Urban EcoStewards Celebrate a New Year – A Winter Gathering

You know what’s better than a Winter Gathering to kick-off the 2013 Urban EcoSteward training year? A snow-covered Winter Gathering complete with a one-mile hike in Schenley Park! Around 35 dedicated park stewards signed up for the event on Saturday, January 26. The Urban EcoStewards represented a variety of organizations including the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, Mount Washington Community Development Corporation, Frick Environmental Center, Allegheny Cleanways, Allegheny Land Trust, and Nine Mile Run Watershed.

Wintry Schenley Park

Tufa Bridge in Schenley Park

The day started with lunch at the Schenley Park Café and Visitor Center which was restored by the Parks Conservancy in 2002. Rumor has it, Patty’s Smoked Mac and Cheese was the big hit of the day! After a brief overview of the participating organizations, the day continued with a celebration of 2012 successes and what the EcoStewards have to look forward to in 2013.

Urban EcoSteward celebration at the Schenley Park Cafe and Visitor Center

The group then bundled up and strapped on their snow boots for a one-mile hike around the Lower and Upper Panther Hollow Trails.

Headed down for a snowy hike through Schenley Park

Looking up at Panther Hollow Bridge from the Hollow

Led by Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy Education Program Coordinator, Taiji Nelson, the group discussed winter tree identification, soil erosion, and emerald ash borer along the way.

Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy Education Program Coordinator, Taiji Nelson, explaining soil erosion to the EcoStewards

Lesson in destructive tree identification

The day ended with an overview of Phipps Run and Panther Hollow Watershed’s and restoration efforts being implemented in the area.

Hiking along Upper Panther Hollow Trail

Urban EcoStewards give back to their communities by adopting a specific section of park land that they agree to maintain. Stewards receive training from Parks Conservancy staff and other program partners and visit their site throughout the year to remove invasive species, plant native flora, slow erosion, and clean up trash. EcoStewards report to a coordinator, who will accompany them on at least one site visit per year to determine maintenance needs.

If you’re ready to take on your own little piece of the park, sign-up for our next training date on our Urban EcoSteward webpage. For more information, please contact our education department at 412-682-7275 ext. 232 or volunteer@pittsburghparks.org.

Healthy Trail, Healthy Heart – Getting Fit in Pittsburgh’s Parks

Every time I lace up my sneakers and hit the trails for a marathon run through Pittsburgh’s emerald parks (okay, by marathon I actually mean about 3.5 miles…on a good day) I’m quickly brought back to April 2010. This was the month that not only catapulted me into the reality of mortality, but also altered my overall worldview of living a healthy, meaningful life. I sat in a hospital waiting room trying to unsuccessfully distract my mom as we waited for the surgeon to deliver the news of how my dad’s open heart surgery had gone. A day earlier he had gone in for a routine angioplasty, or at least I’m told they’re routine, and the next thing we knew they were loading him into an ambulance for emergency quadruple coronary bypass surgery at another hospital. The man I once thought to be invincible became more human than ever. That wasn’t a stranger on that stretcher. It was my dad. The day of the surgery was one of those odd days where time stood still while racing by all at the same time. We saw doctor’s come in and out speaking with other families in the waiting room and even overheard one doctor tell a family their loved had just had a successful quintuple bypass surgery. We didn’t even know that was possible! We held our breath as the heart surgeon walked toward us removing his surgical mask. My dad, being the stubborn old man that he is, really made the surgeons work for their dinner that day by ending up with sextuple coronary bypass surgery. He always did have to one-up everyone else. It turns out he had suffered multiple minor heart attacks throughout the year and didn’t know it, but the surgery was successful.

Three months after his surgery, I moved to Pittsburgh. I used this new beginning as a wake-up call. Between my dad’s surgery and my own heart murmur diagnosis in junior high, it was time to stop the legacy of unhealthy heart disease that ran rampant in my family. Instead of spending my free time watching reruns of Twin Peaks on Netflix, I hit the trails. I was definitely nervous as I started my way down Braddock Trail in Frick Park for the first time, but knowing my strong aversion to gyms and having learned the hard way that treadmills take at least some coordination, I knew I had to do something to keep my heart healthy.

Healthy weight management is the obvious benefit to any physical activity. The American Heart Association (AHA) states that 60-70% of Americans are obese, leading to a higher risk of heart disease and other medical issues. According to the AHA, chronic stress may also contribute to heart disease as it can weaken artery walls and increase blood pressure.  With heart disease consistently ranking as the number one killer in this county, it’s pertinent that people get out and start moving. Recently, there has been an onset of studies showing the benefits of exercising outdoors versus exercising indoors. A 2011 study performed at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom showed that participants who exercise outside experienced a greater positive influence in overall mood and reduction of stress. The participants were also more likely to repeat the activity and form a regular exercise routine. Additionally, exercising outdoors increases your intake of Vitamin D (everything in moderation of course so wear your sunscreen!), which assists in bone growth and calcium absorption.

A key take-away for me is the effectiveness of habit formation when exercising outside. Consistency is not my strong point so I had to make sure to pick an exercise that was engaging and kept me coming back. Seriously, what can be more engaging than feeding your senses through the 561 acres of winding trails in Frick Park? The trails not only boast a variety of wildlife and a majestic canopy of trees, but the changes in elevation also allow you to cater your workout to your skill level or just what you’re in the mood for that day. Since I’m not exactly the strongest runner, yet, I’ve created a confidence-boosting run for myself on days that I need a quick shot of self-assurance. It’s about a two-mile downhill run starting in Blue Slide Playground, meandering down Riverview Trail, along to Falls Ravine and making a leftie onto Tranquil Trail until it splits with Biddle. Be careful on this path if you have bad knees, but if you need to remind yourself that you can break through the runner’s wall, this is the way to do it. There are even drinking fountains along the way to keep hydrated and open bathrooms for when you’re a little too hydrated. It gets my heart to a comfortable cardiovascular workout rate, while still allowing me to control my breath and break a sweat. This route is what convinces me to continue on my quest for a heart healthy lifestyle and I always make sure to throw it into my weekly routine.

Whether you’re biking, walking, running or just playing in the parks, it’s a great way to begin and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Habits will form and you’ll soon begin craving your park the way I crave the dirt trails of Frick. When my dad comes to visit, we always make sure to take a walk on the trails through Frick Park. It not only gets the blood flowing and our legs moving, but breathing in the fresh air and feeling my heart steadily pump to the rhythm of our stride reminds me how precious life is and how happy I am that I’m still sharing it with my dad.

Holly Stayton is the eCommerce Development Officer for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.

The Emerald City – How the Pittsburgh Parks Welcomed Me to My New Home

You would think, at thirty-something, telling your parents you’re moving over 800 miles away to Pittsburgh would be easier.  Being a close-knit, Midwestern family combined with the fact that I’m the baby, this was not the case.  I’ve spent my entire life listening to my dad’s stories of growing up in Pittsburgh.  How he painstakingly walked up steep hills ten miles one-way, typically in two feet of snow whether it was winter or not, wiping soot from his face just to get his mother some bread for dinner.  By this point in my life, the snow in his stories had gotten deeper, the hills steeper and he was barefoot carrying his little sister on his back. Though I knew my dad had a flair for the dramatic in his childhood tales, this was how I pictured Pittsburgh, black and cold.  My dad is a Marine and a retired Special Agent.  He’s tough.  So inevitably I predicted his hometown to be just as tough and wasn’t sure how I’d be able to find my place, but now it was my turn to create my own Pittsburgh story.

Schenley Overlook

My husband and I packed up our three-bedroom home, loaded the cats in the car and set out on our new adventure from Kansas City to Pittsburgh almost two years ago.  If I said the transition was smooth, I would be a big ol’ liar.  Though this would be the seventh state I’ve lived in, I’ve spent the past twenty-two years in a suburb of Kansas City.  It wasn’t incredibly exciting, but it was familiar and it was home.  We moved into a one-bedroom townhome that I swear, still to this day, is on top of one of the steepest hills in Pittsburgh.  Nothing looked familiar, I didn’t know how to get to work and I felt as though I was suffocating.

The entire first week in our new city, I was stricken with anxiety that we had just made the biggest mistake of our lives.  Not willing to let me just wither away, my husband coerced me into getting into the car and taking a drive to warm-up to the city.  We drove through Shadyside and made our way towards Squirrel Hill.  As the car climbed up yet another hill and rounded a wide corner, we found ourselves in an open park overlooking the city skyline.  I felt my lungs open and the tension melt as I stepped foot for the first time onto Schenley Overlook.  With the skyline smiling at me and nothing but emerald surrounding me, I definitely wasn’t in Kansas anymore. This began my love affair with the Pittsburgh parks.

Clicking my heals through Frick Park

Clicking my heals through Frick Park

Elated to see what the other regional parks had to offer, it wasn’t long before I went on my first run through Frick Park.  I rounded my way down Braddock Trail passing over small wooden bridges and stone staircases feeling like I just stepped into my own personal enchanted forest.  The canopy of trees drizzled sunlight to illuminate my path along the way.  As I headed up the Falls Ravine Trail, every jogger I passed nodded with an out-of-breath smile, walkers said hello and playful pups trotted along without a care in the world.  No one knew I wasn’t an authentic Pittsburgher, nor did they seem to care.  We were all park lovers.  Like an underground society delivering our secret handshake as we passed one another, I was embraced like one of their own.

I quickly found my way to Schenley Park and onto Phipps Run Trail wanting to see if Frick Park was just a fluke or if my dad failed to mention the best part about Pittsburgh.  I ran longer than normal partly because I had to stop every two minutes to take a picture and post it to Facebook, but mostly because I couldn’t wait to see what was around the next corner.  There were less people on this trail, but the scenery wasn’t any less magical.  My feet propelled me forward past Panther Hollow Bridge overlooking Panther Hollow Lake towards Steve Faloon Trail.  I couldn’t believe this urban oasis was sitting in the middle of Pittsburgh.  Why were people not flocking to this city and more importantly, why had I waited so long to move here?  It was at that moment it hit me.  I was home.  These were my parks.  Not being able to make a choice between the two, I was able to work out a joint custody agreement between Frick and Schenley Park.  I see Schenley in the evenings after work and Frick on the weekend.  It’s worked out quite nicely with little to no jealousy between the two. 

I’m thrilled that I now have the opportunity to formally share my love of our parks through my role at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.  The parks have become my refuge.  They’re the backdrop to the stage I set when telling anyone about my new home.  I get it now when Carrie Bradshaw referred to The City as her best friend.  Frick and Schenley have become my closest confidantes and are always there even on my worst days.  Whenever the hustle and bustle of daily life gets to be too much, I know I can just head down to visit my friends in the park and pass along our secret handshake.  Pittsburgh…I think you’re stuck with me.

My new home

Holly Stayton is the new eCommerce Development Officer at Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.  She manages the overall online presence of the Parks Conservancy.  Her responsibilities include website content management and coordination of our blog, social media and e-newsletters.  She doesn’t understand why her office can’t be on a bench in the middle of Frick Park.

Wrapping Up the Trail and Signage Project

Hollow Run Trail

The group approaches the WPA footbridges on the restored Hollow Run Trail.

On the Friday before Thanksgiving, the team involved in the trail and signage improvement project in the parks–the engineers, construction crew, park foremen, and Parks Conservancy folks–had a wrap-up walk-through in Schenley Park to take in the trails’ transformation. 

While the other three parks have seen noticeable changes (Riverview has some more walkable trails, Frick has a new footbridge, and Highland has a new trail altogether), the changes are probably most dramatic in Schenley Park.  Walking on the refurbished Upper Panther Hollow Trail, we were able to look down and see the changes on the Lower Panther Hollow Trail as well as the Hollow Run Trail, which is walkable again for the first time in recent memory.

This trail will be a fun new option for hikers–it’s more of a woodland trail than the Upper and Lower Panther Hollow Trails it parallels.  It’s narrower, it’s unpaved, and it meanders alongside the path and topography of the stream.  After walking along the other trails for so long, it’s a neat experience to take a different path and get a more “on-the-ground” look at this part of the park.

Sign installation

Installing signs outside the Schenley Park Café

We also passed by several of the new interpretive signs, which tell the story of the park’s trees, its cultural amenities, and the hard work of the Works Progress Administration employees who shaped the look of the park back in the 1930s.  We hope these signs will be a resource to those who are more curious about the places where they take their daily walks or runs.

And now a digression…

The signage project has been a huge opportunity for me personally, starting back in 2007 when I first sat in on a meeting with Phil and Susan from our office and Mike Gable from the City of Pittsburgh to decide where to locate these 100+ new signs.  I’m a sucker for tasks with a high level of detail, so I spent a good deal of time making a color-coded overlay and accompanying numeric key on maps of each of the four parks.  I assumed I’d be done for a while, since construction was still a few years away, but Phil took my penchant for detail to an entirely new level by asking me to actually map each of those signs in the parks themselves.  As in, GPS coordinates of the exact spot where the foundation would be laid as opposed to “near the Highland Park Entry Garden.”

Siting a sign near the Bob O'Connor Golf Course

Did I mention that Phil also had Jake holding a 10-foot pole so that I could Photoshop in fake signs at an accurate height to illustrate what the final product would look like?

Since I possess zero knowledge of GPS mapping, my compadre in all of this was my co-worker Jake.  When we visited these 100 or so sites, Jake would make a GPS entry according to my handy (and ultimately not at all useful) numeric codes and I would snap a picture of him doing this so that we could also have a visual representation of what we’d chosen.  Phil dubbed these “Jake-PEGs,” and they are a hilarious (to me) record of a sometimes challenging task.  I should mention here that this was all occurring in February 2008, a time when if it wasn’t actively snowing, it was nonetheless hovering around 2 degrees on the mercury.  There were a few times when the only thing standing between me and a full day of not being able to feel my face was the hot chocolate at the Schenley Park Café.  (All hail Bartho!)

But we persevered, and passed on the GPS coordinates and an enormous file of the Jake-PEGs to the City traffic engineers.  The City folks made some edits (which we expected because Jake and I knew next to nothing about the safe distances poles should be located from the road!), we re-mapped, and sent an enormous stack of documentation to the firms bidding on the project with PennDOT. 

Highland Park sign

A finished sign in the Highland Park Entry Garden.

The next part of the task, which I started in the winter of 2009, was much better suited to a frigid time of year.  Kolano Design, who had created the original concept for the signs, put together the interpretive signs for Riverview Park and sent us all the art files.  I spent the next few months using those templates to create the Frick, Highland, and Schenley signs.  This was where the many hours I’ve logged in the parks (along with our other ace photographers) really paid off–it was much less difficult than I expected to find appropriate photos for every panel.  My favorite ones are the Trees and Plants signs, because each one features specimen trees photographed in that park, so you really get a feel for the different makeup of the canopies.  Highland is a showplace for sweetgums, for example, and you probably won’t find a katsura tree anywhere but Schenley.

It’s been a long road from siting the signs (which of course often had to be relocated when it came time to dig the actual holes–there are pipes EVERYWHERE!) to actually seeing them installed, but just like the restored trails I think they add a lot to the parks.  I hope the project has enhanced your experience in the parks as much as it has enhanced mine.

People vs. cars in Schenley Park

Schenley Park intersection

Schenley Park is home to some tricky intersections.

Our master plan update meeting for Schenley Park this Saturday was a fascinating look at the complex issue of people vs. cars in the park.  There’s no doubt that the park’s layout presents a safety issue in several places, but any solution would have to consider the many different ways that the park is used.  Here are some of the things we discussed at the meeting:

– Can pedestrian and bicycle safety be improved measurably if the solution doesn’t include installing new traffic lights?  How effective are traffic calming measures like speed bumps/humps, bike lanes, and protected crosswalks?
– Are roundabouts a practical consideration for Schenley Park, and if so, what makes a good roundabout?  (Joe Hackett, from LaQuatra Bonci Associates and the master planning team, considers a “good roundabout” to be “a safe haven for pedestrians and cyclists,” not just a way to slow down traffic.)
– Would better connections within the park increase use by cyclists as an alternative to biking on the roads?  (For example, a connection between the Eliza Furnace Trail and the park’s trails could provide an alternative to some road biking for commuters.) 
– Is it possible to balance traffic calming measures with some of the key uses of Schenley Park: i.e., the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix and the Carnegie Mellon buggy races (which happened to be taking place the morning of this meeting)?

After discussing these questions, our attendees walked through the park, assessing conditions from Phipps Conservatory to the Panther Hollow Bridge to Frew Street by CMU.  After witnessing several potential accidents near the Schenley Park Café, it became even more obvious that Schenley Park (with the most roadways cutting through it of any park in our system) has a bit of a car problem.  But there are many ideas on how to solve it…

Success Stories
Several other parks provide case studies that show increased pedestrian and cyclist safety through traffic calming measures.  Brooklyn’s Prospect Park West was a three-lane street where three out of four cars exceeded the speed limit.  This summer, a two-way bike lane, protected by a floating parking lane, was installed to slow traffic and to get cyclists off the sidewalk.  Now, the New York Department of Transportation says that the number of speeding cars has been reduced to one in seven, and only four percent of cyclists are using the sidewalk (down from about 50%).

Temple Gate

Crosswalk and speed humps near Temple Gate in London's Hyde Park (click for larger image)

Check out a great video showing the effects of the bike lines in Prospect Park here.  You can also see the DOT’s preliminary data on this page.   

Elsewhere, The Royal Parks has successfully implemented speed humps in London’s Hyde Park to slow traffic.  The bricked humps are low to the ground, designed to slow the speed of cars without damaging them (especially ones that sit low to the ground), and also to be mindful of horse-drawn carriages that use the roads.

South Carriage Drive

South Carriage Drive in Hyde Park (click for larger image)

As you can see from the South Carriage Drive photo, devices have been employed to help signal motorists of how to treat the roadway.  Two painted white arrows just before the pedestrian crossing alert drivers that they are approaching a speed hump, with the thick end of the arrow indicating where the road surface will begin to rise.  At either end of the pedestrian crossing, light poles with orange circular bowls on top flash intermittently, helping improve visibility for motorists at night.  These lights, known as Belisha beacons, indicate crossings where pedestrians have the right of way over traffic.  The beacons are standard to such crossings, ingraining the habit for motorists to stop for pedestrians whenever they see the flashing lights. 

Speed humps have not been without controversy in London, however–emergency services personnel complain that they are an impediment, and they increase the wear and tear on vehicles.  You can read an article on some of the potential objections here.

Lots of food for thought!  Please share your comments and concerns with us below as we continue to gather opinions in preparation for making recommendations.  And don’t forget about this weekend’s Master Plan Update meeting about Riverview Park, where we’ll be discussing how to improve access to the park’s unsung destinations.

Thanks to BikePGH for sharing the Prospect Park information, and to Robert Harbord and The Royal Parks for sending us the London photos!