One of the many hats I get to don as a councilman is that of chair of the Urban Recreation Committee, under which purview falls the oversight of the city’s park system. Pittsburgh is blessed with an abundance of green spaces and public parks. They are democratic spaces that serve a common good, venues of congregation, relaxation and play that provide the urban citizen a connection to a natural landscape otherwise not available in metropolitan environments.

The open nature of the park system inevitably leads to conflicts amongst the citizenry it serves. Such tension has been evident over questions of proper usage of Allegheny Commons, a park that dates back to 1867 and holds the unique distinction of being Pittsburgh’s oldest park. 

City Council hosted a public hearing on Jan. 31 in response to a petition initiated and signed by residents bordering Allegheny Commons. Concerns had been raised over events hosted in the Commons, with complaints of excessive noise, improper garbage clean-up and improper enforcement of rules cited as issues requiring attention from city officials.

Perhaps reflective of the diverse and ever-changing population demographic of the Northside, the hearing highlighted the fractious nature of the debate, with those in favor and those opposing further restrictions on park usage splitting along mostly racial lines.

In an attempt to bridge the gap and relieve the growing tension in the community, my office, in conjunction with Council President Darlene Harris’s office, hosted a meeting on Feb. 22 attended by representatives of Northside community groups, organizations and institutions. My intention was to begin a conversation that will in time lead to concrete resolutions to some of the issues that have been raised over proper use of the Commons.

What became evident from the discussion was that a lack of communication exists amongst the various community groups of the Northside. Equally apparent was that many of the perceived problems over use of the Commons centered on issues and questions of control of the park.

Regarding the former, my council office will continue to closely monitor the issue and serve as a liaison to foster further interconnectivity of Northside community groups. As to the latter, it was and should be emphasized that the City ultimately holds control of public parks. They are open to every citizen of Pittsburgh; ownership is collective and never befalls one group of people.

The meeting proved to be successful thanks to the help of mediators from The Center of Victims of Violence and Crime. Despite the divisions in the debate, a commonality amongst the attendees was a stated love for the community and for the park. There proved to be a desire from both sides to work towards an agreeable consensus that keeps the Commons free and accessible to all while addressing some of the issues originally raised in January’s Public Hearing.

My office has partnered with the Allegheny Commons Initiative to work towards solutions in the near term and in the long term. These include a more effective notice/posting of events coming to the Commons to residents surrounding the park, connecting community groups for help in staffing events at the park, and reviewing the current noise ordinance as it applies to permitted events in the city (currently, permitted events are exempted during daytime hours).

It is important that my office remain vigilant of the argument over use of the Commons to prevent further polarization of the debate in the community. We must work towards efforts seeking greater unity, recognizing that both sides hold valid points.

Noise during events was a common complaint, and a quick fix discussed at the meeting was to speak to event organizers and ask that speakers and stages be set inwards of the park so they wouldn’t face the surrounding residences. Such suggestions, born of dialogue, could do more to improve park events than drastic revisions to the city code.