Spring has arrived in Western Pennsylvania, and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy has programming planned to complement the blooms and new growth evident everywhere.

Free and ticketed activities will take place throughout the parks — including some new offerings at the Schenley Park Café and Visitor Center — as the conservatory works in partnership with the city, park rangers and community organizations.

Matthew Hileman, conservancy director of operations and visitor engagement, said in a news release that the organization is excited to introduce new programming at the visitors center. “It’s one of the conservancy’s most charming spaces, and we want it to become more of a neighborhood resource for everyone, including the university communities that call Oakland home.”

The nonprofit organization wanted to find ways to ensure Pittsburghers have access to nature-based activities in the under-utilized facility. So programming includes Panther Hollow Watershed Walks on April 10 and 24, a birding walk on April 15, Schenley Park Wildflower Hikes on May 8 and 22, and the second Mother’s Day Tea there, for a $35 fee with two sessions at noon and 3 p.m. Tabletop Tuesdays, an activity featuring an opportunity for visitors to play a number of games and puzzles at lunchtime, begins in May as does a Dungeons and Dragons Campaign Contest that leads to a game night in July.

Hileman’s office is in the visitors center, and when he started work for the conservancy just two months ago, several park rangers came to the building and offered to lead some programming there. “It was like [the rangers] read my mind,” he said. “The idea here is the visitors center should be the base camp for this system and the end for it as well. [It’s] just a great place for people to sit down and relax.”

He noted the proximity to the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. “Most of the people I see [during work hours] in the park are college students,” Hileman said. “What a gorgeous thing to have in your backyard.”

The building was a pavilion originally, often the site for dances, and it became a nature center in the 1960s, Hileman said. When funding ran out, not much happened there until it underwent a big renovation in 2002.

The spring programming guide is available on the conservancy’s online site, and highlights include forest bathing in a number of city parks — including Allegheny Commons, Frick Park and Riverview — birding classes, nature hikes, gardening for children, and more.

Forest bathing participants walk through Frick Park in a past program. (Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy)

Forest bathing is not new, Hileman said, but people may not be familiar with it or know that it is offered in the city’s parks. The concept?  “You are literally immersing yourself,” he explained. “Don’t take a camera, don’t take a cellphone, [and] don’t take any technology. Just go in the moment and connect with nature as a form of therapy.”

The conservancy is especially pleased to offer forest bathing in the restored Allegheny Commons, where an $800,000 allocation from the City of Pittsburgh Parks Tax Trust Fund and a gift of $1 million over four years from Duquesne Light allowed for the restoration of its North Promenade from Federal Street across Arch Street to the George Washington Monument.

The conservancy has held the line on its Schenley Plaza Carousel ride fees, too.  Individual rides will cost $2. A season pass will remain at $60, which covers two adults and up to four children. A day pass is $20. WIC program participants can ride the carousel up to five rides a day by showing their cards, Hileman said. The second Sunday of the month, from June through October, will be kids day there, meaning carousel rides will be free for them. Another day for families to mark on the calendar is National Carousel Day, July 25, when rides will be free. 

One activity for the carousel ties into the National Endowment for the Arts Blue Star Families program. Free rides will be offered to any active-duty military family from Memorial Day through Labor Day, Hileman said.

Residents who want to help keep Pittsburgh’s parks in the best shape possible can volunteer to help the conservancy and city with several events. Lake Elizabeth’s cleanup — What the Muck — is set for April 3 and 4. Help will be needed at the city’s newest park, Hays Woods, for cleanups to be scheduled throughout the spring and summer months.

Hileman wants to expand children’s programming, tying the traditional movie nights in the summer into the conservancy’s mission for the parks — to restore and improve the city’s park system to its full potential — as much as possible. He hopes to connect with Azure Family Concerts, efforts that provide live music in sensory-friendly judgment-free environments.

Hileman, who moved around a great deal because his father was in the military, returned to Pennsylvania in 2017 to work at the Marilyn Horne Museum at Pitt’s Bradford campus in 2017. Prior to working that, he had a long career in hospitality that took the Pittsburgh native to positions in Las Vegas; St. Louis; Washington, D.C.; and more.

He said residents are fortunate to have access to the city’s 165 parks all within a few walkable blocks. From his experiences living all over the country, “I don’t know of any other city that has the number of parks that we do. That makes Pittsburgh special.”

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at hfallon@unionprogress.com.

Helen Fallon

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at hfallon@unionprogress.com.