The City of Pittsburgh boasts an astonishing 163 parks, spread across 3,800 acres. The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy is a nonprofit that is helping the city restore and beautify 22 of those parks through a public interest partnership agreement. We spoke with Catherine Qureshi, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s president and CEO, about some of the projects that the organization has taken on, along with the role that parks play in communities.
North Hills Monthly (NHM): What is the mission of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy?
Catherine Qureshi (Qureshi): Our mission is to improve the quality of life for Pittsburghers by restoring the park system to excellence. All of the work we do is in partnership with the City of Pittsburgh.
NHM: What is the organization’s background?
Qureshi: It was formed in 1996 by a group of concerned citizen-volunteers worried about the deteriorating condition of Pittsburgh’s parks. It is obviously a city responsibility, but sometimes when there are budget crunches, parks can become less of a priority, which is why this group of volunteers formed the Conservancy. It started as the Schenley Park Conservancy, and over time it grew to include other regional parks, and from there it grew to the entire system.
NHM: What are some noteworthy projects that the Conservancy has taken on?
Qureshi: To date, we’ve completed 22 capital improvement projects. A really good example is the Frick Environmental Center in Squirrel Hill, a living building and one of only 15 in the entire world. We designed and built this building start to finish; it’s really something that wouldn’t have been appropriate for the city to do, though it was very appropriate for us with philanthropic dollars. That is where our educational team is housed; we have gardens and wetlands and more there. We also do horticulture and forestry and yoga in the parks and more; we offer a diverse array of things.
Another is the restoration of August Wilson Park in the Hill District. Schenley Plaza is also our project, and Mellon Square Park in Downtown, which sits on top of Mellon Square Parking Garage.
NHM: Are there any capital projects on the horizon?
Qureshi: Our next project, which will be number 23, is the restoration of Flagstaff Hill in Schenley Park. There is a lot of history there, but it doesn’t leap to the eye. We are going to restore the entry steps, retaining wall and an overlooking terrace—we will do it in a historical manner and start that work in the spring.
NHM: Do you have experts on staff or do you partner with area experts on these projects?
Qureshi: Yes to both: we have a small staff of horticulturalists and a landscape architect, and we work with the city and their experts as well. We also get field contractors as needed. We have less than 40 fulltime employees; for the breadth and depth of the work we do, we are a small unit but have significant expertise in that staff.
NHM: Over the years, how much money has the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy spent on improving or beautifying Pittsburgh’s parks?
Qureshi: In 25 years, we have raised more than $130 million from philanthropy, foundations, individuals, corporations and grants—all of which goes back into the parks.
NHM: In your opinion, what is the most significant project that the Pittsburgh Parks Conservatory has undertaken?
Qureshi: Schenley Plaza in central Oakland. It’s only 15 years old, but it feels like it’s always been there. It is a beautiful green space transformed from a gravel parking lot. You can imagine how people felt losing parking at first, but now it’s a space that people can’t live without. There’s a historic carousel, diverse food kiosks, and an anchor restaurant, the Porch. People have weddings and bar mitzvahs there; it’s really a lovely part of Oakland.
NHM: How important are volunteers and supporters to your organization?
Qureshi: It is extremely helpful to have volunteers come out, be it through a corporation on corporate volunteer days, or sometime we will offer solo cleaning initiatives. There are so many ways to participate from traditional volunteering to coming to the parks’ programming. A lot is free, and it’s so great to have people come out. Just enjoying the green space is important, as it raises the level of interest that big decisionmakers have in the parks.
NHM: One event coming up is ‘What the Muck?’ Can you elaborate on what that’s about and how people can help?
Qureshi: For three days every year, people from the community come out and clean out the dregs of Lake Elizabeth in Allegheny Commons Park. It is on April 5, 6 and 9 and is sponsored by the Pipitone Group. Also, we don’t just do Earth Day—we celebrate Earth Month. It is important for us to be in areas beyond just the Frick Environmental Center, beyond just Schenley. We want to be in different neighborhoods throughout the month of April. The events vary, but we provide different educational programs with school and family groups; we have very diverse offerings.
NHM: Can you also talk about the PNC Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy Spring Hat Luncheon?
Qureshi: The hat lunch is a lovely event. It is coming up on May 7, and it’s back in person again for the first time in two years. We offered “Picnic in Your Park” the last few years, encouraging people to dine in their favorite park, but this traditional marquee fundraising event is back in action. We have raised over $10 million in its lifetime since it started in 1999—it essentially funds unfunded programs. A lot of what we do is funded by grants, local philanthropists, individual supporters, and the luncheon, which is the avenue to funding many projects.
NHM: What makes Pittsburgh-area parks stand out from those in other cities?
Qureshi: I think that there are so many of them—more than 163 parks and recreation sites—and they’re so diverse in what they offer. For example, Frick Park is huge and there’s so much animal life there and you feel like you’re in the woods and far away. Ormsby Park in the South Side is urban and anchored by a playground. It is so special and is close to where my children grew up.
NHM: Why are parks important to communities? How do they impact people’s lives?
Qureshi: Parks improve people’s physical, mental and emotional health. We really saw this in the pandemic; in the early days of the pandemic, nothing was open and people couldn’t travel; the parks had a substantial increase in use, peaking at more than 180 percent over baseline at one point.
People finally began to appreciate the parks. Hopefully the pandemic will soon be over, but I think that people will always appreciate that this is something we took for granted—the parks are here and they always will be. Everyone is welcome. We truly believe they are society’s most democratic spaces, and there is zero expectation that you spend money.
For more information about What the Muck, the Spring Hat Luncheon or any other events, visit https://pittsburghparks.org.