together and graffiti-free. With their help, you have a chance at staying as handsome as when you first came to live in the park so many years ago.

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On a soggy December day, a handful of staff from the Parks Conservancy and the City of Pittsburgh were audience to a crash course in graffiti removal at a landmark that’s been living in Schenley Park since 1930: Westinghouse Memorial. Led by Tom Podner of McKay Lodge Fine Arts Conservation Laboratory, a nationally renowned art and artifacts conservation center and the studio that worked magic on Mary Schenley’s fountain and the Highland Park entry gates, this training also included an extensive walk-through of the construction of the memorial. If you’ve never really looked at this beautiful tribute to George Westinghouse, we recommend getting up close and personal next time you’re visiting. The bronze “The Spirit of American Youth,” intricately detailed panels, and all of the amazing details that went in to the entire work — just outstanding.

For those of us that work to maintain and restore the parks and their many historic landmarks, it’s hard to understand vandalism. In the short time between when the men of McKay Lodge had done their first day of assessment and cleaning and the second when they were giving us the lesson, there was already new graffiti on the memorial. Luckily, Tom and his crew are pros at finding the right tool for the job. Lucky for us, one of those tools was a blowtorch.

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Starting with the gentlest solvent first, Tom took a couple swipes across the surface of the memorial at a spot where graffiti had literally popped up overnight. He always starts with the weakest solutions first to judge to depth of the scratch or mark. Like washing a child’s scribble off a wall, he took the first marks off pretty easily.

The center panel on the front-facing portion of the memorial was the real task at hand.

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A botched graffiti cleanup in the past (not done by McKay Lodge) had left a large white streak on one of the most visible parts of the memorial. As Tom soaked a clean cloth in that same base-level solvent, he explained the different layers of the memorial — the actual memorial, a clear protective coat, and a layer of wax on top. This layer of wax, which takes the hardest beating from the elements, optimally should be refreshed every few years. (Until now, the memorial has seen many years of neglect. The Park Conservancy is actively working to raise funds for a long-term maintenance plan.) This layer keeps memorials looking crisp and clean. And holds pen and marker inks.

The first solvent a wash, Tom reached for the tool we all secretly wanted to see him use: the blowtorch! The discoloring, he explained, wasn’t on the surface-level wax; it looked to him to be moisture that was caught between the wax and clear coat. By using the torch, he was melting the wax and wicking away the moisture from the clear coat. It started to disappear like magic; he invited us to touch the metal right after he worked on an area — the metal was completely cool. He finished the job by buffering on a fresh layer of wax where there once was a big white splotch.

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There’s always work to do in upkeeping wonderful park places and features such as the Westinghouse Memorial. The memorial has a long way to go, as we plan to clean and repair it, shore up its foundation, and restore the surrounding Lily Pond. On a larger scale, the memorial will tie into our Panther Hollow restoration work as we plan perimeter landscaping and restoration. If you love this 84-year-old in the park, please consider a donation to keep it looking its best.

A Race with the Red Queen

No disrespect to the ancients, but the best time to plant a tree was not 20 years ago. It might be this spring.

A variety of leaves from trees planted last fall in Highland Park. Photo by Taiji Nelson.

Whether plant, animal, virus, or bacteria, all living organisms are locked in battle with the pathogens, pests and parasites in their surrounding environment, using the tools and tricks nature’s equipped them with to keep them in the game. One of the strongest tools in this arsenal? The ability to adapt, to one-up opponents in a constant arms race.

One huge task that the Parks Conservancy faces is shoring up this arsenal for the trees in our care. The founders of these fine parks left quite the legacy, not only in the consideration that they gave to the design and experience of the parks, but also the impressive diversity of the urban forests.

It’s tough to overstate the importance of biodiversity to healthy parks. Voracious pests and sneaky diseases gain a slight foothold within the bounds of our parklands and spread like wildfire, faster than we can catch and quarantine them — even with sharp eyes out at all times. Our trees need their natural defenses as they stand on the front lines of these attacks, especially since they face added stresses of living in the city: polluted water, poor air quality, micro-climates, and human intervention.

London plane tree in Schenley Plaza.

A general in this battle, the Parks Conservancy’s Director of Park Management and Maintenance Phil Gruszka is a seasoned veteran. Phil has been rocking war paint for years now. Since conducting a study with Dr. Cynthia Morton of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, he’s realized that our legacy park trees are impressive in their biodiversity… but that we have to really work to keep it that way. Their study found that tree stock from major nurseries across the country have actually been whittling down the tree gene pool.

“When London plane trees were first introduced to the United States, one nursery had a tree that did very well. But they couldn’t get it to reproduce from seed, so they started getting cuttings to grow out. Then they released it to the trade and named that cultivar ‘Bloodgood.’”

Selected for it’s superior resistance to the fungus anthracnose, the cultivar (a plant chosen for its particular genetic makeup) Bloodgood has been spread around now for about 30 years, dominating nursery stock of London planes. Plane trees bought from nurseries have identical genetic material to every other plane tree — they have not been grown from seed from two parent trees. They’re clones.

“Today, if I wanted to replace a London plane, I can only buy the cultivar Bloodgood.”

But trees from Schenley Plaza and around the park surprised them. “The Schenley Plaza trees were all genetically different, very diverse.” The park trees, planted before Bloodgood started to gain popularity, were much more diverse than the current nursery stock. The surviving 100, of the 200 that were planted years ago, were of a strong and diverse population, toughened from years of fighting off pests and disease.

Then, they widened their net. Was this true only for London planes? How much more diverse are our park trees than trees sold around the country? After polling nurseries from various parts of the country, they found that ten common trees used all over the U.S. were clones — their genetic diversity was actually getting less and less diverse.

Red oaks with oak wilt in Schenley Park, soon to be cleared.

Why has this study been so important? As the Parks Conservancy has taken on ecological restoration projects in the parks over the years and established the Park Tree Action Plan with the City of Pittsburgh, TreeVitalize, and Tree Pittsburgh, we’ve actively worked to increase biodiversity in the parks. Taking cuttings of our own heterogeneous tree stock, we’ve started growing new trees around the park and city in our own sort of diversity study, learning as we go about resistant new cuttings that withstand biological threats. This knowledge gives us only a peek at the immeasurable value of Pittsburgh’s parks; less mature forests and parks elsewhere are markedly more homogeneous, posing a threat to themselves and surrounding forests against the pests and diseases that have shown an uptick in recent years. Our trees are better equipped to keep our parks healthy and beautiful.

This week, a large stand of red oaks — about 50 trees in total — will be cleared from Prospect Drive in Schenley Park. Oak wilt, discovered earlier this year by an observant park user, got a stranglehold on the interlocking root system of the trees, infecting an entire grouping of trees. Left there, the trees are a risk to the health of other park trees. It’s terrible to have to take down so many trees, but it’s something that needs done for the overall well being of the park. And when these trees are replanted in the spring, a variety of new and diverse tree stock will be added to the expanding biodiversity and health of the park.

Wondering about the title of this post? Read more about the Red Queen Effect here.