Walk into a forest and within five minutes, your heart rate slows. Parts of your brain relax. Spending 90 minutes out in nature increases your compassion for and connectedness with others. And five hours a month, studies show, make you a happier person overall.

Jamil Bey, president of the UrbanKind Institute, knows firsthand the benefits of parks. Growing up in Beltzhoover, nearby McKinley Park was where he, his brothers and his cousins could find sanctuary and play games like capture the flag.  

“It wasn’t just a playground; when we said we were going to the park, we had the whole run of the forest,” says Bey. “Having good, safe places I could go to as a child was important growing up.”

An area in need of repair at McKinley Park. Photo by Brian Conway.

Set foot in McKinley Park today and rather than soothing your nerves, the park’s condition might jack up your heart rate in frustration. A weathered box of Kool-Aid Jammers and a rusted pogo stick are just some of the trash littered near the entrance. A crumbling staircase makes it difficult for Knoxville residents to reach the lower portion of the 80-acre park, and concrete pads are all that remain of former swing sets and monkey bars removed decades ago and never replaced. 

“This is disinvestment in action,” Bey tells NEXTpittsburgh, noting that Knoxville has more children per capita than almost any neighborhood in the city. “Without parks, where are [kids] supposed to go? Play in the street?”

Scenes play out like this across Pittsburgh’s parks system, especially in parks located in the city’s poorer, predominantly black neighborhoods, where people already have fewer options for play and recreation. 

The playground at Baxter Park in Homewood. Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.

On Tuesday, city residents will vote on a referendum for a new property tax: a 0.5 mill levy, or $50 per $100,000 of assessed real estate value, to improve city parks. If approved, the tax would generate approximately $10 million a year, which would go toward park improvement and maintenance. 

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy estimates the city’s parks system is underfunded by $400 million, compared to parks systems in comparable cities. And surveys conducted by the Conservancy show that 95% of residents polled believe Pittsburgh’s parks to be underfunded. 

Specifically, over the first six years of funding, the money would go to 20 parks and recreation centers identified in a citywide equity survey as the most in need. These include, among others, Homewood’s Baxter Park, Spring Hill Park, Beltzhoover’s McKinley Park and the Paulson Recreation Center in Lincoln-Lemington. 

Supporters of the referendum, including Bey’s UrbanKind Institute, Homewood’s Operation Better Block and Mayor Bill Peduto, see the referendum as a necessary step toward achieving equity in parts of the city after decades of disinvestment. 

Highland Park in the fall. Photo by Melissa McMasters. Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.

“I am committed to making sure every resident citywide has quality park spaces within a short walking distance of their homes,” wrote Peduto in an email, “and this funding will help accomplish that, by supporting upgrades to some 150 small parks across Pittsburgh.”

But opponents of the referendum question the method of funding parks through a property tax and express concerns over the proposed governance and oversight of a new parks board that would be established should the referendum pass.

“I would agree with the Parks Conservancy that more money needs to be spent on infrastructure in the parks,” says City Controller, Michael Lamb. “But to raise taxes to do that, at a time when we are generating significant surplus dollars, just doesn’t make sense.”

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A small square poster is framed above the desk of Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy CEO and President Jayne Miller, which celebrates five straight years of Minneapolis being named the top parks system in the country by the Trust for Public Land (2013-2017). 

Miller came to Pittsburgh by way of the North Star State in 2018, where she served as superintendent of the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board (MPRB). Though she left abruptly, Miller and the city’s independent MPRB successfully worked with their city council to secure funding to pay for a 20-year parks investment program guided by an equity framework that prioritized work in disinvested communities.  

They had been moving toward putting a referendum on the ballot in 2016, but didn’t need to once that agreement was made.

Visitors enjoy the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden’s display of public art. Photo by Brian Conway.

It’s this model, as well as work in cities like New York and Philadelphia, that Miller and the Conservancy hope to mirror in Pittsburgh. 

“Everyone deserves great parks,” Miller says. “Pittsburgh has a history of some stellar parks, but they’ve been underfunded. And while people value their parks, they don’t understand how they can really change their lives.”

In early fall, Miller and the Conservancy led a delegation to Minneapolis that included Pittsburgh politicians and foundation heads (full disclosure: I attended as a reporter) to showcase what had been accomplished there and what they hope to replicate in Pittsburgh. Attendees heard from residents and leaders alike about how renovated parks, pools and rec centers improved safety and quality of life for residents young and old, especially in disinvested neighborhoods.

The Parks Conservancy has served as Pittsburgh’s nonprofit parks partner since 1996, and in 2011, its mandate expanded to include all of the city’s 165 parks, not just the larger, well-known ones. Over their 23-year history, the Conservancy has raised $126 million for the parks system from foundations, fundraisers and other private contributions and grants. 

Presently, funding for city parks comes from the city budget. Miller points out that Regional Asset District (RAD) dollars do not go to parks smaller than 200 acres.