“At what point did we step back and start to think of ourselves as something outside of nature?” asked artist Natalie Settles from atop a wooded hillside.
One overcast Sunday this past May, Settles and ecologist Charles Bier introduced about 25 people to Hays Woods, an overgrown 626 acres of ravines and slopes in southeastern Pittsburgh. On a walk sponsored by the nonprofit City as Living Laboratory, the pair pointed out coal debris and bricks littering the ground, a sinkhole, and discolored mine-water drainage, amid mugwort, Japanese knotweed, and other invasive plants. They guided the group down steep, unkempt trails past old-growth trees and native flora.
Settles asked the group to imagine what a “responsible relationship” with this “compromised space” might look like: “Knowing that we are nature, how can we act a little more like it?”
The City of Pittsburgh acquired this land from a developer in 2016 for $5 million. Pittsburgh is now poised to spend the next decade transforming an untended industrial and mining site into recreational green space. Few American cities have been able to acquire undeveloped land at such a scale within city limits.
Councilman Corey O’Connor, who represents the district containing most of this land, said Hays Woods is like “being in the middle of Pennsylvania wilderness right in the heart of the city.” Along with former Mayor Tom Murphy, O’Connor co-chaired a task force this year that formulated recommendations for the future of this land.
They include preserving forested ridge lines and certain archeological features; adhering to sustainable practices in the development and use of infrastructure; restoring the ecology; and offering inclusive programming for a variety of users.
The anticipated benefits of the park are many. In addition to providing hiking and biking trails, accessible paths, and other amenities (though likely not ballfields), planners foresee Hays Woods serving as a “living laboratory” where local university faculty and students can research everything from climate change to the psychological effects of spending time in a park.
“Given the sense of wilderness in close proximity to the city, there may be some unique opportunities for activities you might not find in a typical city park,” said Kara Smith, principal environmental planner with the City of Pittsburgh. Smith said people have suggested that the park host such programs as low-impact camping and green-job workforce training, and emphasized that community input will drive a master-planning process.
“People want to see Hays Woods remain largely natural,” Smith added, “recognizing it is one of the largest contiguous forested areas in the region, which improves air quality, soaks up stormwater, reduces the urban heat island effect and provides habitat for flora and fauna that otherwise couldn’t live so close to a city.”
Hays Woods will help advance the ever-greening trajectory of a city originally built on steel production and the resultant pollutants. Pittsburgh has a Climate Action Plan goal to reduce emissions by 80 percent by 2050 and increase its tree canopy from the already higher-than-average 42 percent to 60 percent. Retaining 626 acres of undeveloped land and maintaining it as forest will help. According to the Trust for Public Land, only 10 percent of Pittsburgh’s land is park space—about 2,900 acres currently—below the national median of 15 percent.
Two bald eagles have called these woods home since 2013, harbingers of a regional repopulation of eagles. Their nest will remain protected within the boundaries of Hays Woods (watch them live on this cam).
In other words, Hays Woods is enabling the city to make choices now about a large, contiguous tract of forested land encircled by developed urban space that will provide long-term benefits for many generations to come.
These benefits won’t come without their challenges, though.
In a July 2017 ecological and conservation assessment, Bier, writing for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, noted the “ecologically degraded” character of the land, “forested with patches of grassland, sparse-canopy reverting woodlands, along with roads, clearings, pipeline and power line right-of-ways, and other scattered disturbances.” He noted poor water and soil conditions, some habitat fragmentation, and an abundance of invasive species.
That said, steep slopes have actually maintained pockets of the ecological character, he wrote, as has the fact that the land had remained under single ownership over the years, which prevented further fragmentation.
Until about the mid-1700s, the Shawnee and Lenape native tribes occupied this land; then came the Iroquois Nation, and then colonial settlers, including Samuel Hays, a farmer, and eventually the H.B. Hays and Brothers Coal Railroad. In 1929, the city officially designated the area as the neighborhood of Hays. It was home to a U.S. Army ammunition plant and owned and mined by various companies, including the LTV Steel Company.
In 2003, a developer with an ownership stake in the land, Charles Betters, proposed flattening the hilltops for a mix of uses that would have been known collectively as the Pittsburgh Palisades Park—a horse track and casino, single-family houses, and a commercial “town center.”
Many environmentalists and activists opposed Betters’s plans, including Tom and Connie Merriman. According to the couple, locals referred to the forest as “the old LTV site” or “the old brownfield.” The Merrimans helped lead a community process that renamed the land Hays Woods—an important step, they said, in opposing development.
“We were trying to create an identity for it that was more Pittsburgh and more accessible,” said Connie, an adjunct faculty member in studio arts at Carnegie Mellon University.
They spoke against the plan at public hearings, held a conference on how natural ecosystems intersect with surrounding communities, and ran educational programs for youth. They also reached out to city officials. “At the end of the conversation [with political leaders and others],” Connie said, “we would give them a bottle, and it’d say ‘Breathe air cleaned by Hays Woods.’ So it was a little present for them.”
Their efforts were successful. Betters’s plan ultimately didn’t receive city approval, and neither did his subsequent plan to strip mine. For several years, the woods saw little activity, except for unauthorized use by hikers, hunters, and all-terrain-vehicle riders.
Then in 2016 the Betters family sold the land to the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority at the reduced price of $5 million, well below the market value. Maintaining the land as a park quickly became a priority for the city. In 2018, Mayor Bill Peduto established the Hays Woods Task Force, led by O’Connor and Murphy. There was some public debate about a proposal to withhold 75 acres for residential development, but the task force quickly recommended—and the city determined—that the city should maintain all of the land for park use.
The neighboring borough of Baldwin contains several acres of land under consideration for inclusion in the park. There and in other adjacent neighborhoods, residents have raised questions about where park users will access the woods and local impacts that construction or any further water runoff might have.
Pittsburgh’s Department of City Planning recently received a $100,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, funds that the city will match to take the next steps in the planning process. The city also received a grant from the nonprofit Trout Unlimited to assess abandoned mines and drainage and consider means of remediation. Instead of removing remaining coal and regrading the land, city staff will focus on preserving the current tree canopy while still remediating the worst impacts of mining. An ecological master plan will guide stormwater management and improvements to forest health and water quality.
The city anticipates needing at least a decade to develop Hays Woods into a fully operational park, though Smith noted that the woods may be open to the public sooner than that.
“It took 15 years to get this far,” said Tom Merriman. “It will probably take another 15 years to bring things to realization.”
O’Connor is also taking the long view. “In 50 years, when people are using trails up [there] and seeing the beautiful views, you can look back and say, ‘Look, this is what Pittsburgh accomplished. When they had the ability to build new houses, and they chose as a city, as a community, to preserve its natural habitat.’ I think that’s something that’s unique.”