Future of city parks may be decided within months

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The other day in Frick Park, Jim Griffin saw some youths playing a grounded version of Quidditch, the contact sport wizards on flying broomsticks play in the Harry Potter series. "And I thought, 'What the heck?' "

As an unusual park activity, that might top all, but Mr. Griffin, director of facilities for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, said nontraditional uses are increasing in parks.

Even before the city began showing modest growth in the youth population, parks served needs beyond picnic shelters and ballfields while the city's parks budget flat-lined.

In the coming months, the first component of the city's first master plan will gel all the information that's been gathered to address the optimal uses of green spaces for the next 25 years. Those decisions, into which the public has provided input since the process began in 2010, may result in a very different landscape.

From May 7 to 15, the Planning Department will hold five public sessions to present its draft version of the open space component of the master plan. The public will also be able to inspect the draft at public libraries and at PLANPGH.com before the final version goes to the planning commission.

Pittsburgh has 8.3 acres of park for every 1,000 residents. It has roughly 170 parks, parklets, playgrounds and other kinds of named recreational and green spaces.

Families still picnic and kids still throw balls and Frisbees, but a growing number also use off-leash dog play areas in parks as yoga and tai chi groups, outdoor science classes, art event organizers and lumberjacks in regional competitions.

"We have learned through the process to make sure we have flexible facilities and informal spaces that people can do any number of things in," said Andrew Dash, a senior planner for the city. "We are looking at the changing demographics and how that affects parks. The basic things like picnic shelters, ballfields and playgrounds are still what people most want to see, but there's also bike polo that's played on basketball courts in Bloomfield and Lawrenceville and more interest in trails, hiking and biking. There are things that are not even on our radar."

The city wants to accommodate what works, he said, and reconsider what doesn't.

While parks and green space make up 11 percent of the city's land mass -- another 18.7 percent is vacant lots -- the budget to maintain them is just below 1 percent for Citiparks and 2.5 percent, or $5.5 million, for public works capital projects. The general cost of vacant lots to the city is $1,200 per parcel per year, Mr. Dash said.

In a study of 100 cities by The Trust for Public Land, Pittsburgh ranks in the top half in amount of green space and the lower half in spending on it.

Budget constraints require the city to become more innovative in creating green spaces for communities that don't have access within a five- to 10-minute walk, he said. One idea is an outgrowth of Parking Day, an annual event in which some parking spaces are turned into recreational sites for the day.

"New York and San Francisco have done that on a permanent basis, and we're looking at whether we can" emulate that model, Mr. Dash said.

The plan also needs to make it easier for people to acquire or use vacant lots, he said.

Some parks may have to be closed, "primarily in places where we have experienced population loss," he said. Some may be returned to nature with trails, "so it's still park space but a different experience than a playground or open meadow."

The city has 19 public swimming pools, fourth in the nation per capita, and 18 of them are only open for three months a year. The Oliver Bath House on the South Side is indoors.

Public pools require people to climb out on a ladder, making them inaccessible to many elderly and the disabled. The 25-year plan will "need to figure out what we will do" to reconfigure some pools.

In several parts of the city, water spraying apparatuses have replaced pools altogether.

Teresa Thomas, spokeswoman for the parks conservancy, said user studies revealed that half the young families surveyed reported using parks weekly.

Because of its position in the heart of Oakland and the variety of activities the conservancy provides at Schenley Plaza, that gateway to Schenley Park is one green space that works optimally. The Trust for Public Land rated it one of the nation's top 50 most-visited parks.

Ms. Thomas said more than 500,000 people at 200 events are expected this year.

"We have events for all comers," Mr. Griffin said. "We try to program to maximize use, and what we have learned is to let the community do what works and try to keep it interesting and diverse. We're still learning. We have an idea how people should use the park, but the users know best."

The free public planning sessions are all from 6 to 8 p.m.: on May 7 at the Kaufmann Center, 1825 Centre Ave., Hill District; May 8 at the Kingsley Association, 6435 Frankstown Ave., Larimer; May 9 at Knoxville Elder-Ado, 320 Brownsville Road; May 14 at the Schenley Ice Rink, Overlook Drive off Greenfield Road, Oakland; and May 15 at Propel Northside, 1750 Brighton Road.

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Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.


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