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The Evolution of the Allegheny County Parks

Sunday, June 17, 2018 10:04 PM | Anonymous

Since the 1920s and 1930s, Allegheny County parks have supplemented the network of smaller, denser city parks and distant state parks by providing expansive nature retreats strategically located to population centers. As the first of the County parks, North Park and South Park were designed to feature country club style amenities such as swimming, golf, tennis, picnic areas, and equestrian trails for public enjoyment. The philosophy of that time was to offer people living in the city an opportunity to escape to a rural setting where they could experience the types of recreational opportunities readily available to more wealthy citizens.

By the late 1950s, efforts were underway to expand the park system and six parks (Boyce, Round Hill, White Oak, Settler’s Cabin, Harrison Hills, and Deer Lakes) were added. Thinking proactively, the County contracted with landscape architect firms to create guiding principles for park development and features. While not a strict code of regulatory guidelines, but rather a philosophy for designing the County parks system, this investment in the natural landscape and commitment to elevating the standard of recreational offerings has created a valuable resource for the county and region. Today, Allegheny County provides a rich offering of activities and a wide range of amenities ranging from swimming pools and skiing facilities to nature and cultural centers. The success of this effort is documented by the level of visitation that the nine parks in the County’s system receive. Together, the Allegheny County Parks attract over 20 million visitors per year.

The challenge of managing such a significant park system and keeping it accessible to the public is immense. Allegheny County recognized that additional resources and partnerships were needed and created the Allegheny County Parks Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, in 2007 to help improve, preserve, and restore the parks. The Allegheny County Parks Foundation not only supports capital projects but also has helped to evolve the way the County assesses the park system itself. This perspective focuses on a fact-based understanding of the ecological health of the park.

For instance, the North Park Master Plan (2012) included a site assessment that evaluated vegetation, water resources, geology, utilities, and transportation and circulation patterns. In 2015, the Foundation partnered with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy (WPC) to conduct its first Ecological Assessment and Action Plan to evaluate natural resources and environmental assets. That initial project focused on Boyce Park and South Park and the Foundation is currently working on similar assessments for Hartwood Acres and Settler’s Cabin parks. These projects are data-intensive and use geographic information system (GIS) mapping and specific data collection techniques and observations. Key outcomes include identification of rare and sensitive plants, preferred locations for restoration to increase wildlife habitat, development of a sustainable trail plan, and recommendations for green stormwater management techniques. The County has begun implementing some of these recommendations, including a demonstration meadow in Boyce Park.

Many other projects are currently underway in the Allegheny County parks including new trails, pollution clean-up, restoration projects, and signage improvements in all parks to enhance the visitor experience. The collaborations between the County, Foundation, and stakeholders including park visitors, environmental groups, businesses, and local governments continue to result in improved recreational experiences and environmental benefits for Allegheny County residents and visitors.

The Society of Women Environmental Professionals (SWEP) - Three Rivers Chapter is placing a spotlight on the County’s parks system and the essential role of the Allegheny County Park Foundation when we host “A Conversation with Caren Glotfelty: The Art of Possibilities for the Environmental Professional” on Tuesday June 26th in North Park. Our Chapter recognized the importance of this conversation early on and we are pleased to announce that the event has reached capacity and registration is closed. Please visit our website to learn more about SWEP, our mission, and upcoming events.

{Photos courtesy of the Allegheny County Parks Foundation}

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