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Pittsburgh's City Parks: Wonderful Urban Nature Sanctuaries & Testaments to Progressive Urban Planning

Pittsburgh's City Parks are some of the crown jewels of the city and help make it a livable place for city residents. Before we delve into the system, it is important that we start off with some background on how they came about as a part of a progressive plan to make America's cities more livable in a time when cities were growing beyond their capacities and people were really hurting.

The Landscape Architecture and "City Beautiful" Movements to make America's cities more livable really took root in Pittsburgh. In the wake of horrendous tenements, shacks, and unlivable conditions that did not keep up with the booming expansion of industry in the mid 19th to early 20th centuries, progressive city planners opted to find ways to make city living more pleasant and livable for the masses within cities. Pittsburgh was a brutal place to live in as a working person in this time period.
City life in Pittsburgh's Hill District around the turn of the century. This photo from Historic Pittsburgh, showing what was some of the better housing for working class people in Pittsburgh. 

These conditions were outlined in the 1909-1914 Pittsburgh Surveys, along with other serious issues, which lead to national reforms such as the creation of Workers Compensation, advanced efforts to improve quality of life issues, and housing improvements.
Company housing in Homestead. Photo from 1909 in the Pittsburgh Surveys. 
Diseases like Typhoid and Tuberculosis ravaged working class communities across the country. 622 people died of Typhoid in Pittsburgh in 1907. One of the sociologists who worked on the Pittsburgh Surveys even died from Tuberculosis. The issues reported came to a head with the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic. Worker protections outlined by the Pittsburgh Surveys lead to sweeping labor rights measures that went into effect in New York State in 1910, only to be overturned by the courts in 1911. The notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which killed 146 workers happened the next day in New York City. Eventually the headwinds from the Pittsburgh Surveys prevailed and lead to huge improvements in worker safety and labor rights across the board. Thanks to James Maurer, a Socialist  Party State Representative from Reading, Pennsylvania passed a Workers Compensation Law in 1915, though it took until 1947 for the rest of the states to implement such laws. 

Company housing was often little more than shacks and disease ravaged the impoverished and hurting populations without simple amenities like indoor plumbing. People who were injured on the job were entitled to no protections and were tossed out to the curb like trash. They were left homeless, to create shacks from whatever wood scraps they could find and without any sort of safety net aid. City life for working class people, to put it mildly, was hell. The City Beautiful Movement was one aspect of a wide approach that aimed to improve urban life. While it did not solve the problems, it was one facet of a greater plan that laid a backbone to help improve city living that endures to this day.
A view of Skunk Hollow, located adjacent to the B&O and Pennsylvania Railroads near Bloomfield and North Oakland. In the far right you can see Luna Park, a former amusement park in Pittsburgh, as a view of stark contrasts between the wealthy and the impoverished. Picture from the 1909 Pittsburgh Surveys

Frederick Law Olmsted set the wheels in motion for a new wave in focus towards landscape architecture and the "City Beautiful Movement" with the creation of Central Park in New York City in the 1850s. Throughout his life he saw first hand what social inequality looked like. He opted to create Central Park as a place that was open and free for the public to visit, with no encroachment of private interests. This was a radical concept at the time, and much of his career was spent trying to instill this idea into the citizenry. Perhaps his most moving work of what I have seen was in the creation of Niagara Falls State Park on the New York side of Niagara Falls, in which he set about to create a large public park as an access point for the masses to see this natural wonder. He also designed the beautiful grounds for the US Capitol Building and a number of other national urban treasures. While he did not have any direct projects within Pittsburgh, his son's work extends across Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh itself. Olmsted work extends across Pennsylvania, with the creation of a number of campuses for colleges and universities, including Bryn Mawr College, Grove City College, Haverford College, Lafayette College, and Pittsburgh's own Chatham University. He also designed some of the state's finest city parks, including Philly's FDR Park and Scranton's Nay Aug Park. The borough of Vandergrift was designed from the ground up by him as a vision for a company town and company housing that was more compassionate to its workers, as opposed to the images of life for industrial workers that we just saw.

A number of civic improvements for Pittsburgh were suggested by Olmsted Jr. Of these suggestions, some were implemented piecemeal, and others were rejected as being too progressive. Some of the ideas that were implemented were the creation of the Parkway system, Schenley Plaza as a grand gateway to Schenley Park (though these plans were quickly scrapped to create a parking lot, and then restored back to a parklet area in 2006), Washington Boulevard, Liberty Bridge and Tunnel, and removal of the Grant Street Hump, a hill that was right in the center of Downtown Pittsburgh on Grant Street. A civic center and public garden was proposed to be built that extended from the area of the courthouse, though this never came to fruition.

Pittsburgh's system of city parks followed the lead of what visionaries like Olmsted were doing through creating large and public areas within cities to help improve quality of life. Edward Manning Bigelow followed this lead and helped to create the jewels of Pittsburgh's parks system. Bigelow is known as the first great visionary in Urban Planning in Pittsburgh's development. One of the ways he was able to garner such local influence is having a close friendship with Andrew Carnegie, which gave him the clout to make bold moves within the city.

Bigelow's leadership brought the city its great urban parks, the basis of its water and sewer system, and the creation of wide and beautiful boulevards to connect the neighborhoods of the city. In the case of the first park that we will evaluate, the water system and park system is fully joined with the city's reservoirs.

Highland Park
The ornate entrance plaza
Highland Park was founded in 1889 and opened in 1893 after the city bought out a number of farmers in the northeastern corner of the city surrounding the city's drinking water reservoir, which was a huge public health advancement in 1879.
Reflection Pond
This 377 acre park has hiking trails, picnic groves, the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, a beautiful fountain, and an overall forested urban oasis.
Dog Park
This section of the city grew as a streetcar/trolley suburb, and the creation of the park helped to make this new section of the city more livable than older sections of the city. Two of the most prolific figures in American pop culture grew up in the neighborhood and East End neighborhoods surrounding the park, dancer and actor Gene Kelly, and jazz legend Billy Eckstine.
Brit and CeCe getting ready for adventures at Highland Park
The park features beautiful architecture, a city reservoir, playgrounds, great hiking trails, a dog park, swimming pool, reflection pond, tennis courts, sporting fields, the Bud Harris Cycling Track (an outdoor and public bicycle velodrome), and more. Highland Park is a treasure.
It is a lovely place to spend a beautiful Sunday afternoon, or to just spend some time decompressing after work. All of the city parks offer this sort of setting, which brings so much quality to city life.
Heading over towards the reflection pond
The Reflection Pond
The entrance to the park area is adorned with Victorian style entrances with sculptures that were designed by Italian sculptor Giuseppe Moretti. Additionally, the entrances have ornate fountains and beautifully landscaped gardens. Moretti also created works for the next park we will be looking at, Schenley Park.

Schenley Park
Me and CeCe making the most of a sunset up at the overlook at Schenley Park's Schenley Oval

Similar to Highland Park, Schenley Park also came about through visionary planning. It is tough to imagine these days, but in the 19th century a good portion of Oakland was a rural suburb to Downtown Pittsburgh, complete with farming and grazing livestock. Building development was rapidly expanding in the boom days of Pittsburgh in the late 19th century. A 300 Acre tract, known as the Mt. Airy Tract, was owned by rich heiress Mary Schenley. When European settlers came to the region, William Thompson gained control of the tract. The wealthy O'Hara family purchased the tract from Thompson. General James O'Hara was a Revolutionary War Veteran and he bequeathed the land to his wealthy granddaughter, Mary Schenley. She suffered from Asthma and could not handle the poor air quality of Pittsburgh, but due to her grandfather's prolific real estate empire, she was a giant landowner in the city. From 1869 until 1889, Pittsburgh attempted to acquire the Mt. Airy Tract, but did not gain any traction. A bond issue came to vote in 1872, but lost by 4500 votes. In 1889, as Pittsburgh was in the midst of a building boom, Mary Schenley's Pittsburgh based real estate agent intended to head to London to convince her to sell the land to developers. When Edward Bigelow learned of this development, he dispatched his own team to persuade Mary to give the land over to Pittsburgh.
A view of Oakland from Schenley Park's Flagstaff Hill, with views of the campus of the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Institute (home of the main branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History) and Carnegie Mellon University

Bigelow's team rushed to London to talk with Mary Schenley about converting the Mt. Airy Tract into a park, beating the real estate agent by two days. Mary donated the main 300 acres of Schenley Park to the City of Pittsburgh, under the stipulation that the city must never sell the land, and that they must name the park after her. Bigelow happily obliged and created the first of the City Parks that were established by the City of Pittsburgh. Large developments occurred around Schenley Park, with the park serving as the heart of this region of the city. Oakland surrounds the western edges of the park, while Squirrel Hill surrounds the eastern borders. The world class campuses of the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon are directly connected to the land of Schenley Park. There is a strong chance that without the investment that the city put into Schenley Park, Oakland would not be the cultural center that we know and love. The University of Pittsburgh relocated to Oakland in 1907 to become better organized and expand, and Carnegie Mellon, then known as Carnegie Tech, was founded in Oakland in 1900. 
 Moretti's Panther Sculputres on the Panther Hollow Bridge. Pitt students are known to dress up the panthers for different holidays and seasons. 
 Panther Hollow Lake
Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens
Also connected to Schenley Park is the Carnegie Institute, which is home to the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History, the main branch of the Carnegie Library, and the Carnegie Music Hall, which was built on land donated by Mary Schenley to Andrew Carnegie to build the complex. The park is also home to Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, another of the jewels of the city of Pittsburgh. Phipps was founded in 1893 as a donation by real estate magnate Henry Phipps within Schenley Park. All of these institutes were set in motion with the planning of Edward Bigelow's work to make Schenley Park a center for the improvement of city life.

We mentioned earlier how Gene Kelly grew up in the improved living conditions that were offered in East End area. He ended up going to school at the University of Pittsburgh. He would go on to change American pop culture within his lifetime and many of these achievements are a testament to the changes that Edward Bigelow initiated in the quality of city life within the city of Pittsburgh. Every facet of Gene Kelly's life in Pittsburgh happened in the shadow of improvements that Bigelow made to the city. Had these changes not been instituted, there is a high likelihood that Gene Kelly's trajectory may have ended differently, even with the challenges he faced in his early life. 
One of the beautiful Tufa Bridges.
Today Schenley Park serves as an urban oasis, with sporting fields, picnic groves, a running track at the Schenley Oval (which was originally used for horse racing), tennis courts, frisbee golf course, miles of hiking trails, a pond, second growth woodlands, scenic views of the Downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland Skylines, an ice rink, a public golf course, and more. Beautiful stone pedestrian bridges are located within the park, including two large bridges, known as the Tufa Bridges, which were built in 1908 and are absolutely stunning.
One of the many stone bridges in the park built by the WPA during the Great Depression
There are many smaller stone bridges that were built as projects during the Great Depression by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) which gave employment to young men. Multiple statues by Moretti are located throughout the park, as they are in Highland Park.
Serpentine Drive's curves in autumn
Two 18th century cabins remain. One of the cabins, the O'Neill Cabin, was lived in by General O'Hara. Driving through the park in an automobile and by bicycle is also a real scenic treat. It is a joy to ride through the park, with its stunning views of the city and the exciting roads, including Serpentine Drive, a curvy road with beautiful stone walls on the edges that is utilized for the annual Vintage Grand Prix. In many ways, Schenley Park has directly and indirectly served as the heart of life in Pittsburgh since its founding. The visionary planning of Edward Bigelow at a regional level, and Olmsted at the national level, have left an indelible mark on the quality of urban life, one that cannot be easily quantified. 

Frick Park
Frick Park's main entry points are adorned with these beautiful gateways
Schenley Park adjoins the western edge of Squirrel Hill, and the next park we will check out, Frick Park, adjoins the eastern edge of the same neighborhood. Before you enter the Squirrel Hill Tunnel heading inbound, you see Frick Park. Soon after you leave the Squirrel Hill Tunnel, you pass through Schenley Park.

In addition to Squirrel Hill, Frick Park also adjoins Point Breeze, Regent Square, Swisshelm Park, Summerset, and Duck Hollow. These neighborhoods were shaped by heavy industry, with Summerset being a relatively new neighborhood which was built upon a giant slag pile from Pittsburgh's old steel industry. Duck Hollow was once a company housing spot and now it is Pittsburgh's smallest neighborhood. The neighborhood is boxed in on one side by a railroad that is adjacent to the Mon River, and on the other side by the border of Frick Park, in which the hollow was used as a thoroughfare for dumping slag from the steel mills. Just a handful of houses remain and the only way in is on a small bridge with only 11 foot clearance under the rail line. Point Breeze, Regent Square, and Squirrel Hill were where the wealthy industrial magnates often resided, which ended up leading to the creation of Frick Park in the first place, as a donation of land by steel magnate Henry Clay Frick.
Frick Park measures in at 644 acres and is mostly located within steep and heavily wooded ravines. Unlike Schenley and Highland Parks, which were pretty much set in size upon their founding, Frick Park has gradually grown, with lots of the growth occurring as industry slowed down within the region. Initially the park was began in 1919 and grew from the original 151 acres of land holdings from steel magnate Henry Clay Frick, upon his death. The park officially opened in 1927 with an initial will based investment of two million dollars from the notoriously stingy Frick. He only made that investment upon insistence from his daughter, rather than his own generosity. Through the years, the park has grown down the Nine Mile Run Valley to nearly reach the Mon River.

Recently, the park has been culturally significant with Blue Slide Park Playground being rapped about by the late Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller. 
The Braddock Steel Works off to the left, the Monongahela River and the Rankin Bridge in the center, and Kennywood Park off to the right. Kennywood is roughly four miles away from this spot, as the crow flies.

The park offers great easterly views out of the city at its higher elevations, with overlooks and vistas showing the Monongahela River, Kennywood Park, the steel mill in Braddock, Homestead, Edgewood, and Swissvale. While scenery and those neighborhoods are not often associated with each other, the views really are quite impressive. Beautiful and ornate stone structures are located throughout the park and really add to the relaxing feel of the place.
Frick Park Nature Center
A state of the art nature center was opened in 2016 and wildlife abounds throughout this enormous park. It is a noted sanctuary for birding, along with many mammal species and amphibians. It is also home to a sprawling dog park, the Off Leash Exercise Area, which CeCe really loves.

Riverview Park
The three of us up at the beautiful Allegheny Observatory
As opposed to the prior three parks, this park was not actually created by the City of Pittsburgh. Most of the North Side of the bank of the Allegheny River across from Pittsburgh was the city's similarly sized twin, Allegheny City. The twin cities merged into one in 1907. The 259 Acre Riverview Park was built in 1894 as a response to Pittsburgh's construction of Schenley Park. Riverview Park was built into a hillside in Perry North and is home to great hiking, a dog park, a pool, playgrounds, and picnic shelters. Riverview Park is best known for its outdoor concerts, which often include jazz performers. It is also well known for its ornate architecture, including the Allegheny Observatory, an beautiful structure that was built in 1900 and serves as the centerpiece for the park. It is the home of the University of Pittsburgh's Department of Geology and Planetary science as is also home to Western PA's only Seismic Station. When the observatory was built, it was committed to being open and free to the public, a mission which is still followed.

Similar to the other three major Pittsburgh city parks that we have covered, this is a forested urban oasis.

Allegheny Commons Park
Allegheny Commons Park is the oldest park in the City of Pittsburgh. Similar to Riverview Park, Allegheny Commons Park was also created by Allegheny City and did not become a part of Pittsburgh until 1907. The park was established in 1867 in the center of Allegheny City. Even today, Allegheny Commons serves as the heart of Pittsburgh's North Side.
It is home to a mature arboretum with lovely tree cover and walking paths, an awesome overlook for those who enjoy watching trains, the National Aviary, an ornate fountain, Lake Elizabeth, views of the Pittsburgh skyline, and more.
The park is especially beautiful in autumn, with its deciduous trees showing radiant yellow, orange, and red leaves. In the spring, a beautiful row of cherry trees lines Lake Elizabeth and frames the view of the Downtown Pittsburgh. This park was ornately planned by Mitchell and Grant, out of New York City. They were leaders in the City Beautiful Movement. Walking around Allegheny Commons Park is delightful and a real testament to what those city planners were working to achieve.

Thanks to progressive planning, these parks contribute to the health of the region in many ways. Not only in allowing great opportunities to exercise, take in some fresh air, and socialize, they also create lots of fresh air within the city itself. At the start of the 2010s, Pittsburgh was a leader in urban forests and tree canopy cover. However, since then, due to willy nilly cutting down of trees and disease, Pittsburgh has lost about 10,000 acres of tree cover, according to Tree Pittsburgh, an organization that is dedicated to reforesting the city of Pittsburgh. As a metro area, the City of Pittsburgh has an F grade in air quality in ozone and particle pollution according to the American Lung Association. Outside of California, Allegheny County is the only American county outside of California to fail on Ozone, and daily and long-term fine particle pollution. All tree cover within the city is important to help mitigate this bad air quality, and the city's tree cover within its parks is invaluable in this effort.
A view of fireworks from the scenic overlook at beautiful Frank Curto Park
Pittsburgh has a great system of smaller parks and parklets that are evenly spread across the city, but these five parks are the largest and the true gems of the park system. They are a testament to what can be achieved with forward thinking in civic planning and help make Pittsburgh a great place to live.
North Shore Riverwalk/Three Rivers Heritage Trail, popular for sightseeing, bicycling, running, dog walking, and more.
When coupled with Point State Park and the open riverfront access by way of the construction of multi use/bicycle trails, there is no shortage of public land for recreation within the city. All of this visionary planning has added so much to the overall quality of life in the city and should serve as a benchmark for future development within the city.

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