Swings and Swales

Pashek + MTR works with two public agencies to design a heavy-hitting stormwater park in Pittsburgh.

By Jared Brey

The park features a stone cascade that directs rushing water to a rain garden in the central basin. Photo by Pashek + MTR.

One bright-blue Friday afternoon in October, I was paused at a stoplight in Squirrel Hill, a residential neighborhood about five miles from downtown Pittsburgh, when I saw a young woman with a red backpack try to summit a steep slope on her bicycle. She approached the hill with good momentum and no shortage of confidence and was halfway up the block before she started losing speed. Two thirds of the way, she began to wobble. Pedaling a few more yards, she surrendered to the inevitable and finished the journey on foot.

At the bottom of the hill sat Wightman Park, recently redesigned around the very force the young woman was trying to overcome. In Pittsburgh’s Hill District, stormwater accumulates in the valleys. In 2014, the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW) began a master-planning process for the low-lying, two-acre park, with its small baseball field, half basketball court, and aging playground, through which a long-since channelized stream used to flow. In the process of collecting community input for the master plan and redesign, the landscape architects at Pittsburgh-based Pashek + MTR heard from neighbors that basement backups during storms were getting worse.

“And so we thought, ‘Oh, this would be a great place to really bump up the stormwater capacity and start to try to capture water from the surrounding streets,’” says Sara Thompson, ASLA, a principal at the firm.

Pashek + MTR worked with engineers to design a neighborhood park that wears its infrastructural purpose on its sleeve. Photo by Pashek + MTR.

A contact at the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA), which until then had focused its green infrastructure work on much bigger spaces, saw some plans for stormwater capture at Wightman Park on social media and reached out to Pashek + MTR. Gradually, PWSA and DPW worked out an agreement, with the city paying for the surface upgrades and the water and sewer authority responsible for the underground infrastructure, along with a series of bump-out planters and upgraded inlets on surrounding streets. It was the first time the two agencies collaborated on such a project, says Andrea Ketzel, a senior landscape architect with the City of Pittsburgh, but it checked so many boxes for both agencies that more collaborations are already in the works.

The low-lying park manages stormwater for an area 15 times its size. Image courtesy Ethos Collaborative.

It was also a unique collaboration for Pashek + MTR and Ethos Collaborative, the engineers who carried out the stormwater management work. Together, the city agencies, landscape architects, engineers, and contractors worked with residents to redesign the space in both form and function. The park now prominently features a stone cascade that feeds stormwater from the surrounding streets into a central rain garden in the basin of the park, crossed by a winding boardwalk, which replaced much of the lawn. A system of retention tanks buried beneath the playground, the garden, and the ball fields stores more than 300,000 gallons of water. In all, the two-acre park manages stormwater for 30 surrounding acres.

Retention tanks underneath the surface of the park hold up to 300,000 gallons of stormwater. Image courtesy Ethos Collaborative.

Since the park was reopened in the fall of 2020, kids climb on the sides of the cascade and shriek as gravity carries them down an embankment slide at the edge of the park, while grown-ups do laps around the perimeter of the park and stroll along the boardwalk through the rain garden. Standing at the mouth of the cascade on that Friday afternoon, Thompson pointed to a platform above the bathrooms that creates a view of the whole park and where an interpretive sign explains how water moves through the space. “We wanted to make stormwater visible and use it as an educational tool,” she says. From the top, you can’t quite see the old creek, but as the asters and goldenrods sprout in the rain garden, it’s clear where the water wants to be.

2 thoughts on “Swings and Swales”

  1. Respectfully, the Squirrel Hill and the Hill District are different neighborhoods (though water accumulates in the valleys of both!) Wightman Park is located in Squirrel Hill.

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