I’m not going to let these hills defeat me,” Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy President and CEO Jayne Miller says with a smile, sitting in the conference room of the Conservancy’s South Side offices — just a few blocks from the Three Rivers Heritage Trail. It turns out the terrain in the avid cyclist’s new backyard might be a little more challenging than she was expecting, at least in comparison to Minneapolis, where she served as superintendent of the park and recreation board for seven years.
Miller is carrying the drive she employs on the city’s slopes into her new job, where the hills divide neighborhoods and challenge the connectivity of the park system. Miller, who took over for Parks Conservancy founder and CEO Meg Cheever in Feb. 2018, clearly welcomes the challenge.
While she embraces the unique character and identity the hills and rivers give individual Pittsburgh neighborhoods, she acknowledges they also create natural barriers between them. Connectivity is a big reason her former city has had, under her leadership, the top-rated urban park system in the country for the last five years. Minneapolis’ system was rated the best among city parks by The Trust For Public Land, a nonprofit advocacy group that evaluates parks based on a variety of qualities: acreage, accessibility, amenities and other features. To its credit, Pittsburgh jumped to 23rd on the list (up from 39th) in 2017, thanks in part to the city and the Parks Conservancy’s investment in greenspace redevelopment.
Local emphasis in recent years has been placed on major parks — Frick, Schenley, Riverview, Highland — and the riverfronts, but smaller neighborhood and community parks still suffer from neglect or disrepair. The Conservancy estimates a roughly $400 million backlog in capital improvements alone, due to decades of underfunded infrastructure. Miller says those smaller parks will be a point of emphasis moving forward.
“It’s a challenge,” she says, describing her draw to the job. “It was a perfect opportunity to bring my skills and experience to the table.”