Restoration of historic regional parks lays groundwork for Pittsburgh's Green Web

John Conroy
Environmental Manager
Canonsburg, Pennsylvania

After years of neglect, Pittsburgh's historic regional parks were in danger of becoming commuter thoroughfares and parking lots. They had been largely ignored because of a lack of funds, fragmented management, and a perception that city parks are merely leftover land. As a result, these legacies of the 19th and early 20th centuries suffered from overused roads, overgrown vegetation and crumbling infrastructure.

Salvation for Pittsburgh's historic Frick, Highland, Riverview and Schenley Parks came about as a result of a significant shift in the way the City views its open and green spaces.

The Parks Master Plan—Blueprint for a New Attitude
The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy—a nonprofit organization whose mission is to restore, renew, revitalize and preserve the City's four great regional parks—and the City agreed that there had to be a change in public attitude before they would be able to move forward with a plan for saving the parks.

"We want people to appreciate these historic parks," says Phil Gruszka, the Conservancy's Director of Parks Management and Maintenance Policies. "Our four great parks are integral parts of the fabric of the city, and they should be valued as historical, cultural and ecological assets."

Working with public and private partners, the City and the Conservancy used workshops, public meetings and symposia to build a public consensus of stewardship for the parks. With this public support, they laid out their vision for the future of the parks in a detailed guidance document, Pittsburgh's "Regional Parks Master Plan."

Emphasizing a balance of use, history and ecology, the 20-year Master Plan tasks the parks' custodians with four primary responsibilities: reclaim the historically diverse landscape; ensure the historical integrity of the infrastructure; sustain the historical ecology of the parks; and respond to the needs of modern users.

The developers of the Master Plan designed it to be flexible and responsive to changing needs. "We arrived at a consensus of opinion around the core principles of the Master Plan before preparing it," says Gruszka. "We want to make sure that any changes to it will be consistent with the original goals and principles." To that end, future projects will be reviewed through a public process that is continually updated.

Going Green
In a time characterized by a growing interest in sustainability and green development, the Master Plan was designed to optimize the City's green assets. To accomplish this, the four parks will be treated as a system by organizationally and physically connecting them. Relying upon this new management strategy, the Master Plan provides the framework for a "Green Web" of interconnected green areas, neighborhood parks, trail systems, wetlands and waterways, and riverfront land with the four parks as cornerstones.

The Master Plan acknowledges that no single park can fulfill all of the needs of modern users. In 1998, the Conservancy conducted a study of park usage. What they found is that modern residents use the parks in much the same way as their predecessors—taking walks, family picnics and exercise. But, they also use the parks for modern activities like rollerblading, mountain biking and organized team sports.

The City and the Conservancy settled on a strategy that aims to restore and preserve the special character and historical features of each of the four parks. At the same time, each of the parks will be modified to accommodate popular modern activities.

Financing the Future
As Director of Parks Management and Maintenance Policies, it is Phil Gruszka's responsibility to identify needs within the parks. He then works with the Conservancy Development Department to arrive at budgets. Finally, Conservancy fundraisers seek out financing, primarily through grants.

In 2007 the Conservancy was awarded more than $3 million in federal SAFETEA-LU funds. These funds are earmarked for surface transportation programs such as trails, and their use will require federal oversight.

According to Bob Slagel, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PENNDOT) District 11 Transportation Enhancement Coordinator, "Our job is to assure that the SAFETEA-LU funds are spent according to federal regulations." PENNDOT will review and approve the design drawings, oversee construction, and perform final inspections. All work performed must be approved by PENNDOT before any funds are released. As Project Manager, Slagel will coordinate PENNDOT's oversight.

The Conservancy recently raised $27 million in capital campaign finances. This money, combined with the federal funds, allows restoration efforts to focus on all four parks instead of on specific projects in individual parks.

Even before completing the Master Plan, the City and the Conservancy were laying the foundation for its implementation. The City created park-specific work crews within the Department of Public Works, and teamed with the Conservancy to establish a Parks Oversight Committee.

Stone bridges like this one in Schenley Park will be restored under Pittsburgh's 20-year Regional Parks Master Plan. Although the bridges are structurally sound, they need repairs to prevent further deterioration. (Photo courtesy of PBS&J)

Two major restoration projects—the Frick Park Gatehouse and the Schenley Park Visitor Center—were completed before the Master Plan was unveiled. "As a result of the restorations, these structures are now heavily used," says Gruszka. "These projects were obvious priorities for the City, and the Conservancy was happy to help revitalize these gems." Planned major initiatives include replacing the Frick Environmental Center, and completing a Natural Areas Study and an Athletic Fields Feasibility Study.

The SAFETEA-LU funds will be used to continue restoration of some of the parks' trails and bridges, and to erect signage. One of the most significant contributors to the deterioration of trails has been runoff water. Drains installed in the early 1900s are undersized for current runoff conditions, and some are plugged. Additionally, land development inside and outside the parks has increased the amount of runoff. The parks' crumbling bridges, although structurally sound, need repairs to prevent additional deterioration.

PBS&J evaluated and determined what trail and bridge repairs are necessary, and prepared the design and construction documents that contractors will use as guidance for performing the work. Bidding is expected to take place during spring 2008, with construction beginning later in the year.

To get the maximum benefit from the SAFETEA-LU funds, the Conservancy will seek matching contributions. Work will be prioritized to target restorations that are most needed. A well thought-out construction schedule will minimize conflicts with park users and recreation programs. To streamline construction and reduce costs, the Conservancy has already obtained clearances and other permits from a myriad of agencies that include PENNDOT, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Allegheny County Conservation District, and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Coordination with these agencies will continue throughout construction.

A New Legacy
Pittsburgh's four great regional parks have a rich history of design and construction that spans more than a century. Historical photos and design drawings show the craftsmanship and attention to detail that went into the landscapes and infrastructure. Like parks in many older cities, Frick, Highland, Riverview and Schenley Parks had suffered the effects of neglect. But, Pittsburgh is not like other cities.

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, the City of Pittsburgh, and hundreds of others in the public and private sectors who have a passion for preserving the City's past have renewed a legacy. Through their efforts, the future of Pittsburgh's four great parks is assured.

John Conroy can be reached at (724) 514-9000 or