This month the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy staff and other nonprofit groups will head to Renziehausen Park in McKeesport to plant 20 250-pound, 8- to 10-foot-tall trees with the help of many volunteers, a continuation of its community greening efforts in the city.
Since 2013, WPC and the community development nonprofit Tube City Renaissance have planted 199 large trees along streets, in parks, and at the community library and the city schools. The WPC work stretches back further than that, and more is coming after the Nov. 30 planting as part of the organization’s McKeesport Community Greening Project.
At a meeting last month with some partners, city officials and interested residents, Jeff Bergman, WPC senior director for community forestry and TreeVitalize Pittsburgh — the conservancy’s joint project with Allegheny County Parks, the city of Pittsburgh, Tree Pittsburgh and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources — gave a preview of what has happened already in the city and what is yet to come.
A big part of the Community Greening Project is engaging even more of the city’s residents and groups. “The goal of this work is to develop and implement projects that provide measurable environmental, economic, social, recreation, and health benefits to low-income communities throughout the region,” according to a WPC news release.
WPC’s McKeesport Community Greening Project received a $44,000 grant from the Community Conservation Partnerships Program from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources in December 2021. That grant has been matched by “significant in-kind, donated professional services by our partners on the project — primarily Tube City Renaissance and the city of McKeesport,” Bergman said, and representatives from both are on the project steering committee. Most of the grant award is being used for contracted services with UrbanKind Institute and Merritt/Chase, the landscape architecture firm.
“The overall goal of the current phase is to build new community partnerships in McKeesport to support further community greening work, such as tree plantings and green infrastructure,” Bergman continued. Jamil Bey, president and CEO of UrbanKind Institute, is leading the partnership efforts and spoke at the October meeting.
WPC completed an earlier phase of the project with a $100,000 grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation. That funding was used to complete the hydrologic analysis of McKeesport, a street tree inventory and a community engagement process to identify locations for green infrastructure.
From all that research and data collection, three possible locations for the green infrastructure for this project have been identified — Kelly Park, Cox’s lot and Renzie Park. How many will be constructed will be determined later, following more community meetings and once more funding for their construction is obtained.
WPC’s green infrastructure projects always have two components, Bergman said — an engineered plumbing component to control water and a planted part that also absorbs stormwater and stops excess water from overwhelming the sewage system. They will include planted spaces, stones, native plants and possibly a pollinator aspect that will be multifunctional.
UrbanKind will help identify those spaces and what will be constructed within them. “Dr. Bey is helping us build more partnerships with folks that might see themselves connected to trees or green infrastructure,” Bergman said. “But there will also be a zeroing in to find the places where people really want trees and where we can construct some green infrastructure.”
He said WPC is fortunate to have Tube City Renaissance, city officials and other groups already involved with McKeesport through the past projects. This project builds on those relationships, and Bey’s work is not being rushed or held to a specific timetable. Two more community meetings will be scheduled.
“The score of [Bey’s] contract is to work with community groups to build partnerships we don’t have yet. To be successful over the long [haul], the community as a whole has to embrace it and realize it is something that is positive for their community. It’s recognizing that there are people like Dr. Bey who can connect McKeesport community residents to greening. We can do those connections better — I need help to do it the right way.”
Bergman emphasized the project’s larger purpose: “In general, McKeesport is a community that needs resources and has been greatly affected by disinvestment. That is where we want to focus our resources on our projects. Dr. Bey’s role is to build partnerships with people we don’t know. And they may not know about the work we’re doing. He’s developing a process for people to care about greening. It’s a work in progress, but we want to connect with more people.”
At the October meeting, Bey — who taught at McKeesport Area High School some time back — said he knows this project will help build community as well as plant trees.
“It’s an investment, a connection that builds community. A side benefit, the people involved address other issues in their community,” he said. “So we call this initiative Trust Trees. With climate change, we need a healthy urban core, and we need the community to buy into that.”
Bey’s work inside and outside of Pittsburgh always brings up the same community needs. “People want safe places for their kids to play, lower energy bills, don’t want damp basements. Trees won’t change that, but they do have side benefits,” he said.
Bergman told attendees at the October meeting, “Trees are transformational. They change the way a street looks, how a neighborhood looks.”
One of the larger benefits of WPC’s current and past work in McKeesport is other projects have developed in tandem or as part of the nonprofit’s efforts, and the ability to connect with other nonprofit environmental organizations working in the city, too, is just a win-win in Bergman’s world.
For example, Danielle Forchette, WPC education coordinator, explained at the October meeting her work on another WPC McKeesport project that will connect early childhood centers with greenspace centers. Converting concrete spaces to natural spaces, using trees, mulch and stepping stones, enables them to become outdoor classrooms, she said. WPC has just received funding that will enable it can work outside of its projects with the Pittsburgh Public School District, and the first one will be in McKeesport. The grant and project will create four early childhood education classrooms in McKeesport, she said.
Ben Kehoe, community conservation coordinator for the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, told attendees at the meeting that his organization has expanded its programming for children to adults, thanks to Richard King Mellon Foundation and Environmental Protection Agency grants. The two-year project has many partners in Mon Valley municipalities and schools, as well as residents, including the McKeesport Area School District, TriCOG Land Bank, Dravosburg, South Versailles, Versailles and White Oak. The components include bird education programs, bird friendly backyard habitats and nature walks.
Every first Friday of the month, the society leads a bird walk in Renzie Park. Upcoming ones are scheduled for Friday, Nov. 3, and Friday, Dec. 1. The walks are free, Kehoe said. They start at the senior citizens center from 9-10:30 a.m. and happen rain or shine.
So much is happening, Kehoe said, that his nonprofit has opened a satellite office in McKeesport.
WPC has added the Audubon group to its McKeesport Community Greening Project steering committee. “In my mind, it’s a big tent, and it [Audubon’s work] aligns with what we are doing,” Bergman said
And the Nov. 30 event is a major example of that thinking. He explained that a big group of tree-related nonprofits applied for Inflation Reduction Act funding, with Tree Pittsburgh as the grant recipient and the fiduciary partner.
The result? “A historic amount of money channeled, and the collective group obtained an $8 million grant for all to fund projects, and that is why the planting in McKeesport is on the schedule,” he said.