The Allegheny County parks system is one of the largest county park systems in the Northeast—larger than the Fairmount Park system in Philadelphia or the Baltimore County park system. And part of the reason why our county parks have remained such rich resources in an era of shrinking revenues is the county government doesn’t go it alone. Since 2007, it has worked with the Allegheny County Parks Foundation to maintain and improve the parks. Recently, we got a chance to chat with foundation executive director Caren Glotfelty about how some recent park improvements are paying off big for local residents.
The Allegheny Front: So today, we’re here at South Park. What are some of the recent projects you’ve been working on here?
Caren Glotfelty: Some of the first projects that we undertook in all of the parks were trail connectors. People wanted the ability to bike or walk from South Park to the Montour Trail, for example. And building that two-mile connector was one of our very first projects. The second big project that we undertook was the restoration of the old fairgrounds “oval,” which used to be a horse racing track. It’s a mile long and people love to run and walk on it. And the inside of the oval was developed into several playing fields.
LISTEN: “What’s New at Allegheny County’s Nine County Parks”
AF: And we noticed you got rid of the bleachers, where people used to watch the horse races from.
CG: Yeah, the bleachers were in terrible condition. So part of the project to restore the oval was to take out the bleachers. Now, a lot of people who are runners and fitness buffs like to run up and down the steps, so they were a little upset that we were removing the bleachers. But we did replace the staircases with poured concrete steps, and you’ll see a lot of people running up and down those now.
AF: And you also planted a lot of flowers.
CG: Yeah, the sides of the oval used to be mowed frequently, but they’re kind of tough to mow and it’s not very environmentally friendly to have steep slopes with continual short grass. So part of the restoration was to replant the steep banks surrounding the oval with a mix of wildflowers, grasses and other meadow plants that will be mowed only once or twice a year.
AF: And behind this area, there’s a parking lot that’s not in great shape. What’s the plan for that?
CG: One of the things the Parks Foundation contributes is new ideas. We stepped up and said, ‘You know, the region is talking a lot right now about green infrastructure as a component of managing the stormwater contribution to our sewer systems. Why don’t we think about designing and building a parking lot there that will trap and treat stormwater?’ We just recently received a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to design, engineer and get permits for a parking lot that will not just be a conventional asphalt parking lot. It would collect stormwater; it would have bioswales that would be planted with rain gardens. And it would have a permeable surface so that stormwater would flow into an under-drain and be held for a while before being discharged to Catfish Run.
AF: And what are some of the projects you’re taking on in the other eight county parks?
CG: Well, the county has put most of its resources into maintaining and improving the recreational aspects of the parks. But the natural setting is what makes these parks so spectacular for people who want to come spend time here. The county parks department never really had professionals who were trained in forestry or natural resources management. So the forests and fields in these parks haven’t been paid the kind of attention they need to make sure they stay in good condition. So we have experts looking at how we can make sure the forests stay as disease-free as possible and how we can control invasive species. Also, maybe there are grassy areas that aren’t being used as playing fields, and they could become meadows that would attract birds and pollinators and other species.
AF: And what about wildlife? I know there’s actually a wildlife preserve here at South Park. There are even buffalo here.
CG: That’s right. The buffalo have been here since the 1930s. That was an early idea that the first county parks department had. We’re particularly interested in bringing birds back to the parks. For example, chimney swifts are very beneficial to the environment. They’re a voracious eater of insects like mosquitoes and gnats. But they’re habitat has been disappearing because people don’t build chimneys anymore that aren’t lined with metal. Chimney swifts are unusual birds because they can’t roost on branches or stand on the ground. They have to perch on a vertical surface. So the Allegheny County Parks Foundation has partnered with the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania to build new artificial habitats for chimney swifts in all nine county parks. We’ve constructed 22 towers in North Park, and we’re just starting to build them in South Park.
AF: So you’ve worked on environmental issues like water quality and air pollution for a long time. What do you like about working on parks?
CG: Well, I’ve spent most of my career working on what a lot of people refer to as “doom and gloom” issues. And parks are so positive. It’s just really wonderful to work on something that makes people smile instead of frown.
Caren Glotfelty is the executive director of the Allegheny County Parks Foundation, an organization dedicated to the improvement, preservation and restoration of Allegheny County’s nine parks.