Volunteerism Builds Community

Cars whoosh rhythmically by as you walk along a sidewalk bordering a city park. When a park path meets the sidewalk, you veer off, dipping into the immediate relief of greenery. You might feel yourself breathing more deeply as you walk along under a canopy of trees.

A neighbor walks by with his dog on a leash. You stop to chat, you pet his dog, then you move on. Another neighbor in the distance stoops to pick up a potato chip bag and deposits it in a trash can. You wave to her, admiring her silently, and, 20 yards later, you pick up a crinkled soda can.

This sense of camaraderie is incidental but it helps shape your sense of self and your sense of community as you move through the park.

When I moved to the Central Northside years ago, a neighbor told me he loved living where he didn’t have to mow grass. “I have a huge yard one block away and none of the responsibility.” And yet that neighbor would show up for community clean-ups in Allegheny Commons Park, even for Yucky Muck Day -- the spring cleaning of the bottom of a drained Lake Elizabeth. True, he had no responsibility but he took responsibility.

During this past year, it was our parks that provided many of us a sense of normalcy as we stepped away from the commitment of staying home as much as possible, escaping to take a walk. Those of us who are fortunate to live within an easy walk of a park, a haven during normal times, felt the added gratitude of having a safe haven from the coronavirus, a community space where small groups of friends could gather.

When yoga studios across the city cancelled classes last year, a group of us who had become friends during our cramped indoor Sunday morning sessions indoors began meeting under a tree in the park to practice yoga poses together once the weather warmed. Lying on our backs with our feet in the air, we meditated on the huge tree boughs above us and on the clouds that scuttled across the sky.

The ground was often bumpy and we had to choose a place that appeared unpopular with congregations of Canada geese, but it was the park and not the yoga that provided the almost spiritual experience for the four of us.

Over several decades in Pittsburgh, I have spent time in almost every city park for which the Pittsburgh Park Conservancy serves as a partner in stewardship with the city of Pittsburgh. Some are tiny, such as the one-acre August Wilson Park in the Hill District, some are iconic for their sweep, including Schenley in Oakland and Frick in Squirrel Hill and Regent Square, at 456 and 644 acres, respectively. 

Some are underknown gems, including McKinley Park, with 79 acres, and Sheraden Park, with 51. The newest addition to the city’s five regional parks, Emerald View Park, at 257 acres, became a park in 2007, thoroughly integrated into the neighborhoods of Mount Washington, Duquesne Heights and Allentown, with paths that weave along hillsides before plunging into deep woods, then emerging onto a city street before plunging back into the deep cool of wood. It provides the gift of two worlds -- one almost wild in its otherness, one with ‘gasp’ moments of rounding the bend and seeing skyscrapers through a thick curtain of trees.

No matter how large or small, each city park offers adults and children a place to veer away from the pace of the street and its unrelenting soundtrack of traffic. Each park belongs to the people who use it. None of us has the level of responsibility that we feel for the upkeep of our yards and gardens, but we all have opportunities to be stewards.

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy holds numerous events for park users to show their love and gratitude to their parks, from restoration to clean-up outings. It programs numerous educational chances for people of all ages to learn more about nature and its critical role in the health of our planet. Visit the Parks Conservancy's website at https://pittsburghparks.org/ for details.

Special thanks to Diana Nelson-Jones for writing this article.