Graduate students green-up vacant lots

According to the results of a Heinz School study, a rebirth could be in store for Pittsburgh’s 14,000 vacant lots. The study, released on December 11, examines the many negative consequences of vacant land and suggests policy changes to improve current conditions.

The project began under the Vacant Property Working Group formed by the late Mayor Bob O’Connor’s “Redd Up” initiative and has continued under Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. The intitiative aims to make Pittsburgh one of the cleanest and safest cities in the world through public works projects throughout the community, including developing and utilizing empty plots of land.

“Vacant lots in Pittsburgh represent an opportunity to do something groundbreaking,” said public policy student Nathan Wildfire, head of the project. “Traditionally, they have had severe blighting influences on their communities, but recent momentum suggests a real desire to transform these spaces into green, both environmentally and economically.”

Since August 2006, the 11 graduate students of the Greening Vacant Land Team have logged nearly 4000 hours conducting research, interviewing the community, speaking with experts, and discussing policy recommendations. Their report, “Greening Vacant Lots for Pittsburgh’s Sustainable Neighborhood Revitalization,” examines the economic, social, and environmental effects of the problem, from neighborhood degradation and financial burden to the inhibition of redevelopment efforts.

“I have never seen a city quite like Pittsburgh,” said first-year computer science major Gabby Moskowitz. “You walk in one part and it is beautiful, but in the next part it looks like people have stopped paying attention to it.”

The advantages of lot restoration are not only aesthetic. From an economic standpoint, the city can only benefit from the revitalization of the vacant land. The team’s report claims that for every dollar the city invests in lot revitalization, it can earn $2.09 in real estate value after only five years, which would more than compensate for the short-term debt.

Furthermore, the study reports that the project will increase neighboring property values, deter crime, and improve community health.

One of its principal suggestions is the creation of a “Clean and Green” coordinator, who would oversee the lot revitalization from a non-political standpoint.

The study suggests restoring the lots by turning them into parks, gardens, farms, produce markets, and flower stands, all of which can be run by the community.

Several community groups have already purchased lots and begun to rejuvenate them.

Steel City Biofuels has used its land to plant canola and mustard, which absorb contaminant metals through their roots and stalks in an attempt to remediate contaminated soil. Additionally, the company has started teaching Pittsburgh’s homeowners how to begin this process in their own yards.

The Rosedale Block Center, based in Homewood, has turned its 40 purchased lots into gardens and nature centers. Since the 1990s, the center has educated nearly 600 youths on the importance of green practices in the community.

The city’s Department of Finance has created a “side yard sale” option for its residents in which they can purchase an adjacent city-owned property for only $200. Since the program was started in 1995, the department has sold more than 450 side yards.

In addition, the department’s “garden waiver” program allows residents to garden on any city-owned lot free of charge.

However, there are numerous barriers to the completion of the project, such as the complexity of acquiring city-owned land, an incomplete picture of the vacant land, and lack of funding for revitalization efforts.

Still, the group remains optimistic.

“The longer the topic stays in the public’s radar, the more likely the city will continue to make vacant lots a priority,” said public policy student Lori Gaido, one of the project’s leaders.

“The city of Pittsburgh is continuing their commitment to the project by following our policy recommendations,” Wildfire added. “Most notably, [the city is] beginning work on a pilot project that will prove the return on investment value of a comprehensive ‘clean and green’ strategy for the city’s vacant lots.”