City parks convention draws 500 visitors here

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Pittsburgh's revitalized parks will be in the spotlight for the next few days as the 2008 International Urban Parks Conference brings almost 500 parks professionals and advocates to town to tour the city's parks and designed landscapes.

They'll also investigate some of the most important parks issues of the day, including preservation, maintenance, accessibility and environmental sustainability -- and how to pay for all of that with public and private funding.

"Body and Soul: Parks and the Health of Great Cities" is the theme of the biennial conference, which will explore how parks from Pittsburgh to New Zealand to Korea contribute to the well-being of cities. The conference, tomorrow through Tuesday, will draw almost 40 participants from outside the U.S., including South Africa, Mexico, Pakistan, Germany and the United Kingdom.

It's the first year the conference has tried to attract international participants.

"Parks and open space is really a global issue," said Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy's founding president, Meg Cheever. Cities around the world understand that quality parks make them more competitive and livable. "In Korea they are ripping down an expressway and putting in a linear park. They want to make sure they have enough park space as the population grows."

Pittsburgh landed the conference through the efforts of the conservancy, which has guided more than $37 million in revitalization and restoration efforts in Schenley, Frick, Highland and Riverview parks over the past 11 years.

"People were fascinated with the way this city had transformed itself from a gray wasteland of industrial sites into a green city" over the decades, Ms. Cheever said. "Seeing Pittsburgh's green evolution on the ground and knowing it was the city's 250th birthday put us over the top."

The conference is co-sponsored by two Washington, D.C., nonprofits -- the City Parks Alliance advocacy group and the National Association for Olmsted Parks, which promotes the principles and legacy of the more than 500 parks, private estates, residential communities and campuses designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and his sons.

It will draw attention to several Olmsted-designed places in the region, including the borough of Vandergrift and the campus of Chatham College, a 32-acre arboretum.

Vandergrift, planned by Olmsted, Olmsted and Eliot in 1895, is one of several conference tour destinations, along with Chatham Village, Fallingwater, Market Square and Mellon Square, Katz Plaza and the Cultural District. With its parks and health theme, the conference also will show how American parks are working with the public health community to promote active living.

Former Pittsburgh planning director Eloise Hirsh will return wearing a new hat-- project administrator for the planned transformation of the now-closed New York City dump on Staten Island into Fresh Kills Park. She'll discuss that challenge in a session on transforming degraded places into parks.

Mobile workshops will examine six success stories here: the greening of Schenley Plaza; the micro-filtration plant in Highland Park that allowed the main reservoir to remain uncovered; the ongoing restoration of trails and woodlands in Schenley Park; the partial restoration of Allegheny Commons; the transformation of the 100-acre Nine Mile Run area from slag dump to public park and the green buildings of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.

Keynote speakers are Teresa Heinz, chairwoman of the Heinz Endowments; Luis Garden Acosta, founder in 1982 of El Puente, a community human rights and environmental organization in Brooklyn; and Richard Louv, author of "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" and founder of the Children & Nature Network.

For more information about the conference and tickets to talks, visit www.urbanparks08.org or call 412-682-7275.


Architecture critic Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.


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