Neighborhood & Nature Converge at the Frick Environmental Center

When I moved to Pittsburgh two years ago from the mountains of northern Vermont, Frick Park was a space of connection during the transition to my new urban life. The park is just four blocks from my apartment, and I begin most days there, walking in its expansive woods. What at first felt like a simple retreat from the grittiness of the city quickly became a more complicated and integral part of my sense of home—with the Frick Environmental Center at the heart of it.

When it opened in September 2016, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s Frick Environmental Center (FEC) was lauded as one of the greenest buildings in the world. The fruit of five years of collaboration between the City of Pittsburgh, Parks Conservancy, and over 1,000 community members, the FEC achieved both LEED Platinum and the rigorous Living Building certifications. Free and open to the public, it is also the Parks’ hub for environmental education. Serenaded by the hooting of great-horned owls one evening, I was thrilled to imagine what learning can be and do when it takes place in a living classroom.

The Frick Environmental Center reimagines the urban ecosystem, fostering a relationship between humans and nature that is mutually beneficial. Camila Rivera-Tinsley, director of education for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, describes FEC as a place “where things converge and bloom. These spaces are intertwined in ways that make both healthier. The Center benefits the health and happiness of the humans in the building, and the way the building was designed makes the forest and streams in the park healthier.”

With the Center, the Parks Conservancy envisioned a place that functions with the self-sufficiency and grace of a flower: creating more energy on-site than it uses, capturing and treating all rainwater and sewage, sourcing local materials free of toxins, and captivating visitors with its beauty. Like the Phipps Center for Sustainable Landscapes before it, FEC continues Pittsburgh’s story of regeneration through living buildings. It also embodies the Parks Conservancy’s long-standing efforts to help all residents connect with nature and create healthy ecosystems.

The Parks Conservancy staff members use FEC as they use nature—by encouraging visitors of all ages to observe, ask questions, and experience their surroundings to analyze how our decisions impact the world around us. Students learn about healthy streams and experience a sense of place while splashing around in the Falls Ravine and Fern Hollow creeks. Back in an FEC classroom, they learn how the building protects streams and watersheds from stormwater runoff that can often cause and contribute to erosion, flash flooding, and combined sewer overflow to our rivers. “Kids might first gravitate to the wildflowers or the American toads trilling by the water,” said Rivera-Tinsley, “but once they’re observing the wildlife, we find ways to help them notice the built environment—how the constructed wetlands and outflow drains provide habitat and filter rainwater to protect the stream below.”

At the Frick Environmental Center, I am reminded that the separation between the human and nonhuman world is as thin as the rain veil that envelops the building during a shower. When it rains at FEC, water literally cascades from the north roof, flowing down sculpted sandstone waterfalls into wetlands on its journey to the Monongahela River. A recent school visit brought students from the nearby Environmental Charter School to figure out how they could learn from FEC to help similarly redesign their school’s property, witnessing how permeable pavers can divert rainwater more effectively than the mere grass next to them.

The site abounds with lessons on sustainable living. Some are obvious, like the solar array that provides both shaded parking and more renewable energy than the building consumes. There are also large rain barrels beneath the panels, demonstrating how easy it is to reuse captured rainwater to irrigate native landscaping or to flush toilets. Other FEC features are more subtle, such as geothermal wells that help regulate the building’s temperature or sensors that provide feedback so people can better decide when to open or close a window. Through a range of school programs, summer camps, tours, and even “sustainable sipping” events for adults, every visitor can return home inspired by and equipped with ways to make our homes, schools, and communities healthy and thriving places.

As I make my way home, a small sign reminds me: “You Belong.” Indeed, the Frick Environmental Center is open to all residents to access and enjoy year-round. This sign marks the entrance to the “From Slavery to Freedom Garden,” a resident-designed project that showcases native foods and medicinal plants that celebrate traditional African American cultivation. “We’re reminded that everyone should be part of the sustainability narrative,” said Rivera-Tinsley. “It demonstrates how all human cultures are necessarily woven into the story of environmentalism.”

Crunching along the gravel trail, I follow the shade of trees back into the neighborhood. I arrived as a walker and return with a renewed sense of my role as a citizen on this earth. Ultimately, this is the Frick Environmental Center’s aim for each of us —inspiration to become lifelong stewards of the environment, making positive contributions now and for generations to come

The Frick Environmental Center is one of the 25 projects being honored at the 2018 Emerald Evening and GBA 25th Anniversary Awards gala.

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