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A Conversation with Caren Glotfelty, Executive Director, Allegheny County Parks Foundation

Sunday, July 08, 2018 10:22 PM | Anonymous

What we learned: It was a great day for a conversation in the park!

On a beautiful summer day, SWEP Three Rivers Chapter took our conversation to Allegheny County’s North Park to learn about the Allegheny County Parks Foundation (ACPF) and its dynamic Executive Director, Caren Glotfelty. Established over a decade ago, the Foundation began as a way to raise money for recreational amenities in the County’s nine parks.  Since then, its role has evolved into a true partnership with Allegheny County and its network of Parks. Under Caren’s leadership, the ACPF works hand-in-hand with Allegheny County Parks to identify priority issues, projects, and studies that will benefit the expansive park system, which encompasses 12,000 acres across the nine parks.

The Allegheny County Parks are popular.

Little did we anticipate that our third “Conversation With” event would sell out two weeks in advance of the event! If you know Caren, you would agree that it wasn’t just the opportunity to spend the afternoon in the park. SWEP members and newcomers alike came out in droves to hear from Caren, a well-known environmental advocate who spoke passionately about the challenge keeping up with our parks and the broader environment issues facing our region.

Caren shared that the Allegheny County Parks system was established in the late 1920s by forward thinking County Commissioners and these actions have created long-lasting benefits for residents and visitors. Today our nine parks receive over 20 million visits a year and attract people from the entire region. How do we know this? Caren commissioned a study with Penn State researchers to conduct a statistically valid survey to estimate park usage. This level of usage demonstrates the importance of our parks as a recreational and social outlet. However, this information is essential for the County government to understand so that they can adequately address the demands placed on this important infrastructural and ecological resource.

We have history to share! North Park and South Park were designed by famed Landscape Architect Paul Riis. Original stone work and structures built in the early days, such as the Boat House in North Park, still remain. Sadly, the years have not been kind to all of his designs, but efforts are underway to restore these beautiful works of landscaped art. Our newest County Park, Hartwood Acres, was a former equestrian estate that was donated to the County. Today, the estate’s beautiful grounds host cultural events, such as concerts, outdoor theater, and yoga, and is home to valuable and historically significant sculptures.

Relationships are Important.  Over the years, the County has dedicated significant resources to the maintenance and improvements of the Parks. However, Caren recognized the opportunity to collaborate with other like-minded organizations to provide enhancements to the Park while improving the natural environment. To celebrate the Audubon Society’s 100th anniversary, Caren helped raise money to support the installation of 100 Chimney Swift habitat towers at scattered locations throughout the County Parks.

It’s the natural environment. In the early days of the Foundation’s work, not much attention was paid to the natural environment. Under Caren’s tutelage, significant progress has been made to study and document the health of the natural environment through ecological assessments either completed or underway. Caren referenced the recent study completed by Tree Pittsburgh regarding the loss of tree canopy how the Parks play an essential role in stormwater management and natural habitat, but that people still want the flat grassy areas to have picnics and play frisbee. When asked about the goal for tree cover across the 12,000 acres, Caren emphasized the need to enrich the experience that people have when they visit a park, but the focus on data collection and fact-based resource management is essential for the future resiliency of our parks. A recent example is the documentation of a beautiful forest environment by Pinkerton Run in Settlers Cabin Park, which sits below the extensively mined areas of the park. Caren noted that the grand tree stands were not expected in an area that had such a presence of extractive industries, but now they can develop a plan to protect this fragile resource.

Things, they are changing. When Caren started her career in the 1970s, the environmental movement was sweeping across the nation. Today, she sees a different political environment but believes that the value of protecting the health of our natural environment will continue to be an important consideration for our public officials and the residents who elect them. She stressed that we must first address the physical condition of our infrastructure if we are to attract the kind of high-caliber economic development desired in our region. For the Parks, Caren believes we should strive to return waterways back to their natural condition when possible and integrate the physical restoration of contours when designing new projects. She is also excited for their new renewable energy initiative that will feature solar installations at various park location.

So, what are the possibilities for environmental professionals? Sitting in front of a window overlooking North Park Lake, Caren shared a few words of wisdom with the capacity crowd of women and men. Take risks—but do not be afraid to ask for help. Get involved with professional groups and network as much as possible. (And invite Caren for a cup of coffee—she won’t turn you down!) When asked how to make a transition into the environmental field, Caren challenged everyone to broaden their experiences and knowledge by volunteering in an area outside their professional career path. She suggested that, by doing this, we will grow our expertise in new and exciting ways while broadening our network and perspective.

What is next? Caren continues to focus on partnerships and the financial health of the Foundation and parks, which requires a lot of outreach and fundraising. Upcoming events to benefit the Parks Foundation include Twilight Picnic For The Parks on August 25 in Hartwood Acres and Pour at the Park - North Park on September 7.  She plans to go mobile at some point with an Airstream Base Camp that will let her get back to nature with the help of her Ford Escape. For SWEP? We will continue our Conversation With… series in the hopes that we can elevate awareness of important environmental issues facing the Three Rivers Region. Perhaps you’ll leave inspired to engage on new environmental issues—or at least start a conversation about them with a woman who’s been down that road before.

SWEP-Three Rivers Chapter extends our heartfelt appreciate to Caren for her time – what a great way to spend the day! Thank you also to our Sponsors. We could not offer such a wonderful program without the following organizational support: Platinum Sponsor, ALCOSAN, and Bronze Sponsors: Babst Calland, eholdings, Moody and Associates, and Skelly and Loy. Thank you also to Tree Pittsburgh for the donation of heritage tree seedlings for door prizes. Three lucky people received a native tree grown from locally collected seeds and hand grown at the Tree Pittsburgh Heritage Nursery.

Photo credits: Meaghan Elliott Photography

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