Parks Educator Takes Pride in Planning Hikes

This post was originally written and posted by our friends at Venture Outdoors. Check out their blog here!

On December 24, Parks Conservancy Naturalist Educator Mike Cornell will be leading his third annual, all-ages winter hike through Frick Park.

In 2012, Cornell led his first hike on a whim. He was in the office on December 24, Christmas Eve, and decided that if had to be in office, he would see if anyone wanted to come out for a hike. He put up a posting on Facebook: “Gonna take a hike at noon.” Approximately eight to 10 people showed up and a tradition was born. This year, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy expects between 25-30 people. The hike has become so popular so quickly that they are hoping to do another winter hike in January 2016.

Cornell’s outdoors education has spanned most of his life. Since he was 15, he worked on education and hikes with the Frick Environmental Center. Growing up in Point Breeze meant that Cornell was always out and about.

“I’ve been going outside my whole life and I just want to share it with other people,” Cornell said. “It’s so great to show others what is so great about the outdoors and what they can see out in the woods.”

Cornell went to school in Syracuse at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, where he studied environmental science in natural history and interpretation. During summers, he would return to Pittsburgh to work in the parks at the Frick Environmental Center.

Photo provided by Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

Photo: Mark Simpson

Nowadays, Cornell prepares for his hikes well ahead of time. When he first begins to create a hike, he imagines what it will look like: will he try to get as far possible, cover as much ground as he can? Will he try to educate his audience on trees or birds? It is essential for him to pick a topic for the hike. Once he chooses a topic, he narrows it down to a specific theme or anchor.

“For instance, I really like winter tree ID hikes; I always default to trees!” Cornell said. “What am I going to do to make it interesting this year?”

He looks at ways to make the winter tree ID hike interesting, like educating his audience on which trees can be used to make a winter tea.

“Maybe we’ll walk around the park and sample teas from different types of trees,” Cornell said. “We could talk about additional properties, like, historically speaking, how trees were used for tea and to get people through harsh winters.”

Once he locks down his theme or anchor, he takes to the route. Cornell explores and walks potential paths and figures out the different things he wants to show his audience.

“I make sure I can see the trees I want to see or I check out the best place to see birds or fossils,” Cornell said.

Sometimes he charts out his route on a map to get exact distances and times.

“I like to start and end when I say I will,” Cornell said.

Photo by Melissa McMasters for Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

Photo: Melissa McMasters

Though he may mimic past hikes’ theme, no one hike is the same. Every outdoors experience offers a unique perspective or a surprising event. This past summer, for instance, Cornell was out in the early morning for a run and ran into a six-point buck in the middle of the trail. He had seen other bucks playing around the area in earlier weeks. The buck approached Cornell as he stood very still. The buck turned sideways and gently bumped Cornell with his antler.

“It was like he was waiting for me to come after him,” Cornell said, “So I gently tapped him on the back and then he tapped me. I had a little game of tag with a deer and it was so surreal.”

From planning hikes to leading them, it seems Cornell is out in the parks enough that even the deer and bucks have taken a liking to him.

– Danielle Levsky, Communications and Media Coordinator at Venture Outdoors

Though the upcoming winter hike is now closed for registration, check back with us at the Parks Conservancy to see when Mike will host his next hike. Also, check out Venture Outdoors’ upcoming hikes, like the New Year’s Resolution Hike on January 1, the Game Day Hike on January 3 and the Winter Tree ID Walk on January 9.

5 Outdoor Summer Concert Spots

Stifling humidity. 90 degree days. Not a rain cloud in sight.

Step in to the parks, feel the temperature drop. Spread out a blanket or unfold a lawn chair, kick off your shoes. During these dog days of summer, de-stress and cool down at free concerts in the parks.

Mellon Park

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Sundays in Mellon Park are classy and classical. The popular Bach, Beethoven and Brunch series serves up some tasty live music with a side of brunch every week from 10:30am until noon, courtesy of Citiparks. Enter your entree in the “Best Brunch” competition, or take it easy and order up from the Bagel Factory food truck on site.

Find the Bach, Beethoven, and Brunch concert details here.

Highland Park

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After a brunch-induced food coma, make your way over to Highland Park for a change in tune at the Reservoir of Jazz. Setting Pittsburgh’s local talent center stage, Reservoir of Jazz is the best way to close out the weekend. Keep your feet tapping (and really, your whole body moving) afterwards at Summer Soul Line Dancing immediately following the show.

Find the Reservoir of Jazz concert details here.

Riverview Park

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Elevated on Observatory Hill with the Allegheny Observatory and area jazz musicians, you’re a little closer to the stars at the Stars at Riverview concert series. Park your lawn chair for your fill of live music, then stick around for Cinema in the Park afterwards. Shows are every Saturday, now through the end of August.

Find the Stars at Riverview concert details here.

Mellon Square

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Need a break in the workday? Want to get some fresh air and out of the office? Grab a lunch and make a midday outing to Mellon Square for Wednesday Acoustic Music with Bobby V and Thursday Summer Concert Series.

Find the Mellon Square concert details here.

Schenley Plaza

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With its emerald lawn, delicious dining and central location, Schenley Plaza is a fantastic venue for concertgoers, impromptu musicians, and summer shows. The lawn fills up fast, so make sure to stake out your spot for the monthly WYEP Final Fridays, and don’t miss First Thursdays with Calliope.

Find the Schenley Plaza concert details here.

The Giving Tree: Commemorative Plantings

The Giving Tree: Commemorative Plantings

The greatest joy of the work I do is planting trees.

If you’re reading this blog, I doubt that I need to sell you on the ecological importance of trees. I don’t need to list all the ways that they make our lives and our planet better, you know that.

Over the past four years I have been honored to oversee the Parks Conservancy’s Commemorative Tree Planting Program in partnership with my colleague Phil Gruszka. I’ve planted trees to celebrate lives well lived and too early lost. I’ve been there for graduation ceremonies and for the exchange of vows. And what I have felt deeply from those experiences is the emotional significance trees can play in our lives — the spiritual, mythological and folkloric meaning they carry.

And most importantly, the way they make us feel.

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Family gathers in Schenley Park to celebrate the life of their loved one, Veda.

While the meanings and interpretations of a tree or tree planting are as varied as we are, they provoke a collective feeling of warmth.

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Andrew with his tree planted in Highland Park to celebrate his college graduation.

Usually when I meet a donor in the park to plant a tree we have never met face to face, but by the time we part I often get a hug. We are there to do good work and we are connected by the emotional significance of the moment and the change it will create.

In the Jewish faith it is said that trees were the first living things put on earth. Buddha attained enlightenment while seated beneath a tree. We dedicate non-religious holidays to trees all over the world. In the US you may stop to plant a tree on Arbor Day, or Dia Da Árvore in Brazil, Nationale Bloomplantdag in the Netherlands, Tag de Baumes in Germany, or Van Mahotsava in India.

We are globally united with acceptance of the significance a tree planting carries, no matter what life perspective we bring to it.

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Family mulching a tree in Schenley Park to celebrate Veda.

I am often asked what the “ceremony” in the Commemorative Tree Planting Program entails. I can tell you that every single one is different. I am always there, along with Phil (our resident arborist and Parks Management and Maintenance Director) or one of our ecologists. We plant a fairly large tree (approximately 2” caliper) that has been transplanted from a local tree farm or nursery. The type of tree and exact planting location is arranged in advance based on the donor’s wishes. Sometimes large groups come to be a part of it (I’ve seen as many as 30) and other times it is just the donor. There have been groups who want to get in and get their hands dirty and others where they stand back and enjoy the tree once it is planted. Songs have been sung, prayers read, and violins played. It really can be anything you want it to be.

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Kathleen and Phil with their work boots ready at a planting day.

I have watched grief-stricken families approach us along a slope in Schenley Park, their faces worn with loss and exhaustion. Once the tree is in the ground they all leave a little lighter. They will see this tree again and watch it live and grow. We celebrate the endeavors of life too. I have seen a sapling transform into a monument to accomplishments large and small as the last bit of dirt is thrown. People change before our eyes – filled with new gratitude, or comfort and resilience. It is one of the greatest honors of my life to be a part of that.

Any reason to celebrate is a reason to plant a tree. I visit the trees I have helped plant and believe firmly that each tree lives in the spirit in which it was planted. They are living totems to the struggles and joys of our lives. And as if that were not gift enough, they will continue to serve our community for generations to come.

Kathleen Gaines, Manager of Individual Giving

Learn more about planting a tree for a special person or occasion in your life by clicking here.

Speaking for the Trees

Speaking for the Trees

Last week, a bloom of garden writers cropped up in Schenley Plaza. There was laughter, there was garden conversation, there was… a flash mob to the song “Happy.”

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Did we mention that garden writers are a rowdy bunch?

The 600 or so party animals gardeners from across U.S. and Canada were in town for the Garden Writers Association convention and made a special stop in Schenley Plaza to see the award-winning gardens that are on display there — for free! — all year long. They were also there to scope out the Every Tree Tells a Story exhibit, made possible by Davey Trees and the Cultural Landscape Foundation and going on now around the Mary Schenley Memorial Fountain.

During their stop, we asked them to do what they do best — tell some stories! Davey Trees recorded 70 or so really amazing tree tales, which are posted to their YouTube channel. Here are some of our favorites:

And our Most Favorite Video Award goes to…

Have you visited the Every Tree Tells a Story exhibit yet? Catch it before it ends on September 1st!

If you would like to speak out for the trees, we invite you to join us at our Park Tree Fund launch event on Thursday, August 21st. The Park Tree Fund exists to maintain and strengthen our urban forest. With your support, we can keep Pittsburgh’s trees growing strong for generations to come. Now that would be a great story to tell.

We want to hear your tree story! Post your stories to the comments section below. 

Every Trees Tells a Story

Every Trees Tells a Story

Every tree has a story to tell. We humans are still learning how to listen.

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Throughout the month of August, you’re invited to a unique arboreal story time to learn about a handful of very special trees around the world. A travelling exhibition assembled by The Cultural Landscape Foundation and sponsored by Davey Tree, Every Tree Tells a Story is in Pittsburgh for a short time (July 1 until September 1), spotlighting twelve seminal trees and tree stands around the world.

The woody wonders in this exhibit are a history book in and of themselves. From slaves to Buddhist temples, ladies’ societies to tornadoes, there are some outstanding tree tales to discover. Here are some of our favorites:

The Ficuses of Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico

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Photo from Every Tree Tells a Story. Photograph © Juan Pons.

Thanks to the Federal Aid Highway Act that the United States launched after WWII, Puerto Rico carried out a massive construction project to establish a 35-mile road along a shuttered rail line. Edging this road (which has now become a major highway) are three remarkable African cloth-bark trees.

These trees, 70-year-old artifacts of the farmland they once shaded, now reach 50 feet in height. Even in their constrained space, they have grown to stretch over seven lanes of the freeway at their feet.

The Boxed Pines of North Carolina

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Photo from Every Tree Tells a Story. Photographs © Frank Hunter.

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Photo from Every Tree Tells a Story.

Previously an area worked by immigrants and their slaves, Weymouth Heights is now a planned subdivision that has not only preserved the historic trees of the land, but actually planned development around them.

These longleaf pine trees show scars from a time when slaves and landowners carved, or “boxed,” the pines to collect sap. The sap was then processed to make turpentine, pitch, and rosin. With the careful consideration of preservation groups, these trees will tell the important history of that region for years to come.

The Elms of East Hampton, New York

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Photo from Every Tree Tells a Story. Photographs © Garie Waltzer.

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Photo from Every Tree Tells a Story.

The story of the elms of East Hampton includes strong women and persistence. Bent on taking a seat at the male-dominated table of park planning, women of East Hampton joined forces to form the Ladies Village Improvement Society (LVIS). Buying in to their community via their street trees, these women have been the saviors of their iconic elms since 1895.

Working against hurricanes and Dutch Elm Disease (which killed approximately 75 percent of elms in the first 60 years it was in the United States), the LVIS has kept their streets shaded under these massive elms.

These stories are just a spattering of the amazing tales gathered in this exhibit. Be sure to visit during open hours at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh — Main, or around the Mary Schenley Memorial Fountain in Schenley Plaza (both sites show all of the photos and information). If you visit the display on Sunday, August 10th, we will be there with the expert arborists of Davey Tree. On that day, between 9 and noon, tell us your tree story and Davey Tree will donate $1 to the Parks Conservancy!

Feel free to share any wonderful tree stories in the comments section below.

11 Things You Didn’t Know About Mellon Square: Part 2

May 29th, 2014: The grand rededication of Mellon Square.

Fifty-nine years after the ribbon was cut for the newly constructed Mellon Square, Pittsburghers once again celebrated their Downtown emerald oasis. After a $10 million makeover, the Square is back, looking handsome and vibrant once more.

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The ribbon cutting during the Mellon Square rededication.

As we revel in the reopening of the green heart of the Golden Triangle, join us in celebrating this unique space with part 2 of our series of lesser-known features and facts of the Square. (And again, thanks to Parks Curator Susan Rademacher for providing the information below!)

6. Walking on the wild side

A number of Pittsburgh’s city parks were home to animals wilder than deer and pigeons. The Pittsburgh Zoo sits in Highland Park; Riverview Park had enclosures for bear and elk. While Mellon Square was being dreamed up, there was a serious discussion about having live animal displays in this city greenspace.

Among the most talked about potential animal exhibits was one for sea lions. Looking at the sketch below, you can see the circular swimming area and platforms drawn up for flippered park denizens:

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7. Hand-picked flowers

No detail was overlooked when it came to Mellon Square’s restoration — including what would be putting down roots there. After taking out a majority of the dead or dying trees and seeing that some greenery was struggling to survive, our park management team decided on more appropriate flora that is rugged and hardy, but also fragrant and textured. Here’s what you’ll see growing there:

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Chamomile. Photo: Steve Brace/Flickr license

Magnoliastellata

Magnolia stellata. Photo: Margrit/Flickr license

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Bearberry. Photo: Sarah Gregg/Flick license

8. Iconic inspiration

The design and landscaping of Mellon Square sells itself. And over the years, it’s been used to sell products, such as Fort Pitt Beer. It’s also been used in photo shoots, movies, and even a medium for a love letter.

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An old ad for Fort Pitt Beer, found during a local Pittsburgh resident’s home renovation, features Mellon Square’s signature cascading fountain. Image courtesy Laura Aguera.

Cover for the Three Rivers Cookbook featuring a painting by Susan Gaca.

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Winter in the summer! Batman was shot right beside Mellon Square. Other movies, like The Mothman Prophecies, were shot in the Square.

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The text under this Post Gazette clipping reads, “Novel! A swain, as they once were called, apparently performed this feat – or shall we say feet? He walked in the snow at Mellon Square, Downtown, forming the words, “Hi Bonnie.” Who is Bonnie? Perhaps she’s employed at the Penn Sheraton Hotel, from which this photo was taken, and she can look out upon her boy friend’s message.”

9. Investment impact

What’s that old real estate adage? We know it had something to do with location…

When the idea for Mellon Square was put on the table, many property owners in that part of town complained about diminishing property values from lost parking and demolition of the then-deteriorating buildings on that block.

Quite the contrary.

Just as a gorgeous public park is a magnet for new investment, a park that’s rough around the edges pushed investment away. Vacant properties around the Square have started to come back to life in the short time that the Parks Conservancy has been renovating Mellon Square. Said Jeremy Waldrup, Executive Director of Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, the recent renovation has created an investment uptick to the tune of $200 million around the Square. With the reopening of the Square and a plan to refresh the storefronts on Smithfield Street, new investment and tourism are soon to follow.

Crowds flock to the Square in 1955, much like they do today. Photo courtesy Historic Pittsburgh Image Collections.

10. Bonsai approach

We’ve already talked about the careful planning that went into each of the plant types in the Square. Learning from flora failures there in the past, our stellar gardeners will be using what we like to call the Bonsai approach to keep the trees, shrubs and flowers in the Square growing for a long time to come. This means not letting them get too tall, helping them stay healthy, and making sure they withstand the temperature extremes in the open Square.

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A tree being planted in the Square. Photo courtesy Historic Pittsburgh Image Collections.

11. Planning for the future

The chronic issue with Mellon Square has been it’s lack of sustained maintenance. When the Parks Conservancy first assessed the Square, the fountains had not run for years. (They were only put on when a worker was on site to manually check on the fountain every hour because none of the automated controls worked.) The unique terrazzo (the triangle pavement) was grimy and chipped. The stairs were in deplorable condition. Water was leaking into the parking garage below.

Without a long-term maintenance plan, the restoration of the Square would have been done in vain. But with a new, thoughtful plan — and a $4 million maintenance budget — in place, Mellon Square will continue to shine on for generations to come.

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Mellon Square is now open for all to enjoy. Check our Facebook and Twitter to see pictures of the opening ceremonies and festivities, mark your calendars for upcoming Mellon Square events, and of course, visit the Square the first chance you get!

Content for this blog was adapted from a presentation by Parks Curator Susan Rademacher.

Some of the Parks Conservancy gang on opening day.

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.