Kathleen McGuire is thrilled to be the newest member of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy Team
I had accomplished little more than locate the bathroom and arrange my pens in the oval plastic cup on my desk, when I was told that my second day would involve a community meeting for the Environmental Center and Treehouse at Frick Park. A community meeting, I thought, and quickly flashed to a recent episode of NBC’s Parks and Recreation, where the well-meaning Leslie Knope was berated with meaningless, whiny, nit picking issues, largely unrelated to the project she was proposing. Well, I thought, l guess I’m just going to dive in and get it over with. When I accepted the Development Associate position with the Conservancy, I had done so beaming with excitement for all the possibility the position presented. I would be a champion of public space, a defender of nature, an enabler of beauty! Yes, this would be my thumbprint on the city of champions! I also knew, somewhere in the back of my mind, that my sacrifice would be (gasp) public meetings.
I was told the meeting would be in Frick Park. At least there would be nature surrounding us, but I still pictured rows of stiff plastic chairs, perhaps in a modest taupe color. There would be a flyer printed in black and white and folded accordion style, which I would hand out with a plastic smile to each of the participants as they came in and readied themselves for boredom, and we readied ourselves for an attack on all of our good intentions.
I watch too much TV.
PPC’s Director of Education, Marijke Hecht, greeted me at the gate, beaming with an energy I didn’t know was possible after business hours. She showed me the event she had prepared. There were three stations for participants to visit and interact with, all situated around the old environmental center. Along the path to the first station were model treehouses, constructed from sticks, and stones, and recycled materials, by the children who had attended the last “public meeting.” Each one was a glimpse into a mind untouched by limitations.
At the first station, the design team for the Environmental Center at Frick Park stood ready with a lazer-cut foam board that represented the terrain of the area the center would go. Participants used blocks, bits of plastic, and other materials to show them what they wanted to see in terms of building placement and the surrounding areas. I overheard one mother telling her elementary-aged son. “This is an important opportunity and I want you to pay attention. This never happens, usually when things are made in parks they just do what they want. These people want to hear what you think.”
At the next area our Parks Curator, Susan Rademacher, sat under a tent filled with ways to inspire the building’s design. On large pieces of paper she invited participants to write the first word they associated with when they thought of an environmental center. My mind flashed to my rush hour commute, Pittsburgh’s paved streets and sidewalks, the hot exhaust of a bus as it sits at a curb to pick up its passengers. In thick, purple crayola marker I scrawled the word, “escape.” One side of the tent was covered with a web of string where we were invited to clip pictures out of a box that represented our vision of the future building. I found a clip of a building that was made so completely of glass that I wondered how it stood.
The last station allowed us to enter the future space of Kate and Peter’s Treehouse, which will be a dedicated to the children’s love of play and nature. There, the design team welcomed participants, who wandered past huge sheets of white material with poems and quotes about trees on them. The sheets swaying in the breeze, coupled with the thoughtful words created a peaceful reflection in each person who entered the space. A nostalgia for my childhood swelled inside me. In the center of the platform the treehouse will rest on, there were dozens of strings hanging from branches. The designers asked us to write “what you think a treehouse should be” and pin them to the strings. Wrapped in the comfort of this quiet place in the woods, I wrote “it should be magical.”
In my first twenty-four hours as an employee with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, I had already been stunned by how passionate, welcoming, and kind the staff is, but there was little to prepare me for how wrong I was about their public meetings. I had underestimated them I suppose, but even more I had underestimated the involvement and passion of the Pittsburgh community that supports and engages with them. I look forward to meeting each of you, and working with you to keep Pittsburgh green and beautiful. Perhaps I’ll see you at the next public meeting.
Get involved with these two exciting projects! Join us on June 16th for a discussion and listening session at the Carnegie Library of Homewood, sign up here. And for the next design meeting at Frick Park on July 28th, by signing up here.
Photos by John Altdorfer