Let It Rain
In the midst of its 20th anniversary, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy is diving into the city’s neighborhoods.
photo by martha rial
McKinley Park is, in many ways, representative of a community park. Located on a Beltzhoover hillside, it is home to wooded walking trails, basketball and tennis courts and a few baseball fields. It’s not intended to draw visitors from across the city but to serve neighborhood residents.
As do many Pittsburgh parks, it also sits in a key place in the city’s watershed — right along Saw Mill Run, a hard-charging stream that regularly floods when it rains, causing overwhelmed water-treatment facilities to dump sewage into our rivers. So it is here, in McKinley Park, that the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy is undergoing a remarkable change — from an organization that helped to save the city’s grand parks to one that is enmeshed in neighborhoods and overseeing green infrastructure. As the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority works to comply with a federal requirement to stop the sewage-in-the-river problem, PPC believes that parks are the answer.
When it comes to McKinley Park, the plan is remarkably straightforward: By planting more trees and building rain gardens, the parks can capture and retain rainwater, allowing it to slowly seep into the ground, rather than dumping into treatment facilities, says Heather Sage, PPC director of community projects. “We can do stormwater management underground, with accessible features and recreational amenities [for the community].”
Sage joined the PPC in 2013 after a decade working with PennFuture, an organization focused on environmental policy. It was an exciting time: When the organization was founded in 1996, it focused on restoring the city’s largest parks, including Schenley, Frick, Highland and Riverview. At the time, due to years of population loss and a dwindling tax base, the city essentially had given up on park maintenance, even in its grandest green spaces; it mowed grass and picked up trash, but it also boarded up facilities and let monuments tarnish.
The PPC, with funding help from the Regional Asset District, restored the luster to the grand parks. Neighborhood parks, though, were left on their own until 2011, when Hill District leaders pushed the PPC to expand its mission. Since then, the conservancy and Sage have plunged into neighborhoods, working in the Hill, Lawrenceville, the South Side, the North Side and, of course, McKinley Park — one of just four U.S. winners of Great Urban Parks Campaign awards from the National Recreation and Parks Association and the American Planning Association. The $437,500 grant will help to fund future green infrastructure.
While communities drive those projects, the PPC provides consultation and help with design and fundraising. “We’re really helping to bring a neighborhood vision to life,” Sage says. “We want to make sure parks are playing a vital part of people’s lives.”