Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Pittsburgh's Frick Environmental Center: The Ultimate Outdoor Classroom

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Pittsburgh's Frick Environmental Center: The Ultimate Outdoor Classroom

Article excerpt

It's no secret that early experiences in parks can help foster wonder, creativity and expression. These encounters with the natural world can fill the souls of urban children with sights, sounds and smells that one day can be expressed in the creative arts and in the curiosity that feeds scientific inquiry. It is with this in mind that The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, in close partnership with the city of Pittsburgh, set out to build the Frick Environmental Center. Designed to be LEED Platinum-and Living Building Challenge-certified, the building is itself a learning tool, and serves as the entry point to the 644 acres of rolling hills of Frick Park that serve as the setting for environmental education of Pittsburgh-region kids of all ages.

A Wish Granted

In the early 1900s, industrialist Henry Clay Frick's daughter Helen asked for a park for the children of Pittsburgh as her debutante gift, and her wish came true when Frick Park was established in 1927. It was carefully designed with no public internal roads to immediately immerse those who enter from the bustling surrounding neighborhoods in thriving woodlands. With more than 11 miles of trails of varying degrees of challenge, streams, lush valleys and cliffs that contain horn-coral and crinoid fossils, Frick Park is the ultimate outdoor classroom.

Helen Frick's son Childs also loved the outdoors, and his childhood exploration of the hills behind his family's home spurred his passion for nature and guided him to become a renowned vertebrate paleontologist and trustee of the American Museum of Natural History. Those hills eventually became part of Frick Park and, in the 1970s, an environmental center was built in its northeast section. After the center was destroyed by fire in 2002, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, city government and community members began planning the new Frick Environmental Center, putting neighborhood input front and center. "The Parks Conservancy has always found that early and extensive community input is a critical guiding light for any project, and the Frick Environmental Center is no exception," says Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy Founder and CEO Meg Cheever. More than 1,000 members of the community were involved in the public visioning and planning process for the new center. Ideas and concepts from the public planning sessions--the location of restrooms and an intimate outdoor theater to name but two--have been incorporated into the new Frick Environmental Center building and site.

The opportunity for the new Environmental Center to be a groundbreaking building that could serve as a teaching tool for all its patrons, along with the Conservancy's increasingly in-demand environmental education programs became key design tenants. Architects Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, challenged with creating a design that both respected the site's heritage--including the park entrance gatehouses designed by Jefferson Memorial architect John Russel Pope and a formal tree-lined allee--and allowed for a state-of-the-art green building, beautifully achieved all points. Even details of the entrance doors were carefully considered, as children entering the building immediately feel welcome as they pass through a kid-sized door located beside the full-size doorway.

"The building is beautiful, but is it also a living, breathing structure that can teach its visitors about the relationships between nature, energy and the built environment," says Parks Conservancy Sustainability Coordinator Maureen Olinzock. …

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