Awash With Opportunity: Let’s Create a Better Stormwater Plan for Pittsburgh

Pittsburghers, opportunity is just around the river bend.


Nine Mile Run in Frick Park, a favorite spot of park visitors, is also often flooded by combined sewers.

For older cities such as ours, stormwater poses a serious challenge to our archaic sewer system. Every major rain event results in combined sewer overflow (CSO) and unclean rivers.

This isn’t a new problem. Groups all across the region have been making strides to address this issue through green infrastructure (e.g. rain gardens and bioswales), more conscientious development, and investments in our parks and green spaces. These efforts have the two-fold benefit of making our communities better while quelling stormwater.

Pittsburghers are ready to take these efforts to the next level. Fortunately for us, there’s a multi-billion-dollar opportunity at our fingertips. Recently, however, an uninspired plan to use this money would mean not only a missed opportunity, but would actually negatively impact the assets that we’ve all worked for years to gain. This plan, revealed by the Clean Rivers Campaign of Pittsburgh United last week, would mean an investment in over a dozen “drop shafts,” or underground tunnels, disrupting some of the most well-loved spots in Pittsburgh: our riverfront parks.

There are better, proven solutions. Wise partnerships, expert planning, an active and informed community, and the will to work together for a healthier and more vibrant city is a very powerful force for change that benefits us all. Proof of this is in the parks:

McKinley Park
After years of inattention, this 79-acre community park underwent a $250,000 makeover. The completed project includes an entrance area parking lot surfaced with porous asphalt that allows storm water to be absorbed into the ground; rain gardens; and accessible walkways from the street to the playground and the basketball court. A stone wall dating from the 1930s at the entrance of the park was also carefully restored to historic detail.


Porous pavement, rain gardens, and accessible entrance at McKinley Park.

Panther Hollow
For more than a decade, we’ve been working alongside ALCOSAN, PWSA, and the City of Pittsburgh to heal this ecologically important area. This long-term project includes planting trees; addressing erosion; installing meadows, rain gardens, infiltration trenches, and other green infrastructure; and collaborating on sustainable projects at the Bob O’Connor Golf Course. Most recently, the $2.5 million restoration of the Westinghouse Memorial ties together historic restoration with stormwater management.

Iconic Panther Hollow in Schenley Park, the focus of years of restoration projects.

Frick Environmental Center
Among many exciting aspects of this project, the state-of-the-art Center will be net-zero water, meaning stormwater must be captured on site and the building won’t depend wholly on municipal water. Built in partnership with the City of Pittsburgh, the Center will capture water from the roof and in a 15,000-gallon underground cistern to be used within the building and on the grounds, eventually replenishing park streams.

The new Center, October 20, 2015.

There is an abundance of parkland for critical, large-scale and strategically placed green infrastructure; these spaces can and should play a vital role in water quality and stormwater management. Green efforts are already working in and for our communities. Let’s pursue an integrated approach that includes parks, rights of way, transportation, and residents’ input.

Let’s keep Pittsburgh on the path of world-renowned green innovation.


Nuts About Nuts: Squirrels in the Parks


Photo: Melissa McMasters

As birds head south and the buzz of insects fades, the parks in late fall start to really quiet down. Except, of course, for the scuttle of a certain woodland creature that always seems to be on the move. Eastern gray squirrels, the most common species of squirrel in Western Pennsylvania, can be seen dashing across open fields and scaling tree branches like highly skilled trapeze artists.

If you think that squirrels seem to be always in a hurry, you’re right. For them, it’s all about survival in the form of finding — and hiding — food.

Local eastern gray squirrels (which can also be black in color) aren’t hibernators. In the winter they primarily survive on “mast,” or the nuts of hardwood forest trees such as oaks, beeches, walnut and hickory. These nuts are packed full of nutritious goodness that provides squirrels with the calories they need to build up layers of fat to survive the winter.

Gray squirrels store the nuts in “cache zones” (read: all over the place) so that they can access them during the winter months. They actually hide too many nuts to eat. So, inadvertently, squirrels are planting seeds throughout forest habitats that will someday grow to be new trees. These trees in turn provide food and shelter for forest animals, birds and other creatures that depend on hardwood trees for their survival.

Gray squirrels prefer to nest in tree cavities and will often take over abandoned woodpecker nests. They also construct nests by densely packing together leaves, sticks and other materials. Now is a good time to spot squirrel nests — just look for big bunches of leaves clustered near the tops of tree.

It’s easy to understand why squirrels are so skittish when you consider that their primary predators are birds of prey, particularly hawks and owls. Snakes and skunks also are glad to add squirrel to their dinner menu.

Getting a closer look at these little park residents is easy — building a squirrel feeder in your yard is a fun family activity that will keep your yard active all winter long. Find our squirrel feeder guide here!

Take a Tour of the New Frick Environmental Center

Like the unfolding of a page in a pop-up book, the new Frick Environmental Center has been growing from a flat architectural rendering into a real three-dimensional building since last August. In that time, the old, burnt building has been razed, construction has been progressing, and over 250 community members, government representatives, students, members of the press, and others have taken one of our free tours of the site.

Our final tour of the season having just passed, we wanted to offer everyone interested in the building a chance to get in on the ground floor (so to speak) and learn about the building. Missed the real thing? Read on for a virtual walk-through of this exciting project.

The new Center. Taken October 20, 2015.

Welcome to your park

Before we enter the site (and after we all put on our hard hats and construction vests – this is an active site, after all), let’s talk about the real reason why we’re building this new Center: Frick Park, and all those who come to visit it.


Summer campers in Frick Park.

Great cities deserve great parks, and Frick Park is a real gem. The new Center will be owned by the City, operated by us, and open to all. It will serve as a welcome center for what was designed as the park’s main entrance. Nestled beside an allée of black locust trees that will act as pathway from city to woodland, the new Center will invite park visitors to find new trails, learn park history, and much more with open doors. Park visitors will also be greeted by nearly 200 trees and more than 6,500 native plants planted throughout the new landscape and woodlands.

In addition to being a welcome facility, the new Center will serve as a springboard for the outdoor learning programs that have been taking place in Frick Park for years. We use parks as classrooms, and the building will be an invaluable tool for the programs that take place all year long.

The big idea


Geothermal tube hook-ups.

Only eight buildings in the world have succeeded in gaining the Living Building Challenge certification that the new Center aims to achieve. This building certification, which defines the most advanced measure of sustainability, is judged on seven performance categories, or Petals: Place, Water, Energy, Health & Happiness, Materials, Equity, and Beauty. During this tour, we’ll be focusing on how the new Center working towards three of the most difficult Petals: Water, Energy and Materials.

As if Living Building wasn’t enough, the Center will also be constructed to achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) designation in the highest nomination, platinum. LEED is judged on points; earn some points by installing bike racks, earn big points by installing geothermal.

Living Building Petal: Net-Zero Energy

Radiant floor tubing

Radiant floor tubing spreads hot, cool temperatures throughout building. 

In order to achieve net-zero energy (the Center needs to make more or as much energy as it uses), ultra efficiency is needed. In other words, we don’t have to produce as much energy if we can cut the building’s energy needs. We project that we can use 40% less energy than similarly-sized buildings in our region with our more efficient design, such as a tight building envelope that will hold on to hot or cold air inside the building better than the average 100-year-old Pittsburgh home.

As we all know, our city’s seasons range from polar vortex to Sub-Saharan. While a traditional building would typically have to heat or cool indoor temperatures from whatever the thermometer reads, the Center will have a baseline 55°F to work from. How? An ancient-turned-modern technique: ground heat. With 18 wells bored 520 feet into the ground, we’ll be tapping into ground temperatures that are constant, no matter the season.

Living Building Petal: Net-Zero Water

Do you know how it sometimes rains in Pittsburgh? The new Center is going to be a celebration of precipitation. The Living Building Challenge requires net-zero water, meaning that stormwater must be captured on site and the building won’t depend wholly on municipal water.


Rendering of the Center’s rain veil.

This goal doesn’t just aid our city’s ailing sewer system; it’s a unique opportunity for us to make the new Center the place to be on a rainy day. The slightly slanted roof will send water cascading off of one side of the building to make a rain veil. An art installation similar to the water steps in front of Heinz Field will playfully send water to recharge park streams. When kids wake up on rainy mornings, we want them to come to the Center.

Not all rainwater will be used for show. Much of it will be captured in an enormous 15,000-gallon cistern for use in practical applications like watering plants and restrooms, eventually to be treated and released on site.


The 15,000-gallon water cistern before being put underground.

Living Building Petal: Materials

Every single material that makes up the new Environmental Center is painstakingly chosen based on certain Living Building criteria. Is it locally sourced? Is it a possibly health or environmental risk? Does it off-gas? Materials like PVC piping are on the red list, meaning they’re not allowed in the building. Even the hard hats are checked: the main ingredient in them is actually sugar cane!

FEC bridge construction concrete blue sky Oct 20 2015 multivista

Other fun features

There are so many exciting features of the new Center. But the building is not the whole story. Here’s what else you can expect from the project:

  • A renovated fountain. Remember the old, busted fountain that sat unused on the site? We’ll be restoring this popular water feature that begs to be sat beside.
  • Solar panels where you park. One important point that community members made during the planning process was preserving parking. Fear not! Parking remains, and with an added feature: a solar canopy. This will keep your car cool on sunny summer days while providing power and channeling water to the cistern.
  • A new barn. The people have spoken, and they also want more restrooms. The new barn, near the parking lot, will also help us collect stormwater for use on site.
  • Restored gatehouses. Originally designed by the esteemed John Russell Pope, the restored gatehouses will once again be brought back to their former splendor.

We hope you’re as excited as we are for this project. It is, after all, for you! Like what you’ve been reading? Support this project with a gift today!

Stay up-to-date on what’s happening with this project. Visit our site for weekly updates.

Shaking Like A Leaf: Halloween in the Parks


Fog rolls into Frick as a full moon rises over Riverview.
Snakes slither silently through Schenley.
A howl is heard in Highland.

Pittsburgh’s parks are all decked out and ready for Halloween. Visiting haunted houses this October? Don’t forget to take a trip to a park near you. You never know what frightfully fun things you’ll find.

Which Hazel? Witch Hazel?

They can pop out at you at any time. Blooming witch hazel shows its bright colors during different seasons, and the same plant isn’t guaranteed to bloom at the same time year after year.

This gnarly member of the hazel family might not really be supernatural (its etymology is Middle English wiche, meaning bendable), but those who know its powers might claim that it has some magical properties. Common as an astringent, witch hazel has historically also been used to treat everything from skin sores to sore muscles, and even as a remedy for hemorrhoids. Did we also mention that it might have even been used to heal broken hearts? And finding water… underground?

Read more about the past and present of this mysterious plant in this great Atlantic article.

20141104HObatboxHoly Echolocation, Batman!

If you think you’re scared of bats, imagine how insects feel. These darkwinged denizens of the park can nosh on anywhere between 6,000 and 8,000 bugs a night. This is especially impressive given that the most common bat in our parks — the little brown bat — measures just about 3.5 inches from tail to ghoulish chin.

Sorry to disappoint, but of all of the species in Pennsylvania, none are the bloodthirsty vampire type of lore.

In October and November, bats begin looking for a spot to hibernate. Tunnels, caves and mine shafts are ideal, as they allow the bats to cluster together and hang from the ceiling, upside down, all winter long. These primo locations can be in short supply, however, which is why bat boxes have been placed throughout the parks to lend a hand (wing?) in helping them survive.

Click here for our guide on how to build your own bat box.

Jack-O’-Lanterns All AGlow 

The gleaming glow of jack-o’-lanterns isn’t just for the pumpkins on your front stoop. You might think that fireflies have cornered the market on lighting the parks at night, but keep your head down and you might find something glowing underfoot.

Bioluminescence is used by organisms on land, under the sea, and in the air for a number of reasons: finding a mate, finding a meal, communication, and defense, among other things. With fungi like the jack-o’-lantern mushroom and the bitter oyster mushroom, their eerie glow may contribute to the spreading of spores as they hitch a ride on the curious insects that are drawn to them.

Learn more about these spectral ‘shrooms in this local blog by Josh Doty.


The Panellus Stipticus (bitter oyster) mushroom by day. Photo courtesy Josh Doty.


The Panellus Stipticus (bitter oyster) mushroom by night. Photo courtesy Josh Doty.

Ghosts on the Ground

The first time you see a plant without chlorophyll you just might turn white as a ghost. Ghost flowers (also called Indian pipes) are a pretty unique local wildflower that stick out because of their shock-white color that contrasts with the browns and greens of the forest floor. This little flower draws its power from the underworld rather than the sky — it gets its nutrients via its roots and its symbiotic relationship with fungi, rather than through photosynthesis.

Have you spotted other ghouls and goblins in the parks, terrestrial or extra-terrestrial? Share your findings in the comments sections below! And the next time you visit one of the parks, make sure to keep a lookout for the dreaded Garlic Mustard Monster!

The Garlic Mustard Monster, spotted on a volunteer day in Frick Park by Rosie Wise.


Treemendous Autumn Leaves

If you’re like all of us here at the Parks Conservancy, you cannot get enough of autumn leaves. Right now we’re all wrapped up in the sights, smells and sounds of the season, the bursts of autumn awesome before we settle in for the winter.

What does fall in parks look like to you? We’re asking folks to share their best foliage photos here on our website and on the social platform of their choice with the hashtags #unbeLEAFable #pittsburghparks. Share your best shot and check out ones that have been shared so far:


Photo by Scott Roller, Arsenal Park

Photo by Bonnie West

Photo by Michelle Weaber

Photo by Stephen Harvan

Highland Park HTL leafy path golden orange yellow leaves tree trunk Fall Autumn sunny shadow (Melissa McMasters)

Photo by Melissa McMasters, Highland Park


Photo by Rosie Wise, Frick Park

What are you waiting for? Get out and get snapping before fall makes like a tree and, well, you know…

Submit your fall photos here!

Hidden Treasures: Fungi in the Parks

What if each time you visit a Pittsburgh park, you were really on a treasure hunt? What if the clues, and even the treasures themselves, constantly changed?

Would you participate?

What is this hunt all about?

Golden Chanterelle - Cantharellus species

Golden Chanterelle – Cantharellus species

The words treasure hunt bring to mind exciting quests to find buried gold and silver by following ancient clues on faded parchment. In today’s world, a treasure hunt has morphed into a game played at birthday parties and social events where everyone enjoys the challenge of outsmarting their peers with the hope of being the first to solve all of the clues. Geocaching has drawn countless adventurers around the world to hide or seek treasures using GPS. Treasures range from the worthless to the valuable and the hunt for the unknown drives these explorers to pursue the prize.

A dynamic adventure for all ages is already underway. But do not fear! You are not too late to join the search. The treasure is called fungi and the treasure map is sketched by the changes in the weather, the presence of specific trees, the soil conditions, the time of the year and many other factors.

What treasures am I hunting this season?

A recent visit to Schenley Park uncovered the following fungi, and, if the weather conditions are favorable, it is likely that the observant seeker will find these treasures, too:

Others10Jack O’Lantern Mushroom
Scientific Name: Omphalotus illudens

Fun Facts: This mushroom glows green in complete darkness. It is also poisonous but a derivative of the poison is currently being studied for its effectiveness in attacking some cancers.

others12Bear’s Head tooth fungus or Lion’s Mane
Scientific Name: Hericium americanum

Fun Facts: This mushroom is known to have nerve-regenerative properties which are being studied by researchers. For an interesting project, this mushroom can be grown at home with a simple kit that can be found online.

Ringless Honey Mushrooms

The Ringless Honey Mushroom
Scientific Name: Armillaria tabescens

Fun Facts: This mushroom is often found in tight clusters in the grass under oak or silver maple tree or where hardwood trees formerly stood. Harvesting is discouraged so as to minimize the spread of spores; this species is known to attack hardwood trees, especially oaks and silver maples.

Others7The Honey Mushroom
Scientific Name: Armillaria mellea

Fun Facts: The vegetative part of the fungal organism is called the mycelium and is made up of branching fibers. This species has a bio-luminescent mycelium; it glows in the dark. A west coast relative (in eastern Oregon), called an Armillaria ostoyae, holds the title for the largest known organism in the world (almost 2400 acres in size).

Others6Shrimp of the Woods
Scientific Name: Entoloma abortivum

Fun Facts: This fungus forms when the Entoloma mushroom attacks the Honey Mushroom and becomes a parasite, forming the lumpy mass known to some as Shrimp of the Woods. You can see all three specimens in this photo.

Others11Chicken of the Woods
Scientific Name: Laetiporus sulphureus

Fun Facts: Trained experts who have harvested this mushroom (outside of the parks!) have found it to have the same texture as chicken, and easily absorbs the flavors of the sauce or spices in which it is cooked.*

Others4Hen of the Woods, Maitake, or Sheepshead
Scientific Name: Grifola frondosa

Fun Facts: The colder evenings this fall will help to kick start the growth of these mushrooms. With the right conditions, they grow up to 40-50 lbs and they are rumored to grow as large as even 100 lb.

Witch's ButterWitch’s Butter
Scientific Name: Tremella mesenterica

Fun Facts: This fungus is not picky about the temperature. It likes warm and cold weather and usually appears in rainy weather.

What to do with the treasures once they are discovered?

  • Forage for “fotos.” Fungi make an excellent subject for “foto-foraging” regardless of your photography experience.
  • Become a citizen scientist. Support the research community.
  • Encourage discovery in younger generations. Already, many of today’s medicines are derived from fungi, and others are in the developmental stages. Budding scientists may discover an answer to the many industrial challenges that face the world. The recycling industry has already found fungi to be effective for many applications.
  • Art. Some species are used as blank canvases for sketching, to create 3D objects, for creative spore printing, and even to make dyes.
The Split Gill Fungus - Schizophyllum commune

The Split Gill Fungus – Schizophyllum commune

What about harvesting?

Fungi found in Pittsburgh’s city parks must be left to rest so that everyone can enjoy them. Pittsburgh’s city parks do not permit anyone to remove mushrooms from them.

How should mushrooms be documented?

There are a few basic things to note:

  • Was the mushroom found in the woods and if so, what types of trees were nearby?
  • Was it attached to wood or was it attached to the ground (terrestrial)?
  • In what time of year was it found?
  • Photograph the mushroom from all angles for future reference. It is important to get a clear photo of the underside.

All images and content for today’s post were provided by Josh Doty, author of the blog Foto-Foraging, a collection of his fotos of fungi, fauna, flora, forest, field, farmer and food found while “foto-foraging” on foot. Check it out here! 

Want to learn more about mycology and foraging? Check out the Western PA Mushroom Club!

Local Change, National Opportunity: Be a Force for Change in Your Parks

Like so many “city kids,” Councilman Corey O’Connor remembers having gone to the Frick Environmental Center when it was an airy wooden barn off of Beechwood Boulevard.


Speaking on the construction site of the new Center.

Over the years, the Center, after burning down, became a danger and an eye sore. Although the building sat unused for a dozen years, the educational programs that had once taken place there continued on in makeshift locations throughout the park.

Fast forwarding to his inaugural  year on Council, O’Connor seized on an opportunity to leverage his new position to help secure valuable funding needed to rebuild the Frick Environmental Center. Hand-in-hand with the Parks Conservancy, this concerted effort channeled $5.9 million from the Frick Trust (not city taxpayer money) towards the construction of the new Center, now underway.

“It was a really good fight to have because we knew the importance of that asset [the Center]. More partners helped us get more accomplished. And I’m really proud of that. That was one of my favorite projects to work on.”


Supporters sign the final beam of the Frick Environmental Center before placement.

As Chair of City Council’s Committee on Urban Recreation, Councilman O’Connor, who holds a degree in elementary education, has a perspective on how projects like the Environmental Center impact every corner of Pittsburgh, and beyond.

O’Connor planting a tree in Frick Park.

“I see Pittsburgh’s parks as a huge regional asset that we need to continue to invest in, especially as Pittsburgh continues to grow. Parks can help to generate economic development. That’s why I like being a Committee Chair – you’re taking the park into a different conversation. Instead of, “Yeah, we’re going to go on the swings,” it’s more than that: you’re creating communities.”

Creating communities through national support: Help save the Land and Water Conservation Fund

The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) is like the Swiss Army knife of national funds. From the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado to Sheraden Park right here in Pittsburgh’s Sheraden neighborhood, battlefields to ball fields, the LWCF has been an invaluable resource in supporting communities big and small across the United States.

Most of us won’t have a slam-dunk moment fighting to restore a favorite childhood park place, like Councilman O’Connor has had with the Frick Environmental Center. But, we do have a chance NOW to fight to save the LWCF, which is set to expire at the end of this month if not voted through again in Congress. That national funding source is the backbone of park funding nationwide.

Click here to tell Congress to keep the Land and Water Conservation Fund. 
(Note: Click the ‘TAKE ACTION’ button on the right-hand side of the page to get started)


Frick Park’s trails, one of the local projects that have benefited from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

This fund, which has supported Grand Tetons National Park and the Everglades, has also made a big impact here at home. Here are just a few of the local projects that have benefited:

  • Schenley Park Oval: $166,000 (1978)
  • Schenley Park Fountain: $25,000 (1985)
  • Frick Park trails: $77,000 (1987)
  • Great Allegheny Passage Trail: $2,000,000 (2002 – 2006)
  • Bloomfield Park: $40,000 (1973)
  • Sheraden Park: $113,000 (1973)
  • Cliffside Park: $52,000 (1975)
  • McKinley Park: $88,000 (1972)

We can’t fight to put these important funds to work in Pittsburgh’s parks if they don’t exist. And it’s been a long time since Pittsburgh communities received their share of support through the LWCF. Help us change this. Speak up for this important funding by telling Congress it’s worth keeping around. Speak up here.

Thanks to Councilman Corey O’Connor for sharing his thoughts and experiences. Currently, the Parks Conservancy is leading two big parks projects in his district in partnership with his office and the City of Pittsburgh: the rebuilding of the Frick Environmental Center and the restoration of Panther Hollow Watershed. As Chair of City Council’s Committee on Urban Recreation, Councilman O’Connor has gotten to visit oodles of our city’s parks. A hidden gem park that he recommends? West End Overlook.