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Museums & Parks: An Innovative Partnership in Pittsburgh

Each month, City Parks Alliance names one “Frontline Park” as a standout example of urban park excellence, innovation and stewardship from across the country. In recognition of its partnership and community engagement efforts, Buhl Community Park has been named a Frontline Park.

Located on an acre of Pittsburgh’s historic Allegheny Square, Buhl Community Park sits atop land that has served as a centralized community space for centuries. Formerly known as Diamond Park, it was originally designed as a town green and centerpiece of Allegheny City.  The city was annexed by Pittsburgh in 1907, and the green was eventually transformed into a plaza for the new Buhl Planetarium that replaced the superfluous City Hall. Continue reading

Mellon Square: Discovering a Modern Masterpiece

Susan Rademacher, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s Curator, has written a new book on Pittsburgh’s Mellon Square, its history and its recent rehabilitation by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy which, at first glance, is a paean to great landscape design. It is a jewel of an example of how a small public space when designed right can have a huge impact on a downtown or in this case, an entire city and over time.

Mellon Square: Discovering a Modern Masterpiece, the second in a series by the Cultural Landscape Foundation (Princeton Architectural Press, $24.95), traces the Square from its original design and construction in 1955 through its evolution as a public space that manages to stay relevant and foundational for over 50 years in a city that suffered its share of economic ups and downs.   Continue reading

The Collaborative Advantage: Part Two

Today’s blog entry picks up on my post from last week focusing on conversations with Tupper Thomas, former President of the Prospect Park Alliance and Administrator of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and Meg Cheever, current President and CEO of Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.  Pioneers in public-private partnerships for parks, both Meg and Tupper’s years of experience are filled with lessons for the rest of us – in how they got their start and in how they shaped their partnerships over the years.

The Prospect Park Alliance and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy are now in their 26th and 17th year of operation, respectively.  I talked with both women about what has changed since they started.

Growing Engagement
One thing that changed, says Tupper, is that by the late 1990s it was clear that the Alliance needed a way to engage members and partners outside of just the formal agreement they had with the city.  Many other residents and organizations cared about the park and wanted to influence was what going on with their own ideas, and Tupper knew that a diverse set of opportunities and programs was one way to get people to go into the park.

The Prospect Park Community Committee (ComCom) was specifically created to involve the local community in Prospect Park’s management and operations. The ComCom includes representatives from more than 50 local organizations, as well as all of the elected officials (federal, state, and city) and community boards that represent the park and the surrounding districts.

The ComCom plays an active advisory and advocacy role, representing the interests of park users and the community while making recommendations for the function and future of the Park. The ComCom meets monthly to discuss relevant issues of Prospect Park management (e.g., dog rules, garbage and recycling policies, park drive regulations), review all capital plans and programs, and have regular discussions with city agencies.

Prospect Park

Prospect Park

When the ComCom was created, the Alliance “…did a ton of research.”   They hired a person to help them understand the community culture; they worked with elected officials; and, they combed the neighborhood for responsible organizations that should be involved.  They reached out to them and invited them to join the committee.  It turned out there were a lot of activists – smaller ad hoc groups that offered ideas and solutions but did not have the capacity or skills or even the interest to be on the Alliance board and help run an organization.  So the ComCom offered a way for community members who had views on policy and operations to provide input.  And they were very helpful in that role.  “We worked hard to pick people who represented all of the usership – who they were and whether they would come and help even when there was no crisis, was important,” adds Tupper.

Since 1987, Park visits have increased from just 2 million a year to over 10 million today.

Growing Capacity
The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy is now in its 17th year of operation.  Support for their work and the public-private partnership has grown.  The funding community sees their track record of successful capital projects – the parks look great and are well cared for – and they see that it is now in everyone’s interest to look more broadly at how a partnership can help with capital and maintenance support for all city parks.

In 2006, the five-acre Schenley Plaza – used as a parking lot for decades – was restored to its intended use by the Conservancy and its community partners.   A second phase of the Plaza’s revitalization, the restoration of the Mary Schenley Memorial Fountain, was completed in 2008.  Like the partnership to restore Sister Cities Park in Philadelphia, a diverse group of institutions partnered to plan, design, and restore the park.

The Conservancy now has a 30-year lease and management agreement for the 5 acres – an agreement which gives them far greater oversight and management responsibilities than they have had before in any park.  The city provides some basic services, but the Conservancy provides extra sanitation, security, and additional horticulture.  They also manage concessions and the park’s new restaurant, as well as overseeing 200 free events each year.

Schenley Plaza

Schenley Plaza

It took three years to raise the capital dollars for Schenley Plaza, and now they are raising additional money.  “We still have 23 years left to go in our agreement, says Meg.  “We need to need to continue to raise more money or do things more efficiently to keep going.  For those places that require a more sophisticated amount of maintenance, we need to raise money for maintenance as well as capital.”

Mellon Square – a park over a parking garage and a historically significant example of mid-20th century modernist landscape architecture – is next up for the Conservancy.  They just raised the money to complete a capital restoration and to create a $4 million permanent maintenance fund.  Again, the Conservancy will work with the city but will have responsibility for the park’s oversight and maintenance.

Pittsburgh is blessed with being part of a Regional Asset District (RAD) that provides a sales tax override that throws off money for regional cultural assets in Allegheny County.  The city gets money for the 5 biggest parks in the city – considered regional assets – mostly for operations and some capital.  But there are about 170 parks in the city; 80% of the parkland is represented by the big parks but the city is now working with the Conservancy to figure out how to take care of the small parks not eligible for RAD money.

The vision of the conservancy – wide appreciation and enjoyment of the citywide park system – is a big vision. With a staff of 22 now, “…the challenge of where we stop and where we go is a conundrum that we work on every day,” says Meg.

Growing for the Future
Tupper retired from the Prospect Park Alliance last year.  Just before she left, the Alliance signed a new contract with the city. The legacy she wants to be remembered for?  “I wanted to make sure people from every income level and every culture felt welcome in the park,” Thomas told newspapers when she retired. “And I feel we’ve done that.”

When she announced her retirement, the Alliance hired a firm to help them make the transition – how to grow the Alliance into an institution and how to make the transition from a founding Executive Director – and make the organization into something that would last.

“The organization has to grow; the board has to transition to a new board with a regular addition of new members; and the organization has to become an institution.”  One question on the table is what the relationship will be like with the new mayor.  The new contract was important to clarify the differences in what the responsibilities would be for both partners and to lay the path for maintaining this partnership long into the future.

Tupper envisions the Park being much more like a cultural institution, like the Brooklyn Museum, but with this idea many people fear the loss of a government role.  Will privatization lead to a more heavy-handed private role in the name of efficiency?  No one has yet abused the privilege.  Still, it remains difficult to explain to residents and reporters how important the partnership is for maintenance, and how the Alliance is adding to that effort.  Tupper says that,

…the key question to ask on this issue is: are the policy and operations decisions still being made by the people who report to the mayor – who was elected by the people?  Cities are so strapped there has to be a give and take.  As the parks department budget gets cut, the conservancies have filled the gap.  Cities without them would pour money only into the popular parks.  The conservancies leverage their ability to raise private money to keep all the parks open.

In Pittsburgh, the same is true.  The kind of stuff the Conservancy is doing isn’t what city staff is doing; they collaborate with the city on a clear agenda that puts the parks first.  “Of course, the parks are still owned by the city which has control over park policy.”

Tupper Thomas and Meg Cheever

Tupper Thomas and Meg Cheever

In spite of private partnerships like those in Brooklyn and Pittsburgh, city parks departments should be putting more money into parks; it wouldn’t be that much of an increase to maintain a higher standard.  But that is one thing private park partners have not been able to do – increase the city budgets to reflect the higher priority that funders, members, and supporters have shown for the parks.  So, how do we ensure that there continues to be a sufficient amount of public investment in parks?  That’s one of the issues taken on by the City Parks Alliance, which believes that we need effective advocacy to ensure that the public dollars remain dedicated to parks. The kind of advocacy, commitment, and success that Prospect Park Alliance and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy have created.

The partnerships in Brooklyn and Pittsburgh will certainly evolve but the commitment by the Conservancy and the Alliance is certain; and their experience and their new contracts makes it clear about who is the decision maker and who makes the rules – and who carries them out.  Meg puts it perfectly when she says, “Tupper was so generous with her time in getting us started that I will forever be grateful. Each partnership has to go its own way in figuring out what works for their circumstance – but it is helpful to understand the context for the work, what has gone on before you and what lessons there are.”

KBlahaKathy Blaha writes about parks and other urban green spaces, and the role of public-private partnerships in their development and management. When she’s not writing for the blog she consults on advancing park projects and sustainable land use solutions.

The Collaborative Advantage

Most stakeholders in private public partnerships for parks agree that a good relationship – based on trust, competence and a shared vision – is the foundation for good collaboration toward realizing shared goals. The key part of collaboration is that it requires a close look at the behavior and strengths of both partners – generally through sharing knowledge, learning and building consensus. The collaboration comes in when the experience of both partners can be leveraged, combined, and capitalized to enable a stronger project or program effort.

The park partnerships that are successful make it look easy. But collaboration requires good leadership to work. Recently, I caught up with Tupper Thomas, former President of the Prospect Park Alliance and Administrator of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and Meg Cheever, current President and CEO of Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, to ask them about collaboration and its role in making park partnerships work. This blog is part 1 of 2 which describes our conversations.

The Prospect Park Alliance began its work in the late 1980s. The Pittsburgh Park Conservancy came later, beginning its work in 1998, building on the work of the Alliance and others who had broken ground on a new model of governance for parks. Both organizations remain hugely successful and influential and offer lessons for what works.

The Prospect Park Alliance

In partnership with the City of New York and the community, the Prospect Park Alliance restores, develops, and operates Prospect Park for the enjoyment of all by caring for the natural environment, preserving historic design, and serving the public through facilities and programs.

The Prospect Park Alliance was formed in 1987 to restore the park after years of budget cuts and a deterioration of both its natural areas and usage. The goal of the Alliance was to augment the park’s basic operating budget with private funds to help carry out capital projects and community programs. Its mission statement from the go-get made it clear that the goal of the organization was to operate the park in partnership with the parks department.



The Alliance, and the huge number of donors and supporters that it has cultivated, has not only been active in restoring Prospect Park’s physical well-being, transforming it into an important cultural institution and increasing usage of the park by 300% – it has become one of the vanguard partnerships that many new organizations look to when setting up their own park partnerships.

Tupper Thomas was hired by the city in 1980 with the assumption she would work to create the Alliance. Although the Alliance was ready to go by 1985, the mayor held up the process because he was concerned it would be too powerful in Brooklyn. By 1987, leadership had convinced the mayor to support it and announced the formation of Prospect Park Alliance with Tupper Thomas as both the park administrator and the head of the conservancy.

The Alliance is the partnership between the private sector and the City of New York that was integrated under Tupper’s leadership as the Prospect Park Administrator (salary paid by city) and the President of the Conservancy – one leader, two hats.

The Alliance board does not make policy regarding park rules, operations, etc. That is the Parks Department’s responsibility. The city and Alliance divide park operations 50/50 – a percentage that has taken a while to get to. The parks department provides the majority of basic services; the Alliance does additional work such as arboriculture, providing zone managers and a natural resources crew.



Tupper describes the beginning of the partnership:

“The city would put up some capital dollars, lead a public review of the project, do the design work and then we would find the remaining capital funds to get the restoration complete. We focused our efforts on raising money for maintenance and some restoration, providing long term maintenance for the large city funded capital projects.  And later, took over the programming. In the case of the woodlands restoration, twelve million dollars went into the project which took nearly 10 years. But then the Alliance committed raising much more money to maintain the forest and the natural area, for programming and to provide improved use of the space – not a capital budget but augmenting the maintenance budget.”

According to Tupper, the relationship with the city is all about “…equal power and comfort with the structure. That’s why it’s been quite successful. Having a hand in both camps wasn’t easy but it works well for the public.”

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

In early 1997, Meg Cheever left her job as publisher of Pittsburgh Magazine to lead a start-up venture to restore the city’s parks. In 1998, the Parks Conservancy entered into a public-private partnership with the city of Pittsburgh, working together to restore the city’s four regional parks: Frick, Highland, Riverview and Schenley. Since then, the Parks Conservancy has raised more than $60 million toward park improvements, and has recently expanded into other city parks as time and resources permit. Their mission includes restoring and supporting the whole park system in Pittsburgh:

Our mission is to improve quality of life for the people of Pittsburgh by restoring the park system to excellence in partnership with the City. Our vision is wide appreciation and enjoyment of a sustainable park system whose landscapes, facilities and programming set world standards of excellence.

Pittsburgh Parks

Pittsburgh Parks

“We started off with a goal to raise money and help with capital projects. Pretty soon after that we realized that maintenance was important and we probably needed to get involved with that, too,” recalls Meg.

But the context in Pittsburgh for a public private partnership was much different than in New York or other places. Thirty-five years ago, the bottom fell out of their economy. Following the 1981–1982 recession, the mills laid off 150,000 workers. The steel mills began to shut down and cause a ripple effect, as railroads, mines, and other factories across the region lost business and closed. Despite the economic turmoil, civic improvements continued as many sought to revitalize the city using historic preservation funded with private as well as public dollars.

Prior to the recession, Pittsburgh’s status as an industrial and banking center gave the city and the region a number of internationally-regarded museums, parks, libraries and cultural institutions. The people of Pittsburgh had come to expect quality in their public places. “There’s a different mindset in Pittsburgh. People in the city are used to government only being able to do so much. And people care about the parks and less about who does it.”

Meg says that the Conservancy took inspiration from Prospect Park and Tupper’s goal of blending the workforce of the city with the nonprofit under one mantra: “We work for the park.” In both cases, the two leaders agreed that the people who came to work in their parks were there because they loved the parks. The team approach built on the shared vision of what the parks could be.

Getting Started

In Prospect Park, teams of City and Alliance staff were combined from the start. The organization chart showed the Parks Commissioner and the Alliance Board Chair at the top and displayed shared leadership all the way down. According to Tupper, “We integrated the staff of both organizations who worked in the park. New hires came with money from either organization depending on who had it. Everybody worked as one team.”

In recalling the early years of building a collaborative partnership Tupper says, “In the beginning there were issues. We went through lots of team-building to get people working with each other better. We put people in each other’s offices. Those who worked there really loved the park – they all had that in common. And city people began to see how the private side could help with getting resources.”

In Pittsburgh, the Conservancy’s contract with the City was, and is, deceptively simple. The real work of defining how the partnership works is in the detail of the separate agreements that get negotiated for every project they work on together. Based on those more detailed work plans the city and Conservancy team meet at least on a quarterly basis for oversight meetings.

“In Schenley Plaza for example,” Meg says, “there is one key person from the city who knows what they need to be doing and he works with us. His work and ours is outlined in the lease for the plaza. If there is something unusual that comes up, we discuss it. The project agreement works pretty well. The same is true for Mellon Square – there is a lengthy agreement that spells out a protocol.”

Schenley Plaza

Schenley Plaza

Both leaders created an environment where the focus was on the park. “Lots of city staff wanted to stay in Prospect Park. The culture kept people because they wanted to be there.”

Recently, a new contract was signed between the Prospect Park Alliance and the City of New York. It basically says they are a partner; they can raise money, do events and pretty much do what both parties had been doing for the last 26 years – it just institutionalizes the partnership and roles they have played over all these years.
The same is true in Pittsburgh, where a new contract was also recently signed. It’s still a simple document that outlines the basic framework of a working relationship with the same process of negotiating a project agreement for each capital project that they do.

After 26 years in New York and 15 years in Pittsburgh, both partnerships were strong enough to leave the basic tenets of their contracts the same. So, what has changed? I’ll report on Part 2 of my interviews with Tupper Thomas and Meg Cheever next week.

KBlahaKathy Blaha writes about parks and other urban green spaces, and the role of public-private partnerships in their development and management. When she’s not writing for the blog she consults on advancing park projects and sustainable land use solutions.

August’s Frontline Park: Emerald View Park

Each month, City Parks Alliance recognizes a “Frontline Park” to promote and highlight inspiring examples of urban park excellence, innovation, and stewardship across the country. The program also seeks to highlight examples of the challenges facing our cities’ parks as a result of shrinking municipal budgets, land use pressures, and urban neighborhood decay.

Overlooking Pittsburgh

Emerald View Park, Pittsburgh’s newest regional park, is a model of steep hillside conservation. When completed, the Park will result in 280 acres of playgrounds, playing fields, and landscaped lawns connected by 19 miles of wooded trails in a healthy forest wrapping around Pittsburgh’s most visited neighborhood. It will also provide bicycle and pedestrian connections to downtown Pittsburgh and regional trail systems. Over the last 150 years, the land has been denuded, mined, settled (and vacated), and dumped upon. The Mount Washington Community Development Corporation (MWCDC) and the City of Pittsburgh have met this challenge head on, and in the last five years have restored nearly 6 acres of view corridor and native hillside habitat, planted over 4,200 native trees and shrubs, removed 160,000 pounds of dumpsite debris, engaged nearly 6,000 hours of volunteer service and 4,000 hours of youth workforce development, purchased an additional 28 acres of land for permanent greenspace, completed a 19-mile trail plan, constructed the first new mile of trail, and enabled $3.6 million in investments to further the Emerald View Park initiative.

Trail crew

1.4 million visitors a year come to the unfinished park to enjoy sweeping views of Pittsburgh and her rivers and bridges, so it’s clear that the economic development potential of Emerald View is significant. However, through a partnership with the A. Phillip Randolph Institute, Student Conservation Association, and GTECH Strategies, the MWCDC is ensuring that these benefits are leveraged and experienced equitably. They are training and hiring young at-risk adults to construct the park’s trail system and to restore healthy forests. By providing green jobs training resulting in actual employment, this program is helping to build confidence, skills, and abilities for at-risk young adults, increasing the likelihood that they will ultimately compete successfully in today’s job market.

Emerald View Park is being featured on CPA’s website, www.cityparksalliance.org, during the month of August.

The “Frontline Parks” program is made possible with generous support from DuMor, Inc. and PlayCore.


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