This past Saturday, nearly 1,000 people scampered to the Slopes to catch a glimpse of the South Side’s newest celebrities: the Jurassic Valley goats.

In late June, City Council approved a contract that allowed Allegheny GoatScape to supply nine goats (and one miniature donkey) to South Side Park to feed on the knotweed, porcelain berry and other invasive plants that have overtaken the 65-acre park. The animal crew was funded by a $10,000 grant from the Allegheny County Conservation District.

“The goats are sure-footed animals, and live to eat,” says Gavin Deming, founder and director of Allegheny Goatscape. “They have an unlimited buffet around them in South Side Park, making for an ideal solution to such a challenging environment.”

South Side Park is nestled in a wide ravine between the South Side Slopes, South Side Flats and Arlington neighborhoods, where the St. Clair Incline once stood. There are nature trails, three ball fields, a community garden and stunning views of the city. But many people aren’t aware it exists, or they confuse it with the Southside Riverfront Park.

South Side Park map. Courtesy City of Pittsburgh.

“You can’t really see it from anywhere,” says Sarah Baxendell, project manager, greenspace asset development for the Hilltop Alliance and organizer of Saturday’s Goat Fest. “You wouldn’t know it was there just driving past.”

Baxendell spent the better part of last year compiling a comprehensive report on park’s makeup and usage. It was the first step in a long-term, community-driven effort to transform a neglected plot of land into a core amenity for south Pittsburgh.

She says that South Side Park has been harmed by invasive plant growth more than any other park in the city, felling nearly half of the trees in the park and causing a serious problem with erosion for neighboring properties in the Slopes.

“It’s like this big rolling carpet that can take down a 100-foot tree,” says Baxendell. “How long will the hillside hold if something isn’t done?”

The goats are doing their part, working and eating in a particularly overgrown section in the heart of the park that has taken on the nickname “Jurassic Valley” for its dense vegetation. By the end of the summer, they should be able to clear six acres worth of above-ground foliage. Then, members of the Student Conservation Association will cut the invasives’ roots and plant wildflowers in an attempt to stabilize the hillside.

Historically an industrial site, South Side Park was designated as a “community park” by the City of Pittsburgh Department of Planning’s OPENSPACEPGH plan in 2013, a middle designation between regional parks like Frick and Highland and smaller neighborhood parks. Community parks are so named because they offer a mix of passive and active recreation amenities and serve multiple neighborhoods: in this case most of the Hilltop and both South Side Flats and Slopes.

Inside South Side Park. Photo by Brian Conway.

In 2016 the City of Pittsburgh Department of Planning was awarded a $40,000 grant, matched by capital budget money, to hire a professional consultant to assemble a master planning project to envision the long-term future of the park.

The master plan will delve into four main areas of research: recreation, programming, accessibility/mobility and stormwater management. (The park sits atop the M-16 sewer shed, which has been designated a priority sewer shed by the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority.)

“It’s basically a roadmap for how the city will develop the park in the future,” says Joshua Lippert, senior environmental planner with the City of Pittsburgh Planning Department, who adds that they will be soliciting public comment on the future of the park this fall.

The master plan may not have happened if it wasn’t for the persistence of grassroots groups like the Friends of South Side Park. Jamie Balser, group chairperson and a South Side Slopes resident, says that when he first moved to the neighborhood he had only a vague awareness that there was some type of city-owned greenspace adjacent to his property. Today, he’s one of a growing number of active voices clamoring to bring attention to what he calls “this incredibly underutilized city asset.”

“I feel very fortunate to be at the right place at the right time to start this process of turning South Side Park into a gem that all of Pittsburgh can be proud of.”

Milkweed grows in the Bandi Schaum Community Garden in South Side Park. Photo by Brian Conway.