Celebrating Earth Day in Pittsburgh’s Parks

This week’s post is from our “Let’s Talk About Parks” series. Posted bimonthly in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, “Let’s Talk About Parks” is designed to encourage exploration and discovery of Pittsburgh’s urban parks. See the complete series here.

Every year, people around the world celebrate Earth Day on April 22. It’s a time to recognize the importance of protecting our natural world, to take note of human actions that are hurting our environment and to learn about actions that each of us can take to help make our world cleaner and healthier.


Schenley Park tree planting, 1923. Photo credit: Historic Pittsburgh Image Collections.

The first Earth Day was held April 22, 1970, but before that people did not pay as much attention to the condition of land, waterways and air. The success of a city was measured by how much its factories produced, how many businesses and jobs it had, and how fast it was growing. But over time, as cities and neighborhoods grew and trees and green spaces were replaced with buildings and parking lots and roads, people began to see that there were consequences when you didn’t pay attention to nature. They saw that rivers and streams were being polluted, smog and smoke in the air was making people sick, and species of birds and animals were starting to disappear. They saw that a place that was good for working also needed to be clean and beautiful, or else, in the end, no one would want to live there.


Two girls plant a tree in Highland Park.

Pittsburgh is special because many years ago city and community leaders had the wisdom to set aside hundreds of acres of woodlands as parks for everyone to enjoy. Today, thousands of trees in our urban parks help clean the air by absorbing carbon dioxide, they help protect our waterways by capturing rainwater that would otherwise wash into our sewer systems, and they act as home to countless species of plants and wildlife. About 15 years ago, Pittsburgh’s first Earth Day in our city parks involved dozens of volunteers planting trees on Clayton Hill in Frick Park. Even though it poured rain participants had fun and kept planting, showing that Pittsburghers will celebrate our parks in any weather.


Will you be joining us for our annual Earth Day in Frick Park? From April 17 – 19 the park is the place to be, with free family-friendly activities like a community campfire, volunteer event, and a full day of naturalist-led hikes. Find the full schedule of events here. 

The first ever Pittsburgh Earth Day will also be taking place on April 22. With scheduled activities and events all over the city, there’s something for everyone. And be sure to swing by Market Square for the Everpower Earth Day Festival. Proceeds from the festival benefit the Parks Conservancy! See the full schedule of Pittsburgh Earth Day events here.

A banner day for Panther Hollow

This past weekend, the Parks Conservancy celebrated Earth Day in grand style: by getting really, really dirty and helping to restore Schenley Park.  Many of our staff members participated as crew leaders or volunteers, and several of them share their perspective of the day below.  (Don’t miss the slideshow of photos at the bottom, courtesy of John Altdorfer!)

Marijke Hecht, Director of Education
Saturday’s event was a huge success.  The partnership with so many wonderful organizations not only brought in lots of volunteers, it made the process a lot of fun. I hope we can do something similar again next year.

Here are some good statistics for the day:

  • 192 volunteers (despite the cool rainy weather)
  • 19 trees planted
  • 120 shrubs planted
  • 5 rain barrels installed
  • 1 rain garden planted
  • 44 bags of trash removed—plus 1 metal barrel and 3 parking meters
  • 10 bags of recyclables collected
  • 2 buckets of glass shards collected
  • 200 bags of garlic mustard removed

Also, thanks to the Pennsylvania Resources Council, this was a Zero Waste Pittsburgh event. All food, cups, and plates were composted and all recyclables were collected for recycling. We used no bottled water and produced minimal trash.

Mike Sexauer, Director of Marketing and Membership Development
Though it was my first large-scale volunteer event as a director of the Parks Conservancy, the planning began months ago in a familiar way—as many do—with recruiting sponsors. 

Our corporate and media partners are naturally inundated with requests for money, materials, and exposure.  Some concepts are difficult to “sell,” such as those that are relatively invisible to the public or those executed on a small scale. This particular event was easy to explain, though the proximity of Earth Day and the dozens of events taking place that week probably made it difficult for some businesses to choose.

Thankfully, several came through for us in a big way and helped keep the “extra” in extravaganza. They include KDKA TV and WYEP 91.3 for creating fantastic recruiting public service announcements, Panera Bread for the boxes of bagel bites and enough coffee to last through lunch, Aramark and Whole Foods for filling the snack boxes, and Chipotle on Forbes for providing 150 of the largest burritos I’ve ever seen.  Thanks for making the day a success!

Phil Gruszka, Director of Park Management and Maintenance

Rain garden

Phil's crew prepares the new rain garden for planting.

Our volunteer crew leader Karen Lukas and I finished up the rain garden and rain barrels at the Schenley Park Café (look for more about the rain garden on the blog later this week).  We were fortunate to have an experienced landscaper, Josiah Leisher, take the lead on restoring the planting beds around the building where we had to dig in order to separate the downspouts from the combined sewer and lay new lines to the rain garden. He and two assistants were able to complete that work in 2.5 hours. 

Karen had several parents with children planting and mulching the rain garden. The children were a big help early, then moved on to more fun things like playing tag near the work site. However, the parents were able to keep an eye on them and finish the project rather seamlessly. As time ended, most of the work was hauling debris to a transfer site for proper disposal. 

I led the rain barrel team, and fortunately for me, one of the team members, Patty, had installed them before, which made interpreting the instructions much easier. Additionally, several frequent park users and unofficial stewards walked by while the barrels were being plumbed.  One of the stewards, Gary, is a plumber and the much-needed expertise just walked in on us and finished the all important details like making certain that the pipes run downhill and not up, and all of the fittings were properly sealed and attached.  Our team was on the right track and everything would probably have worked; however, with Gary’s expertise, it is guaranteed. After the weekend storm events, we now have 250 gallons of rain water available in the rain barrels, and that is only a fraction of the amount that entered the rain garden. Success is fortuitous.

Erin Copeland, Restoration Ecologist

New trees

Nida Lapsys, Mariah Dalton, and Carmen Snyder install a new plant.

I worked a lot with all of the crew leaders and they were spectacular!  They gave of their time to get oriented to the sites beforehand and then also lead crews the day of.  They were lovely to work with.  We had crew leaders from SCA, Friends of the Pittsburgh Urban Forest, Clean Water Action, the Parks Conservancy, and many of our Urban EcoStewards from every park, including Grandview Scenic Byway Park. 

During the work day I worked with Marijke, Greg and our crew to install 120 native flowering shrubs along the golf course edge.  The Bob O’Connor Golf Course, the Parks Conservancy, and the Department of Public Works are working together to remove the non-native and invasive Norway maple canopy, install a native and diverse forest canopy, and install a meadow and shrubland along the golf course edge at tee 11. 

I can’t wait for the views that we will all have along that edge of the forest of redbuds, pagoda dogwoods, blueberries, chokeberries, and Carolina roses blooming during the spring and summer.  Of course the other benefit is more water infiltration and species diversity within the Panther Hollow Watershed.

Adam Fedyski, SCA Green Cities Fellow
To call last Saturday an extravaganza would be fitting, but no single word can sum up the efforts and consequent success of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s big spring cleanup.  Without the partners and sponsors, we could not even fathom hosting an event of this magnitude.  Their shared vision of an ever improving Schenley Park is extremely important.  However, the success of the day was largely attributed to the resilient volunteers that came out for the event.  There were almost 200 people volunteering in the rain!  That displays the impassioned dedication of people to help out in the parks. 

Every single person who came out on Saturday walked away with a greater connection to Schenley Park and the surrounding area, whether they planted trees or shrubs, helped install the rain garden, or tackled the daunting tasks of removing garlic mustard and trash from the trail areas and roadsides.  Each individual should take great pride in the huge difference that they helped to make in just a matter of a few hours on a Saturday morning.  It helps shed light on the great potential of individuals working together to achieve something awesome.  Thank you again to every person who helped us in any way on Saturday.  I hope to see every single one of you out in the parks again!

Partnering for parks

Negley Run Volunteer DayA few weeks ago one of my colleagues asked me if I would be interested in a crew leader position for a community clean-up slated for a Saturday morning in Highland Park, along the slopes of Negley Run Boulevard.  It was to be led by East Liberty Development, Inc. in partnership with Allegheny Cleanways, Student Conservation Association (SCA), CMU, GTECH Strategies, the Parks Conservancy and others.  I was hesitant for a moment, knowing it had been a year since my more hands-on service in the parks—and I felt slightly guilty for having become an indoor cat for so long.  Luckily, I did agree to participate, and that experience has led me into a slew of opportunities to meet new Pittsburgh neighbors and plug into the local organizations they support.  I have been meeting Conservancy partners face to face and am excited to know I will likely see many of them again next weekend at the Panther Hollow Earth Day Extravaganza in Schenley Park.

Negley Run Volunteer DayAt the beginning of the Negley Run project, I remember surveying the slopes crowded with tires, grocery cards and garbage.  Having donned a yellow vest and a pair of gloves, I waited for people to come, trying to picture the groups of students and community members, hoping that we could make a noticeable dent in spite of a brief two-three hour time slot.  Luckily, as they all began to arrive and the CMU students poured out of their buses, the anticipation began to dissipate and our work was upon us.  I had the privilege of leading a group of nine from Citizen Care in Greentree, an organization that supports independent people with intellectual disabilities.  My leadership experience last year had been largely with peers and students, so to work with this group was a new and enlightening challenge—and beyond that, a delight.  To work in my own neighborhood with a willing group that proved to be full of humor can do wonders for your state of mind.  At the end of two hours I marveled that I had stayed out of these projects for so long.

So I decided to do another one—this time along East Liberty Boulevard in the same general area.  I spent last Sunday morning on an island of flowering trees in a part of the city whose green space is starting to come alive in part due to the efforts of the Larimer Green Team.  Partners in this project included Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO), GTECH, Grow Pittsburgh, SCA, Pittsburgh Cares and Friends of the Pittsburgh Urban Forest.   My time was spent with Friends, whose leaders gave me some pointers in proper tree care (Don’t let the mulch touch the trunk flare!).  If only I had gotten my act together in time to test my proficiency on Saturday for a tree tending day in Highland Park, near Tazza d’oro …

Negley Run volunteer day… where I had decided to grab a cup of coffee, post-errands.  More of those familiar yellow vests lined Highland Avenue as I drove back into the park, slowing for a parking spot.  Surveying a small group near my car, I pulled to the curb and looked out my window to realize the woman holding a watering hose by a young tree was our Director of Education, Marijke Hecht!  I took it as a sign, confirming in my mind my participation in next week’s volunteer day.

Please join me in Schenley Park’s Panther Hollow, where 250 people are expected to come together to clean, clear, plant and build trails together to celebrate Earth Day in Pittsburgh.  The rewards of this work include but are not limited to: air for your body, a boost for your mind, and an increasing desire to take part in outdoor community activity on a regular basis. (Did I mention free snacks at Schenley Plaza?)  To sign up, click here.

Thanks to Maren Leyla Cooke for these photos of the Negley Run volunteer day!

Save on shoes and help the parks!

Need to complete your Hat Luncheon outfit, or just working on creating your spring wardrobe?  On Wednesday, April 22, Footloose’s Shadyside location celebrates Earth Day with a special celebration that benefits the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.  From 5:30 to 7:00 p.m., Footloose will offer a 10% discount on all purchases, and 10% of all items sold will go to the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.

Footloose is a high-end shoe retailer located in Shadyside at 736 Bellefonte Street.  The Earth Day Celebration will feature an exclusive trunk show from Paul Green, live jazz piano from Paul Cohen, and of course the opportunity to support your parks by saving money.  We hope to see you there to celebrate Earth Day in style!