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

Pittsburghers, opportunity is just around the river bend.

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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.

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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.

 

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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

Projects Underway: Schenley, Cliffside and Frick Park Updates

The parks as you know them are getting even better.

With four Parks Conservancy Capital Projects currently in the works, areas that you know and love (and maybe some that you don’t!) are undergoing exciting changes. Get the scoop on what’s going on with these projects:

Project: Westinghouse Memorial and Pond

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Rendering of the restored Westinghouse Memorial and Pond.

What’s happening: 
Nearly 85 years after its original dedication in Schenley Park, restoration of the Westinghouse Memorial and the surrounding landscape are underway. The $2.5 million plan includes aesthetic and structural improvements to the monument, Lily Pond restoration and aeration system installation, and stormwater projects to better the overall health of the Panther Hollow Watershed.

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Parks Conservancy President/CEO Meg Cheever and Mayor Bill Peduto unveil the Westinghouse Memorial rendering at the groundbreaking ceremony.

How to learn more/stay involved:


Project: Panther Hollow Watershed
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What’s happening:
For more than a decade, we’ve been working to restore the health and ecological function of the Panther Hollow Watershed in Schenley Park. Most recently, we’ve been working with the community and designers to reduce stormwater runoff along Schenley Drive. The Schenley Drive Green Street Project aims to improve the health and function of the park by curbing stormwater and creating a safe transportation corridor for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers.

How to learn more/stay involved:


Project: Cliffside Park

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Rendering of the revitalized Cliffside Park.

What’s happening:
We’re proud to be partnering with a coalition of Hill District partners on a comprehensive plan for green space in the neighborhood. Called the Greenprint for the Hill District, this plan includes a renovation of Cliffside Park, a beloved community playground. This month, community kids are helping shape this project by contributing to a children’s art piece to be displayed at the park.

How to learn more/stay involved:


Project: Frick Environmental Center

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The new Frick Environmental Center, reaching for the sky.

What’s happening:

Currently in the first phase of construction, the Frick Environmental Center will serve as a welcome facility and a gateway to the woodlands of Frick Park where educators use the parks as classrooms. The new Center is quickly taking shape. Designed to meet the Living Building Challenge and LEED Platinum standards for energy efficiency, each feature of this unique building is more exciting than the last. Most recently, a 15,000-gallon rainwater harvesting cistern was brought to the site!

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Our Zone Gardener Rosie stands beside the rainwater cistern for scale.

How to learn more/stay involved:

Get updates on these and other exciting projects and programs in the parks by signing up for email updates here!

Healthy Watersheds, Greener Streets

Imagine for a moment that you’re a doctor. But instead of treating people, you’re charged with healing a watershed.

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The meadow at Bartlett Street in full bloom.

Like the human body, watersheds are complete systems; one part of the system influences another. If you get a fever, it’s usually the result of a chain reaction inside resulting from any number of ailments. Likewise, too much runoff, pollution, and chemicals like pesticides cause a ripple effect throughout a watershed.

Keeping watershed ecosystems healthy requires work and persistence. Over the past decade, the Parks Conservancy, along with partners Allegheny County Sanitary Authority, Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, and the City of Pittsburgh, have been nursing back to health an ailing Panther Hollow Watershed. Read more about the history of this project here.

Some symptoms are visible (sediment build-up in Panther Hollow Lake), while others are below the surface (combined sewer overflow, or CSO events after major rains).

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Two of the last remaining above-ground streams in Pittsburgh flow in Schenley Park.

So, what’s the prognosis?  With a holistic approach (a comprehensive restoration plan), it’s looking better and better. The recently installed meadow at Bartlett Street and infiltration berms at the Bob O’Connor Golf Course will help absorb rainwater, naturally letting it replenish the water table.

The next treatment to better the health of the watershed involves Schenley Drive.

Making up a large portion of the impervious surface of the park, Schenley Drive acts as a sort of autobahn for rainwater, channeling gushing gallons into the sewer system every year. Estimates for the Schenley Drive Green Street project that 70,000 bathtubs of water would be diverted from the sewer system every year. Plans for this road are just starting to take shape, with the second public meeting having been held on July 29th. Thanks to the feedback of so many park users, bikers, walkers, neighbors, and community members, this project will be shaped not only to better the health of the park, but to better serve as a “complete street,” accommodating all park and road users.

Help us in shaping this next step in the Panther Hollow Watershed restoration — give your feedback on what you’d like to see happen on the Schenley Drive Green Street!

Click here to take the Green Street Survey.

Keep abreast of projects going on in Schenley Park here on our website.

If a Tree Falls: Human Impacts on Forest and Park Trees

Forests are natural, wild places. Trees burn, blow down, mature, and regenerate on their own.

At the same time, forests have fingerprints of Homo sapiens all over them. If you know how to look, a stroll through Frick Park’s shady paths can highlight just how human actions have molded one very visible part of the park forests: the trees.

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An eastern hemlock attacked by hemlock woolly adelgid.

Dude, where’s my hemlock?

You could scour Frick Park and never come across white pine (Pinus strobus) or our state tree, the eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). Until the 19th century both species were common throughout the state, but as the region industrialized, lumber companies prized these trees for their uses in tanning and construction and they disappeared from much of their former ranges. The result? The number of places in Pennsylvania where massive old-growth stands of white pine persist can be counted on your two hands. Afterwards, when forests began to regenerate, conditions did not always favor the return of these former giants.

If you do see a white pine or eastern hemlock in Frick (and there are a few of each), it was likely planted relatively recently by Parks Conservancy staff and volunteers. Much like logging these species, reforesting requires human labor.

A century later: Cherries

Though white pine and eastern hemlock have fared poorly in our forests over the last 200 years, the forests that regenerated after logging actually benefited other trees. Black cherry (Prunus serotina) is one of these. North of Pittsburgh, in the Allegheny Plateau, it is estimated that black cherry trees made up less than 1% of the pre-logging forest. After extensive clear-cutting in the late 19th century, however, black cherry became a common part of the new forest that regrew there thanks to preference for sunny conditions and fast growth.

The same is true in Frick Park. Easily identifiable by their dark bark that looks like burnt potato chips or corn flakes, black cherries are common these days. You can find a large number of them where there once was a country club (now in the area where Riverview and Bench trails run). After the club’s annexation to Frick in the 1920s, forests regrew on these lands with black cherries. Some of these trees are actually now dying, as the species’ mortality typically increases after 80-100 years.

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Phil Gruszka, Parks Management and Maintenance Director, tagging a dead ash tree.

Invasive species, world travelers

Dead trees can also illustrate how humans have shaped our forests. Since 2007 when it was first detected in Pennsylvania, emerald ash borer (EAB), a tiny green invasive insect, has left a path of destruction across Allegheny County, killing nearly all area ash trees (Fraxinus var.) in just a few years. The evidence is all over Frick Park, with standing and fallen dead ash trees exhibiting the tell-tale scars where EAB larva chewed through the trees’ energy-rich cambium, girdling them.

Globalization not only redistributes products, money, and people around the world, but also non-native plants, animals, and fungi, sometimes in ways that reshape our parks. EAB, for example, likely arrived in the U.S. in a shipping pallet from Asia. This pest, however, is not the first invasive species to change our forests. In the early 20th century, chestnut blight, a fungus accidentally introduced from Asia, killed virtually all American chestnut trees, a species then common throughout the eastern U.S.

Trees on the move (and we’re not talking Ents)

Frick Park’s forests will keep changing as a result of human influence. In addition to the risk of future invasive species, anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change promises big shifts for park trees. Just walk Rollercoaster Trail on the hills between Fern Hollow and Falls Ravine and look out on the sea of young sugar maples (Acer saccharum) that dominate the forest understory.

According to the U.S. Forest Service’s Climate Change Atlas, sugar maples will likely become significantly less important across Pennsylvania as the climate warms and stresses this species, eliminating it from the southerly parts of its range. More heat-tolerant trees may ultimately replace sugar maples in Frick Park and elsewhere in the state.

Learning from the past

Recognizing human fingerprints on our forests gives us opportunity to learn from the mistakes and successes of past generations. How can we leave fingerprints that will improve forest health? Parks are planned spaces, cared for by the people that use them. The team at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy is constantly on the watch for invasives like the Asian longhorned beetle and oak wilt and replanting diverse, resilient species of trees to create strong forests that will be around for generations to come.

Kevin C. Brown is an educator with the Parks Conservancy, and a researcher-writer of a National Park Service-funded history of the Devils Hole pupfish, an endangered desert fish that lives in Death Valley National Park. You can read more about his work here.

From Fires to Phenology: Meet Our New SCA Fellow!

One year ago, I left the land of cheese, beer, and badgers in search of new experiences and meaningful work.

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Parks Conservancy’s new SCA Green Cities Fellow Ryan, whose last stint was cuddling sea turtles in Florida.

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Ryan leading fearless volunteers into Jurassic Valley in South Side Park.

Thanks to the Student Conservation Association and AmeriCorps, I’ve lived, worked, and played in four different states. My most recent stint has landed me in the Steel City. After spending months in New York and Florida, Pittsburgh has the comforting feeling that I remember from Midwestern cities closer to home. The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy has welcomed me with open arms, and I’m already knee deep in a series of projects to be completed by Fall.

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Invasive Japanese barberry.

My primary project involves invasive species and their phenology. Phenology is the study of the significant stages in life cycles of plants and animals, e.g. the times of the year when garlic mustard leafs, flowers, seeds, and dies.  My goal with the Parks Conservancy is to research when and where invasive plants grow in the parks to aid in strategic restoration of those areas.

Already I’ve spent a significant amount of time hiking and crawling around Pittsburgh’s parks documenting the activity of plants. It wasn’t surprising to find that weeks of hot weather and reliable spring rainfall triggered quick, early growth for many plant species, including invasive plants. Garlic mustard was ready to begin seeding in early May. Poison hemlock started flowering a few weeks later. Usually, those plants’ life stages occur one month later than we’re seeing, but seasonal and inter-annual climate patterns have drastic effects on plant phenology. Cool and extremely wet springs can cause delayed growth. Warm temperatures and moderate precipitation — which Pittsburgh experienced this year — caused early growth.

The effects of climate change can already be seen and will continue to influence the timing of plant and animal life cycles.

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Invasive Jetbead.

The general pattern of plant phenology will keep leaning towards earlier growth as global average temperatures rise. My research will be used by the Park Management and Maintenance team at the Parks Conservancy as they work to control invasive plants. Invasives have the potential to drastically change the parks as they out-compete local plants. I’ll be making an interactive map showcasing when, where, and which species need to be managed, giving staff the tools to better fight invasives.

Using similar strategies, I will be looking at species diversity in the parks and discovering methods to prioritize and improve restoration sites. I will be keeping an eye out for the Asian Longhorned Beetle and predicting the potential impact it could have on our park trees. I will also be the volunteer crew leader for invasive sweeps at Highland Park on the second Thursday of each month (you can register for these here).

The next time you’re out in the parks, be sure to keep an eye out. There’s a tall, blond Wisconsinite roaming a park near you!

Ryan Klausch is from Wisconsin, but his name is not Yon Yonson. He’s serving as an SCA Green Cities Sustainability Corps Fellow through the rest of this year.

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Only you can prevent forest fires! (Unless Ryan is starting them as part of a controlled burn team with SCA in Florida.)

Learn how to remove invasive plants like the ones Ryan is studying at the upcoming Urban EcoSteward training on June 9th. It’s free and open to the public. Register here!

What’s in Bloom — April 2015

Our regular “What’s in Bloom” feature typically highlights the exuberance of park gardens, blooming seasonally with all of the colors of the rainbow.

For this “What’s in Bloom,” however, we’re taking it to the trails, where wildflowers and native plants of all shapes and sizes are quietly blooming in living color.

Recently, we were delighted to see wildflowers flourishing along Falls Ravine and Nature Trail in Frick Park. If you’ll remember, many of this crop of ephemeral flowers and ferns were transplanted in preparation for the construction of the new Frick Environmental Center. We’re happy to report that they’re doing well in their new home!

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Twinleaf a-bloom.

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A transplanted fern unfurling on Falls Ravine Trail.

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Toadshade, or trillium sessile

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Dutchman’s breeches look like tiny little knickers on a line.

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A hillside covered with itty bitty spring beauties

Elsewhere in the parks, wildflowers are popping. Keep an eye out for all of the differently colored blooms.

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Jack-in-the-Pulpit

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Bluebells start off pink, then turn blue when they open.

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Trout lily in Schenley Park

Want to brush up on your native plant know-how? Join us at these two upcoming events:

Bird and Nature Walk with “Outside My Window’s” Kate St. John
Sunday, April 26th
8:30 – 10:30am
Meet at Schenley Park Cafe and Visitor Center

Wildflower Walk and Campfire with the Urban EcoStewards
Thursday, May 7th
6:00 – 8:00pm
Frick Park
Register here!