Pittsburgh: Parks for All

Case Study | Equity
Pittsburgh: Parks for All


In 2018, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and the City of Pittsburgh committed to the goal of bringing all parks in all city neighborhoods up to a high level of quality by developing a data-driven methodology coupled with residents’ input and priorities on maintenance, rehabilitation, capital improvements, and programming. After collecting the data and receiving feedback from 10,000 residents, the conservancy and the city created the Parks Plan, a park equitable investment plan. As a result of this extensive public engagement, voters then passed a parks tax referendum in 2019 that is expected to generate $10 million annually and will provide the baseline funding to implement the Parks Plan.

Pittsburgh, PA: One of the many participants of the Let’s Go Fishing program that provides fishing skills training and opportunities at Lake Carnegie in Highland Park from June through September each year. Photo by Renee Rosensteel.


The Pittsburgh Park System is managed through six city departments. It covers 4,765 acres with a current city budget of $46 million. The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy was created in 1996. Since 1996, the conservancy has raised $126.5 million, completed 21 major capital projects, and is active in 24 of the 165 city parks.

In 2016, the conservancy created a new strategic plan with four strategic initiatives, one of which is equity. In 2018, the conservancy and the City of Pittsburgh committed to the long-term goal to bring all parks in all city neighborhoods up to a high level of quality by developing a data-driven methodology to guide equitable investments in maintenance, programming, rehabilitation, and capital projects across the city.

Driving Force Behind Equitable Funding

Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and City of Pittsburgh

Investment Strategy

Through an extensive community engagement process, the conservancy and City of Pittsburgh reached 10,000 city residents to gather their input on park priorities. After collecting the park data, community data, and receiving feedback from residents, the conservancy and the city created the Parks Plan, an equitable investment plan for improved park safety, upgraded maintenance, and improved facilities for every Pittsburgh park.

Specifically, the parks plan provides an equitable investment strategy for park maintenance, increased programming, capital projects, and rehabilitation projects across the park system. The criteria used for equitable investments are different for each activity.

Through the public survey, park maintenance and recreation programming activities were prioritized. Increased funding will be directed to the highest ranked maintenance and programming activities. For maintenance activities, best practices will be implemented, applying a standard of care for all maintenance activities that will be applied consistently across all parks to ensure equitable park maintenance across the city. Increased programming will also be based on the priorities identified by the public, with additional resources invested in recreation centers, senior centers, and swimming pools. The recreation and senior centers are located in the city’s highest need neighborhoods, which will ensure improved programming for residents with the greatest needs.

The capital project schedule is based on the scores for two categories: park need score and community need score. The park need score is comprised of the current park site condition score and park investment need score. The community need score is based on the scores for all of the parks 10-minute walk sheds for the following factors: racially concentrated areas of poverty, family poverty, youth population, senior population, vacancy rate, violent crime, obesity, diabetes, depression, asthma, and anxiety. The community needs scores are relative to the city’s average for each criteria. Environmental overlays for tree canopy and black carbon for every 10-minute walk shed and priority sewer shed areas of the city are additional criteria. Each criteria is scored, with all scores totaled for a total park score and subsequent park rankings. The order in which capital projects will be completed is based on the park rankings.

The rehabilitation project schedule is based on the public’s priorities for investments by asset type. Through the public survey, Pittsburghers provided priorities for park asset investments. Based on those priorities, funds will be allocated annually in 11 asset categories. These funds will be spent to extend the life, safety, and functionally of the assets, focusing on assets that are in the poorest condition.

How to keep the program running

In November 2019, voters passed a parks tax referendum expected to generate $10 million annually that will provide the baseline funding to implement the parks plan. The conservancy’s goal is to raise $10 million a year to match the tax referendum for expanded implementation of the parks plan for a total of $20 million a year of additional parks funding.

Passage of the parks referendum will ensure ongoing public funding to implement the parks plan. The parks referendum provides for a Home Rule Charter Amendment, authorizing the creation of a Parks Trust Fund in perpetuity and funds and services from a charitable city parks conservancy. The conservancy and city will enter into a new public interest partnership delineating the role of each party in implementing the parks plan, the allocation of resources from the referendum, and financial commitments from the conservancy to supplement the parks tax revenue.

Tracking the Progress of the Initiative

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and City of Pittsburgh staff will be updating the park need and community need rating system annually to ensure the parks and communities with the greatest needs are prioritized for capital investments. The conservancy and city will evaluate the program annually to ensure best practices are implemented and ensure efficiency and effectiveness is maximized through the partnership. The conservancy and city will annually present the updated data and program evaluation to the public, mayor and council, and conservancy board.

Conditions Specific to City to make Initiative Possible

Need elected officials to be supportive.

Key Ingredients to Making Equitable Park Funding a Success

Strategies that are key to success are leveraging accurate and relevant data; educating city leaders, community members, and conservancy and city staff at all levels; and gaining buy-in from citizens and mayors.

Obstacles to Implementing Equitable Park Funding

The main obstacles to implementing equitable park funding can be community will, political will, and making sure people understand that equitable funding needs to be addressed. It is important to understand the political will of the community and embedding equity work in ways that the community has the capacity to support and implement and add elements as work expands.

Can this model be replicated?

The Pittsburgh model can be replicated, particularly in post-industrial cities that have struggled to obtain sustainable funding for parks.

To reference this material, please cite Equitable Parks: Case Studies + Recommendations, City Parks Alliance, 2020.

Equitable Park Funding Research & Strategies

This case study is one of seven, compiled as part of City Parks Alliance’s national initiative to research, curate, and disseminate innovative strategies and models for funding parks and green infrastructure in low-income communities.


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