City Funders Backing a New Park as a Way to Help Repair Old Wounds

pittsburgh. photo: ESB Professional/shutterstock

pittsburgh. photo: ESB Professional/shutterstock

In cities across the country, local foundations are getting on board with ambitious parks projects in hopes that they’ll improve their cities’ futures. Sometimes, however, they try to repair damage from the past, including from urban renewal projects that devastated neighborhoods. 

The latest example of a park project that seeks to stitch a city's fabric back together, at least partially, is in Pittsburgh, where a “cap park" will sit atop an urban freeway built in the 1950s, reconnecting a historically black neighborhood to downtown. The effort is mostly funded with a $19 million federal TIGER grant, but the $26 million park will get a little help from Pittsburgh-based philanthropy as well. The Richard King Mellon Foundation has committed $1 million, and the Hillman Foundation is donating $750,000. In one of these twists of fate we see all too often in philanthropy, R.K. Mellon himself was instrumental in driving Pittsburgh's urban renewal projects.

Last year, we covered a similar project backed by local philanthropy in Philadelphia that aims to cover up a patch of freeway and reconnect the city with its waterfront. That’s a pricier project, again paid for mostly with government funds, but with a chunk coming from William Penn Foundation. In both cases, the projects aim to solve a problem that many cities have grappled with—how to course correct from mid-century projects that did serious damage to low-income communities, and in the case of freeway projects, built massive barriers between neighborhoods. 

Related: On the Waterfront: A Foundation Helps a City Reconnect to Its River

The Pittsburgh project is focused on the Hill District, a densely populated community of color before it was declared blighted. By 1956, more than 8,000 people were relocated and 1,300 buildings were torn down, including 413 businesses. It was replaced with an auditorium and an apartment complex, but mostly surface parking. At the same time, the I-579 freeway was built, severing downtown from what was left of the Hill District, which remains a high-poverty area. 

Planners hope the cap park will jumpstart the area by covering the freeway with a bridge-like structure featuring a park with amenities on top, while re-establishing connections via biking and walking paths to the rest of the city's resources and opportunities. It also plans to incorporate green infrastructure elements to better retain stormwater and reduce pollution. 

Again, most of the funding comes from a federal grant by the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program, which puts stimulus funds toward infrastructure projects. The state is also paying for a portion. 

Foundation backing comes from Richard King Mellon, a regional funder in southwestern Pennsylvania with over $2.3 billion in assets. The foundation has a sizable environment program, funding a lot of conservation work in the area. Mellon also supports a number of urban parks projects through its economic development giving. Funds also come from the Hillman Foundation, one of 18 philanthropies that operate together, based on the wealth of deceased financier Henry Hillman. 

We've extensively covered funders backing city parks projects for a combination of bragging rights, economic revitalization, and even efforts to reverse economic and social divisions in communities. All the while, cities are struggling with how to prevent accelerating displacement caused by these projects. 

Pittsburgh’s cap project is part of a larger effort to revitalize the Hill District, and the development of the park has relied on participation from the community and local artists, so it's making an effort to honor the history and culture of the neighborhood. A new park certainly won’t erase the damage done to the Hill District over past decades, but done right, it might be a step toward something better.