From Steel to Green: Revitalizing Pittsburgh through Its Park System: The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy Shares Lessons Learned as It Celebrates 20 Years

By Roller, Scott | Parks & Recreation, August 2017 | Go to article overview

From Steel to Green: Revitalizing Pittsburgh through Its Park System: The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy Shares Lessons Learned as It Celebrates 20 Years


Roller, Scott, Parks & Recreation


The world in 1996 was markedly different than it is today, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was no exception. "3rd Rock from the Sun" was on TV, the Spice Girls were topping the charts and solar panels were still an oddity in most of the United States. Pittsburgh was laying the groundwork for the remarkable technological and green transformation that would eventually come, and a handful of citizens concerned with the deteriorating condition of the city's grand park system were meeting in a living room to discuss how they could help.

What followed was the birth of one of the country's most respected parks conservancies, more than $100 million raised for major park improvement projects over the next 21 years and a vibrant park system that helped spur economic development, city pride and the designation of Pittsburgh as one the nation's top most livable cities. This is the story of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, but the lessons learned since that first meeting are ones that any size park or recreation group can use.

Meg Cheever and her friends were regular citizens who believed that a healthy, well-cared-for park system was a key to drawing and maintaining residents and essential to the future renaissance of this former industrial city. They recognized the enormous potential in Pittsburgh's historic 2,000-plus-acre park system, while also knowing the reality of available resources. Cheever eventually became the group's CEO and encourages others to never underestimate the good that energized, like-minded people can accomplish.

The majestic park system, made possible by industrialists like Frick, Schenley and Mellon, was proving hard to care for as Pittsburgh--like many other cities around the country in the 1980s and '90s--dealt with difficult financial times as steel and other traditional industries dissipated.

Early Success

From its earliest days, the Parks Conservancy fostered relationships with local government through an official public-private partnership agreement with the city of Pittsburgh to ensure that relevant issues and needs were addressed. Understanding their partners' needs and taking care to give credit and praise for their contributions proved an important part in the Parks Conservancy's early success.

Also key was choosing highly visible projects for the first several years, which brought the organization and its work to the attention of potential funders and supporters. The high quality of those initial projects--including prominent entry features at popular regional parks--became an important selling point for fundraising efforts. "High-quality projects not only accomplish physical restoration, but also fuel community pride, encourage potential funding sources, and deter abuse and misuse," says Susan Rademacher, the conservancy's parks curator.

Identifying the key tenets with which to tackle all projects makes communication of the work easier, and for Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, those guiding lights showed respect for the environment, attention to historic design and the needs of a diverse region. For the Parks Conservancy, this meant tackling one area of a park at a time and understanding that comprehensive improvement would be incremental. Projects were intentionally chosen in varied locations around the city to show the group's commitment to park equity, which helped gain geographically wide-ranging support in the process.

Also, keeping the community involved in the planning process in a genuine and meaningful way, including keeping them informed about progress and complications, has been paramount to all projects. Multiple community planning meetings are held for each of the conservancy's major park improvement projects. "Having community input--and making every effort to integrate that input into the final project--is essential to long-term success," says Heather Sage, director of community projects. "The years of community conversation that can precede the start of a project are vital to the project's success and, ultimately, the success of the organization. …

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