Pittsburgh’s Central Fire – Finding Common Ground through the World’s Green Spaces

As crowds of people slowly began filing into the Lighthouse at Chelsea Pier in New York City for the kick-off of the Greater & Greener International Urban Parks Conference, Peter J. Madonia of the Rockefeller Foundation remarked, “It’s like Woodstock for parkies.” A rumble of laughter filled the room and the largest urban parks conference in history was underway. Looking around the crowd, it was obvious this was more than just a few environmentally and community-minded folks getting together to gab about green spaces. The City Parks Alliance brought together over 850 people from 210 cities and 20 countries to participate in more than 100 workshops focusing on topics including environmental advocacy, development, and management. Experts in their fields from major organizations, foundations and government intermingled with people and small organizations committed to promoting the influence parks have on our communities.

Staff from the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, City of Pittsburgh, Mount Washington Community Development Corporation, Riverlife and many other organizations attended the conference. Determined to not only gain new ideas, but to share success stories and strategies of how our urban parks have contributed to Pittsburgh being consistently named “most livable city” year after year. Keynote speaker, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, got the first full day of workshops started by discussing how parks have become a “powerful catalyst for community development.” This became one of the three overlying themes of the conference: community development, public health and future technological advancements. The conference slowly unveiled a more enlightened and deeper value for urban green spaces other than their beauty.

Public Art at The High Line

Community Development

The Parks Conservancy supports and promotes the environmental benefits of parks, but also focuses on the tremendous community and economic development that comes from urban green spaces. When an urban park is designed or restored, it creates a chain reaction in community development and overall quality of life. It creates jobs both in the implementation and maintenance process. Home values around the park increase while access to trails and open spaces for recreational activities enhance public health. All of these factors combine to increase economic growth for the community. It can be difficult to show citizens not living directly within city limits the advantages to urban development when they can feel so far removed from it. Mick Cornett, Mayor of Oklahoma City, is responsible for leading his city towards an undeniable rebirth and discussed the need to put money and effort into the city infrastructure to benefit the entire metro area. He stated, “ The quality of life in urban areas is directly connected to the quality of life in the suburbs. You can’t be a suburb of nothing.”

The High Line Zoo

A visit to The High Line in New York City revealed another unexpected perk to urban parks and community development.  Strolling down the restored elevated freight line that has been repurposed into a modern public green space on Manhattan’s West Side, you’ll be greeted by a gorilla, an amorous sailor and a portrait of a young Native American child to name a few. A menagerie of public art has popped-up along the buildings and open spaces lining The High Line, intertwining the worlds of nature and art into one harmonious story of city culture.

Digging in the dirt at the Frick Environmental Center

Public Health

Park and nature prescriptions were buzzwords used throughout the conference. Daphne Miller, M.D. discussed the “disease of the indoors” and the Health Care Provider Initiative being implemented through the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF). The initiative educates health care providers on the importance of outdoor activity in the prevention of childhood obesity and diabetes, encouraging them to provide nature prescriptions in addition to traditional healthcare. “I think of parks as part of our healthcare system”, Dr. Miller said. United States Secretary of State Ken Salazar, who closed the conference, informed us that children only spend an average of four minutes outside a day. Access to parks and green space is an issue for children in some communities. Many have to walk through dangerous areas or cross highways to get to a park.  Dr. Miller discussed the idea of creating green corridors to connect parks throughout the community and provide “veins of access to green space” for children and others to safely enjoy the parks. The healthier we make our parks, the healthier the people of our community will become.

Playing tag in Highland Park

Technological Advancements

With the role parks play in the health of a society and way to get people outdoors, the topic of technology and the future of parks can often be a tricky subject to tackle. There’s no doubt that we are currently in the era of technology; however, there is still resistance to how technology can contribute to the park system and whether it belongs there at all. Many view the demons of video games, television, Internet, social media and smartphones as the antithesis to the mission of parks and the exact cause of what is keeping people holed up indoors. Garry Golden, Futurist and Founder of Forward Elements, Inc. spoke about the purpose of technology in the future of environmental infrastructure. “Technology doesn’t have to be at odds with simple design”, he explains. Workshop presenter Erin Barnes and her organization, ioby (In Our Back Yard), is a perfect example of how to incorporate technology with environmental advocacy. Ioby is an organization committed to bringing green initiatives to the local level by connecting people to fundraising resources via their website. It’s great to hear about organizations raising millions of dollars to fund environmental causes in the community, but this can at times seem inaccessible for smaller causes.  Ioby uses “crowd-resourcing” and “DIY activism” to empower the community to form their own small fundraising projects through their website.  On the ioby website you can search for projects using filters to discover the needs of a group and how you can get involved. Currently, there is an open project listed on the ioby website in the Pittsburgh community called the Homewood Agricultural Project. They are looking for both donations and volunteers for the project and it’s a great way to help out concerned citizens trying to better our community. Technology isn’t going anywhere, so many of us are embracing it to inform the public about parks and get people active.  The Parks Conservancy has welcomed technological advancements. We are currently developing a mobile app funded through a grant from UPMC Health Plan and the “Parks Are Free” campaign promoting use of the parks and public health within our own community.

Pittsburgh’s Schenley Plaza

Pittsburgh was well represented at the conference as presenters shared expertise in the field and highlighted successful restorations of our beautiful parks to their intended splendor. The Parks Conservancy Founder and CEO, Meg Cheever, served as a moderator for a workshop discussing the importance of public-private partnerships when developing and maintaining urban parks. Parks Curator, Susan Rademacher, sat on a workshop panel called, “People Over Cars” to discuss the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy campaign to restore a parking lot to its original purpose in the development of Schenley Plaza. Ilyssa Manspeizer, Ph.D., Director, Park Development & Conservation for the Mount Washington Community Development Corporation filled the crowd in on the “scrappy do-it-yourself ethos” that has helped transform a steep hillside in Mount Washington to the beautiful 280 acre Emerald View Park overlooking the Pittsburgh skyline.

Picnic in Schenley Park

Central Fire

As speaker after speaker discussed the role parks play in the development of a community, it was National Park Service Deputy Director of Communication and Community Assistance, Mickey Fearn that hit closest to home. He spoke of the “central fire where people used to come together to get warm, share stories and inspire and further community.” This immediately evoked images of our own Pittsburgh parks. Swirls of children sprinting to the playground on Schenley Overlook while families reunite at picnic tables. International students fresh off the plane meeting each other for the first time at the University of Pittsburgh international welcome picnic in Schenley Park. Neighbors who have never met swapping stories while their pooches splash mud at the off-leash dog area deep within Frick Park. High schoolers blushing as their parents embarrassingly take pictures of them at the Highland Park Entry Garden before they head-off to their Senior Prom. Our community coming together in our parks to share life and love, this is the central fire that has been burning in Pittsburgh for the past decade.

Holly Stayton is the eCommerce Development Officer for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. Learn more about how you can get involved with Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy on our website. Also, keep up-to-date on how the Pittsburgh Greenspace Alliance has joined together to promote and improve Pittsburgh’s green spaces.

Mellon Park update

Panorama thanks to Mary Jane Bent

Panorama thanks to Mary Jane Bent

“We’re peeling back the layers like an onion.”

This is how Phil describes his outside-in approach to the Mellon Park Walled Garden construction project that’s currently in progress.  The work is moving in three stages: from the sidewalk around the garden to the garden wall, then from the wall to the lawn border, and then to the lawn itself.

So far, we’ve been in removal mode, ripping up the lawn and a lot of the plantings, but now the first layer is starting to be replaced.  Electrical conduits have been laid, plumbing is going in, a new water line from the Phipps Garden Center has been put in, and a drinking fountain at the Garden Center is being re-installed.  The lawn will be ripped completely up in about a week or so, at which point we can begin…

Bringing the Stars to Earth

Artists rendering of the starry lawn

Artist's rendering of the starry lawn

One of the aspects of this project that we’re most excited about is the installation of a public art piece at the garden.  Working with the community and with the family of Ann Katharine Seamans (to whom this restoration is dedicated), artist Janet Zweig has conceived of a starscape buried in the lawn that will be illuminated using fiber optics.  Over 100 stars will glow in the evenings in the pattern of the night sky as it appeared over Pittsburgh on the night of Ann Seamans’ birth.  

Hard to believe the next time you see this, it will be glowing!

Hard to believe the next time you see this, it will be glowing!

Making stars glow turns out to be a work-intensive process!  Luckily, we have some great volunteers who are helping us out.  The stars are made using PVC pipe with a hole at the top to insert the fiber optics.  They’re being assembled this week by a crew led by Jake Meyer, who is undertaking the work as his Eagle Scout project.  He wanted to do something beneficial for the parks, and as luck would have it we had a pretty big project waiting for him!

After the lawn is dug out and the foundations for the stars are assembled, the stars will actually be installed.  Then Janet Zweig will come and work with the fiber optics to make sure the effect is just right.  After that, the construction crew will backfill the site with soil and seed the lawn area so that it will be ready for the park’s spring re-opening.

When you come to the park this spring, you’ll be able to search through the grass during the day for the stars, which each have a name and a saying engraved around them.  Many donors have already come forward to sponsor a star for $500; if you’re interested in dedicating a star to someone, give us a call at 412-682-7275.

What happened to the trees?

Japanese stewartia, by autan on Flickr

Japanese stewartia, courtesy of autan on Flickr

The two large American hornbeam trees on either side of the fountain have been removed to make way for other specimens.  “Those trees were fabulous, but they were dying,” Phil explained.  In their place (and in place of cherry trees that were formerly planted around the garden), we’ll be planting Japanese stewartia trees, which Phil describes as “small, exquisite trees–a perfect selection for the space.”  The Japanese stewartia trees grow more slowly and live much longer, and their flowers are beautiful in springtime.

The rest of the planting plan involves bringing back a lot of the historic plant material that was included in the garden’s original plans.  Some different plants, like the stewartia tree, will be added in to enhance the beauty of the space.

What’s Next?

In September, all the perennials and shrubs will be delivered and planted.  New trees will be planted the first week of November, along with daffodil bulbs.  By then everything will be pretty much functional, with the only major remaining job being the planting of shrubs beneath the trees in the springtime.  The garden should be open for everyone’s enjoyment by this spring!

If you’re interested in contributing to the project, we still need to raise funds in order to perform a full restoration.  Among the aspects yet to be funded are the restoration of the iron gates, repointing the brick walls, installing more benches, and repairing the sandstone paving.  You can help out in any amount at www.pittsburghparks.org/donate by selecting “Mellon Park” from the Designation menu.

A glimpse into the Walled Gardens future

A glimpse into the Walled Garden's future

Westinghouse update

The pond as it looks today

The pond as it looks today

Westinghouse Pond is disappointing a lot of brides this summer.

As we first wrote back in March, Schenley Park’s Westinghouse Memorial and Pond has encountered a whole host of problems since a rough winter caused damage to numerous parts of the site.  For a while, the water in the fountain was back up and running thanks to repairs done by the City of Pittsburgh Department of Public Works, and the site appeared to need some cosmetic improvements, but was still a pretty attractive spot for photos.

But the severe storm that came through Pittsburgh in June flooded the fountain.  After that, it started to leak again and it hasn’t been functional since.  We suspect that the volume of water that went through the pond’s plumbing system was too great for the pipes to handle, and that one of the pipes beneath the basin is broken and causing the leak.  However, we can’t tell for sure until the City’s plumbing contractor can visit the site with a camera that can probe underneath the basin. 

The monument itself looks better than it has in years.

A little good news: thanks to conservation work, the monument itself looks better than it has in years.

If the inspection reveals that the problem IS a broken pipe that can be repaired without digging up the basin, then the issue is relatively minor and could be fixed fairly quickly.  But if the inspection reveals that the pipe isn’t broken, then the basin will have to be dug out in order to figure out what is really causing the pond to empty.  That would be a much more costly and time-consuming project.  So now we wait.

No more graffiti

No more graffiti

There is some good news, though: Westinghouse, whose employees originally funded the creation of the memorial, donated funds that allowed us to undertake conservation of the bronze this June.  This was crucial because delaying the work on the bronze would only have made its problems worse.  Our conservator was able to come in and clean and wax the statue and the monument, restoring their shine and removing many of the stains.  Now “American Youth” no longer has graffiti on his chest, his shoes are polished and shined, and Daniel Chester French’s signature practically pops out at you when you look at the sculpture.  So we are very grateful to Westinghouse for helping us out there! 

Of course, we realize that the monument is only part of the project, and the rest is an eyesore.   There’s grass growing in the pond, and entire chunks of the walkway have come loose and are piling up to the side.  So stay tuned.  I wish we had a better answer and a more solid timeline on the project for you, but we need to do a little more diagnostic work to determine exactly what the costs are going to be.  (Cross your fingers for that broken pipe!)  Then we’ll need to seek out the funding so that next summer’s brides can hopefully go to Westinghouse and find the area even more scenic than they remember!

American Youth gets a shoeshine; photos from March and August 2009

American Youth gets a shoeshine; photos from March and August 2009

Design your own park!

Parking Day 2008

Last year's parking space was designed by CMU students at Schenley Plaza, and played on the idea of the Plaza's transformation from a parking lot into a park.

The Parks Conservancy is looking for design-minded park lovers to create a space for this year’s National PARK(ing) Day! The event, held this year on Friday, September 18, is an opportunity to celebrate parks in cities and promote the need for more parks by creating temporary public parks in public parking spaces. PARK(ing) Day is an annual, one-day, global event where artists, activists, and citizens collaborate to temporarily transform metered parking spots into “PARK(ing)” spaces: temporary public parks. To see photos of last year’s spaces, click here.

Friday, September 18, 2009 will be the second annual Pittsburgh PARK(ing) Day. The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy is holding a design contest for a memorable PARKing space to promote our summer campaign: PARKS ARE FREE.

The winning design will be funded for up to $100, and must be executed and staffed by the designer. Please contact Laura Cook at lcook@pittsburghparks.org with questions or to submit a sketch or outline of your design idea. The deadline for entry is Friday, August 28 at 4 p.m.

Westinghouse Quandary

How does a park landmark go from this…

June 2008

June 2008

to this?

March 2009

March 2009

And can it ever be put back together again?

These are the questions the Parks Conservancy started asking several weeks ago when the ice melted from Schenley Park’s Westinghouse Pond to reveal that most of the water had drained from the basin, replaced by leaves, sediment, and a whole lot of mud.   What was a pleasant place to feed the fish six months ago is now an eyesore.  Here’s what happened, and what the Parks Conservancy is doing about it.

The Pond
The pond’s problems were caused by a collapse in multiple aspects of its infrastructure.  In the middle of the pond, there are several concrete slabs that anchor the fountain and aerate it during the seasons it is operational.  The liner of a basin underneath the fountain failed, along with a water line flowing from behind the pond.  This washed away the soil that forms the impermeable layer of the pond.  This water was then lost through another pipe and valve that failed, draining the pond of almost all its water and leaving behind a couple of feet of mud.  The valve has now been replaced, and new masonry will be installed around it. 

Another source of damage to the pond is the stream that flows into it.  Because the pipe that feeds water into the pond has filled in with sediment and branches, water is not flowing into the pond at a rate healthy for sustaining an aquatic habitat.  Because the pond is typically stocked with fish like koi, bluegills, and bass, restoring a proper flow rate is critical for bringing the fish back.  (Many of them found new homes when the pond was revealed to be silted in, but quite a few didn’t survive.)

The Monument
Winter has taken a toll on the monument, which was created by architects Henry Hornbostel and Eric Fisher Wood.  Water that became trapped in seams in the monument’s granite base expanded during the freeze-thaw cycle and created huge cracks.  As a result, the granite is dislodging from its foundation.  Water intrusion has also caused cracks in the blue stone walkway around the pond and on the riser surrounding the American Youth sculpture.  The Conservancy will likely replace the riser’s blue stone with a more stable material, such as exposed aggregate concrete, and use the pieces of blue stone from the riser to replace cracked stone in the walkway.

American Youth, by Daniel Chester French

American Youth, by Daniel Chester French

The centerpiece of the Westinghouse Memorial is the “American Youth” sculpture, which was created by Daniel Chester French, sculptor of the seated Lincoln statue at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.  The statue’s young man looks toward the rest of the memorial, taking inspiration from the work of inventor and industrialist George Westinghouse.  Today this bronze sculpture, which critics called “the finest portrayal of American boyhood,” is turning green.  A vandal has spray-painted “WAR” across his chest.  Restoring the sculpture is imperative at this point, because any delays could vastly increase the cost of the restoration of this important work of American art.

The Landscape

Magnolia trees, April 2008

Magnolia trees, April 2008

In any project the Conservancy undertakes, the surrounding landscape is a critical part of the restoration plan.   When Hornbostel and Fisher Wood designed the pond in the 1930s, they were precise in their design of elements such as trees, benches, and walkways.  A collection of Japanese cherry trees was dedicated on the site in 1931, and then again in 1965, and the Conservancy has continued to plant cherry trees in this area.  Future landscape restoration will continue to emulate the historic collections of the site.  Accompanying the cherry trees in a burst of pink every spring is an impressive group of magnolia trees.

The blue stone walkway that contributes to the area’s charm has also become a problem for the pond.  When pieces of stone come loose, people throw them in the pond like giant skipping stones, contributing to the clogging of the fountain drain.  As part of the restoration, City crews will mortar the stone down to give it a more solid foundation while preserving the historic look of the site.

Of course, none of this restoration work can be accomplished without community support. Stay tuned for ways you can help–including donations and volunteer efforts that may develop around the site in the future. Or if Westinghouse Pond means a lot to you and you’d like to get involved right away, give us a call at 412-682-7275 and tell us what you can do to help.