The Frick Environmental Center Outdoor Sensory Classroom, the first of its kind in a Pittsburgh park, moved closer to reality these past few weeks. 

First, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy project went out for bid to contractors just a week ago. Second, the Clearview Federal Credit Union announced it will invest $100,000 over the next four years in the Frick Park project, according to a news release.

Conservancy leaders said in the news release that the project will empower children and adults with disabilities, mobility challenges and varying sensory needs to explore and interact with the city’s largest green space. Groundbreaking will take place in late May or June, said conservancy director of community projects and engagement Brandon Riley, and the goal is to finish it by late October or early November.

Encompassing 3 acres immediately adjacent to the Frick Environmental Center, the site will feature an ADA-accessible one-third-mile trail that will wind through the woodlands and include discovery stations along the way that encourage visitors to pause and participate in activities that promote nature-based learning and engage the senses, according to the news release. Gathering spots will give visitors the opportunity to rest and reflect and allow organizations serving youth with disabilities to host free field trips.

Lead funding for the project came from the Edith L. Trees Charitable Trust, and the City of Pittsburgh Parks Tax Trust Fund provided additional support. Prior news reports indicated the project’s design budget is $100,000 with an estimated $1.5 million construction and maintenance budget.

All this started off with a unique opportunity. The conservancy had been approached by a funder to create a sensory garden or trail at the Frick Environmental Center, said Riley, who oversees capital projects and improvements. So staff members looked at the current spaces and the nature-based education programs at the center, reviewing what they believed it would take to provide a sensory experience for all and in doing so upgrade the existing facilities.

“Where we were doing the programming at the Frick Environmental Center it wasn’t a good fit [for individuals with accessibility and inclusion issues],” Riley explained. “We saw a shortcoming. It all came together at the right time.”

To ensure that would happen, the staff assembled an advisory committee and more than 26 special interest groups that could guide it through the project. Also, children and adults with disabilities, accessibility advocates, caregivers and educators offered feedback, the news release stated. “We wanted to find what the needs are for an outdoor education space and the challenges people with disability face,” he said. That process took five to six months. 

Advisory committee members include representatives from Pittsburgh City Council members Erika Strassburger’s and Barb Warwick’s staffs, Autism Connection of Pennsylvania, Autism Urban Connection, Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, Down Syndrome Association, Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh, CLASS, Pittsburgh Public Schools and its Programs for Students With Exceptionalities, UPMC Disability Resource Center, Wesley Spectrum School, Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children, and the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. City departments involved included City Planning, Public Works, Public Safety, CitiParks and the city’s ADA coordinator,

From that point, the bulk of last year the conservancy worked with Pashek+MTR, a landscape architectural firm based on the North Side, on the design. It also had the assistance of CAST, a nonprofit education and development accessibility organization that created the Universal Design for Learning framework and UDL Guidelines, now used all over the world to make learning more inclusive, according to its website.

Riley said Pashek+MTR will also assist with the signage and more to help people with disabilities have all the information they will need to explore the space. That will also include more assistive technologies and improvements to website design, which he called an important step to accessibility and inclusion. “We want to make them feel comfortable,” he said. “All this is complementary to each other and well thought out. We want all this to be seamless.”

The new trail at Frick Park will be 5 feet wide to accommodate wheelchairs and other mobility aids. (Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy)

Part of that effort includes other improvements and enhancements. That includes adaptive resources and a lending library, with kits people can rent for free to go out and explore. The sensory kits will include noise-canceling headphones, weighted vests, sunglasses, adaptive binoculars and wheelchair attachments to hold the devices.

Riley said the project will include interpretive signage in and around the facility with QR codes to give prompts to help visitors engage better with the space and recognizing that everyone does not have sufficient cellphone data plans to access information during visits. The Outdoor Sensory Classroom will have portable devices to help people engage with those signs and codes, such as hearing-assisted devices that users can change frequency and drown out background noise, much like what hunters and bird watchers use.

In the construction process, the observation deck in that space will be upgraded, fixing decking and railings to bring them up to code and providing plenty of accessible seating space. The two outdoor learning areas will have paths leading up to them. They will have roofs for shade and smooth concrete floors that make it easier for wheelchair users and others who use walkers, canes and other mobility devices. All consideration will be taken to ensure any individual can reach work tables and storage areas for art supplies.

All of the trails will be 5 feet wide, and part of it will be a loop trail complete with sensory objects to engage the senses. Two pebble harps, boxes with metal tines inside, will make a light noise when small stones are dropped through them.

The funding received to date and some additional potential grants are enabling the construction to begin, Riley said, and now the conservancy is working on the money needed for the other items, such as the signage and accessibility updates. Pittsburgh’s Historic Review Commission approved the project earlier this year; one of the last items left is obtaining a building permit from the city, something Riley said will be done when a contractor is on board.

Lessons learned also played a role in all the work leading up to this project getting underway. “I think the pandemic has taught us one thing: We know there are significant health benefits to getting out in the outdoors. Mental and physical benefits,” said Riley, who was a landscape architect for 12 years working on parks and open space projects before he joined the conservancy staff. “The challenge comes with accessibility and inclusion.

“The goal of this project is to encourage a population of residents who many have not had access to the outside and the ability to get outdoors. The outdoor classroom at the FEC is a starting point. … We talk about equity and inclusion a lot. Things like autism do not follow along socioeconomic lines.  [It crosses] All populations – whether you are rich or poor. The same whether someone uses a wheelchair or are visually impaired. That’s a segment to the population that doesn’t get to enjoy the outdoors.”

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

Helen Fallon

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