Let’s Get Digital: City of Learning and Digital Badges

Let’s Get Digital: City of Learning and Digital Badges

Do you consider yourself a nature nerd? Do you geek out outdoors?

imageFor up-and-coming environmentalists with diverse interests, a new opportunity to build and share skill sets is about to go viral. The Sprout Fund, in collaboration with 20 organizations (including the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy) has unleashed the City of Learning initiative. Through this program, students are challenged to climb their own personal achievement ladders to gain new skills, then digitize their success.

In our hyper-connected world, young people not only have to be well-rounded, but well connected. The Sprout Fund aims to engage over 3,000 students this summer through a myriad of studies, then plug them in to digital badges as a way to quantify and share their accomplishments with teachers, college admissions, and future employers. By working through specialized curricula designed by each organization to earn badges, students can strive for cyber certifications of their achievements.

What exactly is a digital badge? Think scouting badges meets LinkedIn, explains Taiji Nelson, a Naturalist Educator here at the Parks Conservancy. Under his guidance, a team of five exceptional high school students — graduates of our High School Urban EcoSteward program — will be the pioneers not only in working towards these digital badges, but also of our Young Naturalists program. Starting in June, these Young Naturalists will spend five weeks developing expertise on park stewardship, ecology, tree identification, and much more — all while working towards badges that will show the world what they know.

Week by week, Young Naturalists will earn the following badges, embedded with data and particular to the skills that they’ve mastered:

Beginner Tree IDBeginner tree ID badge

Our budding botanists and future foresters will learn to identify the common trees of Pennsylvania by their leaves, seeds, buds, bark and branches. They do this by recording observations of 10 different native trees, learning to use field guides, attending an identification hike with a tree ID expert, and writing a field guide entry in the form of a blog.


Birding BasicsBirding basics badge

Naturalists will learn the basics to identify all of the birds that flit, tweet and roost in the parks. They do this by using field guides and journals to learn how to identify 10 species of birds,  hiking with a birding expert, and writing a detailed field guide entry for one species of native bird.


Healthy Parks, Healthy CitiesHealthy parks, healthy cities badge

Earners of this badge explore and study parks to learn about the important role of trees in forest ecosystems. They will participate in a transect-survey (studying trees along a specific path) of several forest plots and gain experience with collecting and interpreting data, use scientific tools and methods, and practice systems-thinking.



Urban EcoStewardUrban EcoSteward badge

The skills needed for this badge are generally developed long-term in our Urban EcoSteward program. To earn this badge, EcoStewards must learn how to properly use the tools needed to work in the parks. They will also master invasive plant species identification. To earn this badge, they’re required to plan and complete at least one restoration project to manage erosion, canopy loss or fragmentation, litter, and invasive species.


Young NaturalistYoung Naturalist badge

Earners of this badge gain experience making and recording observations in nature journals using a variety of scopes, methods and mediums. Analyzing the features of plants, animals and landscapes strengthens their ability to compare, contrast and synthesize many observations to form a conclusion. Analyzing natural change strengthens their systems thinking and ability to form assumptions and predictions.


Young people that participate in the City of Learning not only benefit from working with The Sprout Fund and the many civic, educational, creative, and outdoor organizations associated with this initiative, but they’ll also be connected to a larger network across the country kicking off similar digital badge programs. Through City of Learning, we hope to see that young people gaining new skills in the parks can translate that into success throughout their lives.

Park Appreciation: Seattle Edition

(To combat the winter doldrums, we’ll take you on the occasional visit to urban parks in other cities.)

Over the last several years I’ve been really trying to up my cities-visited count whenever possible.  And on all my travels, I always make it a point to spend some time in an urban park (see: A Day in the Life: Centennial Olympic Park from my trip to Atlanta this spring).  This October, my friend Becky and I visited Seattle for the first time and saw everything from massive old-growth trees to a tiny, tucked-away park with a waterfall in the middle of a shopping district.  Here’s a little photo tour of some of Seattle’s parks.

Our first stop was Seward Park, on Bailey Peninsula along Lake Washington.  About 120 of the park’s 300 acres consist of old-growth forest, made up largely of Douglas fir, western red cedar, and bigleaf maple.  It’s a very different experience from walking in a Pittsburgh park.

Seward Park

In 1903, the City of Seattle hired the Olmsted Brothers’ landscape architecture firm to develop a plan for the city’s parks.  They strongly advocated for the city acquiring Bailey Peninsula from its owners and making it a key part of the park system despite the fact that it was outside the city limits at the time.  Ultimately, the city purchased the peninsula and Seward Park became one of 37 that the Olmsteds designed in Seattle. 

Seward Park

I liked the contrast of this park–a dense canopy of huge, 200-year-old trees followed by the wide-open shoreline with a view across the lake. 

Lake Washington

Lots of interesting plants at the park’s perimeter–not sure what this is, but it was unusual to me!


Next, we headed back to the Belltown neighborhood to check out Olympic Sculpture Park.  Water views are a common theme, and this one had a gorgeous vista across Elliott Bay to the Olympic Mountains.  The park, which opened in 2007, is operated by the Seattle Art Museum and contains visiting sculptures, as well as a permanent collection with pieces like Alexander Calder’s “Eagle” (below). 

Olympic Sculpture Park

Pittsburgh folks may recognize these Louise Bourgeois eye benches, which also appear in our own Katz Plaza.

Eye benches

The park is a brownfield reclamation project, sitting on a former Unocal industrial site.  Here you can see the Bill and Melinda Gates Amphitheater (with some of the many red moveable chairs that sit around the park) and a pocket beach on the street level of the park. 

Elliott Bay

The beach was created in this shallow section of water with the goal of benefiting fish and other invertebrates, but it’s also a nice place to sit and watch boats pass.

Pocket beach

Speaking of boats…our next stop was the Center for Wooden Boats on Lake Union, where we took a rowboat out for an hour to appreciate the city views from the water instead of the other way around.  The CWB sits in Lake Union Park, which officially opened as a park the week before we got to Seattle.  The park fully embraces the value of the lake to the city’s history, with signage, photo exhibits, displays, and docents sharing stories of the area’s past life as a naval reserve.

Lake Union

Our last stop of the day was Kerry Park, which is comparable to Pittsburgh’s West End Overlook in that this park is All About the View.  It’s the best spot in the city to see both downtown and the Space Needle from the same vantage.  If you’re lucky, Mount Rainier also pops up in the background (we weren’t–it didn’t show itself all weekend despite the occasionally sunny weather).  They’ve even put a frame up there for your photos–the “Changing Form” sculpture by Doris Chase.

Kerry Park

Seattle skyline

The next day was a walk-a-thon; we headed from the city center into Pioneer Square, where we stumbled upon a small but soothing space called Waterfall Garden Park.  This easy-to-overlook spot (from the street, you basically just see the wall that fronts the park) is filled with lush plantings, cafe tables, and a 22-foot waterfall.  What could be more random (and delightful) than a waterfall tucked away in the middle of a city?

Waterfall Garden Park

Our last park stop came a few hours later, after we’d made the somewhat-harebrained decision to go in search of the Jimi Hendrix statue along Broadway.  We had nebulous directions (it wasn’t in our guidebook, but Becky had an address that we looked up on our map), so after walking for about an hour we still weren’t entirely sure we were in the right vicinity.  We eventually made it to Cal Anderson Park, which matched the address.  This park was originally the open-air Lincoln reservoir, another Olmsted-designed space.  Water-quality issues led to the creation of an underground, lidded reservoir and a new plan for the park that adapted the Olmsteds’ design and added several acres.  This four-part water feature was designed by artist Douglas Hollis, and it leads to a historic gatehouse.  Which, incidentally, seems to be what Jimi is hiding behind, but we were unable to locate him anywhere other than later…on Google.

Cal Anderson Park

However, the park was lovely and also contained some really awesome public art courtesy of the Sound Transit Art Program (STart).  As a light rail station is constructed in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, local artists are creating temporary art installations on the construction wall.  Several of these projects are visible from the park, including this one that I just loved, Tim Marsden’s “Is That All There Is?”


So that was our whirlwind tour of Seattle!  Have you been to any of these parks?  What’s your favorite city to explore parks?

(Check out the Seattle Parks Foundation’s website for more on these and other parks in the area.)

New York minutes

The view from The High Line

The view from The High Line

A couple of weeks ago, a few of our staff members were in New York City for a conference, and we decided to make the most of our time by meeting with people who work with some of the city parks there.  It was my first visit to New York, so I actually met with the Central Park Conservancy folks before ever setting foot in the park, and getting to hear about how different their challenges are from ours was very interesting.

A couple of key differences between the CPC’s relationship to Central Park and our relationship to the Pittsburgh park system:

1) They have one 843-acre park to work in, while the four regional parks in Pittsburgh comprise about 1,700 acres.

2) Central Park occupies such a well-defined space that developing relationships between the Conservancy and potential donors can move outward from the neighbors whose homes immediately border the park. Our donor base is a bit more scattered and sometimes harder to pinpoint.  Obviously many more people than just those neighbors use the park, of course, including millions of tourists.  Central Park has a program in its gift shops that encourages tourists to make donations, which I think would be difficult for us, however lovely our parks may be. Obviously we’d love to have Schenley Park internationally recognized as one of the world’s great parks, but right now its name just doesn’t have the same pull as Central Park’s.

3) The Central Park Conservancy manages the park under a contract with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, which means they are responsible for all park maintenance from litter removal to tree planting.  The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy does not have a management contract, although we do perform some park maintenance in partnership with the City of Pittsburgh.  The bulk of Pittsburgh’s park maintenance is performed by City employees.

Gold Guy

Central Park's Gold Guy - give him a dollar and you get a few seconds of banjo music.

This last point, incidentally, is something we’re going to further explore next month when Central Park’s CEO, Doug Blonsky, comes to Pittsburgh to give a lecture about zone management.  When the Central Park Conservancy took over the management of the park from the City, they instituted a plan that divided the park into zones, assigning specific crews to each zone and holding them accountable for its maintenance.  This approach is what turned the park from an eyesore into the gold standard for parks around the world.  If you’re interested in attending the lecture, you can find information here.

But back to New York.  Following our meeting with the Central Park staff, we ventured into the park itself, which was bursting with people on a hot August afternoon.  Among my favorite things: the view from Belvedere Castle, the Imagine mosaic, the pedicab driver who hauled four of us at once up a hill to the Boathouse, and of course looking out over the lake at dinner.  (Best memory of all, though, from later in the week: dinner at Shake Shack on the west side of the park.  This place does only a couple of things, but SO AMAZINGLY.)

Central Park Lake

Central Park Lake

I really enjoyed my time in Central Park, which made it even more upsetting to read that a microburst took down over 100 trees in the park only a few days after we left.  The park employees certainly have their work cut out for them for the rest of the summer.

After Central Park, the next stop on our park tour was Bryant Park, a.k.a. the inspiration for Schenley Plaza.  My first thought on seeing it was that it was like the Plaza on steroids.  It’s not actually much larger, but all the buildings around it are so much taller, and the foliage has obviously had longer to grow in.  There were so many common elements: the carousel, the tables and chairs, the signs for free yoga, the music in the park…even a statue in memory of the park’s namesake (in this case author William Cullen Bryant). 

One thing the Plaza doesn’t have yet (though not for lack of trying) is a full-service restaurant, which was a nice addition because we were able to eat dinner under the stars and see that this space is popular day and night.  (We’re still working on the restaurant for the Plaza–all good things come to those who wait!)  The restaurant manager turned out to be from Pittsburgh, and he took us up to the roof of the restaurant and let us look out over the park, which was a nice way to cap off the evening.

Bryant Park after dark

Bryant Park after dark

The third stop on our park itinerary was a visit to the offices of New Yorkers for Parks, an advocacy group that helps to protect NYC’s 28,000+ acres of parkland.  We were really interested in hearing about their Daffodil Project, since we’ve started our own daffodil-planting campaign in the last few years.  Their project is on an amazing scale, though–they’ve planted more than 3 million bulbs since the project began in the months after 9/11.  It was great to hear about the different community groups that are getting involved with the project every year, and how people are able to create gardens in places that are special to them, all because of this initiative. 

Heuchera on The High Line

Heuchera on The High Line

Next stop: the Meatpacking District for a walk on The High Line, one of the city’s newest parks.  Converted from an elevated rail line 30 feet off the ground, the park provides a unique view of the city and has preserved a historical structure that was targeted for demolition.  What I liked the most about it was the inclusion of the railroad’s design elements in the finished park; there are plants growing up through the railroad ties, which was inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew up in the area after the railroad went out of use.  And there are tons of native species here (including my oft-mentioned favorite, rattlesnake master!), making for a very biodiverse experience.  This slideshow of planting on The High Line is worth checking out.

That about wraps it up for our New York park visits.  (We did make a brief stop at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, but it was at the end of the trip and it was blazingly hot, so unfortunately we didn’t make it too far into the park!  Something for next time.)  It was great both to see the parks and to meet the people who are doing similar work elsewhere (even if it’s often on a much grander scale!).  Hopefully we’ll get the chance to host some fellow parks people soon and show them the same hospitality that was extended to us.

The view from Belvedere Castle in Central Park

The view from Belvedere Castle in Central Park