This story was originally published on July 21, 2012.

For kids who grow up in cities, a love of nature can be an acquired taste. But a program at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy is showing that pitching in at city parks can spark an appreciation for the environment. Former Allegheny Front intern Aisha Hughes served as a crew leader for a group of these Urban EcoStewards when she was a junior at City Charter High School. Here’s what she had to say about the experience.

Before becoming an EcoSteward, I didn’t care much about the environment. But joining has definitely helped to change my mind. When I took a science and sustainability course last year, I heard a lot about the worldwide “green movement,” but threats of global warming weren’t enough to make me concerned about helping to promote environmental sustainability. Initially, I joined Urban EcoStewards just to get out of class. It wasn’t until our first visit to our site, the Panther Hollow Watershed, that my feelings began to change.

Our first crew outing was in February, shortly after Pittsburgh’s ‘Snowmageddon’ storm. So as you can imagine, the weather was pretty bad, but we still decided to take our monthly trip. While there, we girdled invasive Norway maples on the snowy hills surrounding the Panther Hollow Lake. Girdling—or ring-barking—is when strips of bark are removed from trees using small, gun-shaped tools with edges that shave away the bark. We did this to kill off invasive Norway maples and make room for native plants. I really liked girdling with the EcoStewards, but even this didn’t make me see the importance of helping the environment.

LISTEN: “A City Kid Learns the Value of Public Parks”

What really helped was just taking time to actually look at all the things the park had to offer. One of the things the EcoStewards do in just about every trip is journaling. Crew members scatter around their site to write not only about the day’s activities, but also to reflect on their personal feelings of simply being in the park. Taking this time to really stop and take in the beauty of the park helped to change my perspective about environmental sustainability.

I had been to the park a lot of times when I was younger. But like most kids my age, I would rather be indoors spending time on the computer, at the mall, reading, sleeping or watching TV. Looking back now, this was why many of my fellow crew members and I couldn’t grasp the importance of helping to improve the environment.

In our cultural literacy class, we are learning about the famous Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu. One of Lao Tzu’s most famous quotes is, “A well frog cannot conceive of the ocean.” This basically means that a frog that spends all of its life in a hole could not ever truly grasp the concept of an ocean it has never seen. In many ways, we EcoStewards were kind of like the well frogs from Lao Tzu’s quote. Many of us hadn’t been to the park or in any green areas around the city for years. So the importance of keeping them around for future generations wasn’t important to us. It wasn’t until we actually experienced and saw the beauty of the park with our own eyes that we were able to understand its significance.

I was able to realize green spaces—which aren’t that common in urban areas—are very important to sustain. Being an EcoSteward gives me the chance to give back to my community and help sustain the city’s green areas for future generations, which is why I enjoy doing it so much.

###

Aisha Hughes served as a crew leader in the Urban EcoStewards program, a project of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy that trains students in the removal of invasive species and maintenance of public green spaces.