We’re thrilled to announce a brand new partnership with GTECH Strategies, an awesome non-profit at the intersection of community development and the green economy. They’re dedicated to strengthening and greening Pittsburgh, and one of the most revolutionary ways they do that is by helping citizens reclaim, repurpose, and reenergize empty lots, strengthening the city and its many proud communities, one block at a time.
[Here’s a fabulous mini-documentary about GTECH; it’ll give you a great sense of what makes them tick. If it doesn’t make you want to move to Pittsburgh and get to work, and/or make you cry, we’ll eat our hats.]
Lots and Lots of Vacant Lots
Reclaiming vacant lots in Pittsburgh is not work for the faint of heart; did you know that there are currently about 27 THOUSAND vacant lots in the city? Pittsburgh saw a devastating 50% decline in population by the turn of the century; recovery has begun, but there’s a long way to go. Vacancy at that scale invites all kinds of trouble in – including illicit drug activity – and takes a toll on Pittsburghers’ neighborhood pride.
[Cynthia, one of GTECH’s ambassadors, on a vacant lot in Pittsburgh]
“A lot of lots have been vacant for upwards of 50 years,” says GTECH Communications Manager Sara Innamorato, “and there’s not a lot being done with them. There’s the power to rethink what it can be. There doesn’t need to be a clear path. We can make one. We can forge one.”
GTECH won’t rest; they’re out on the front lines every day, working with Ambassadors like Cynthia (one of six GTECH ambassadors currently raising money via ioby), who is reclaiming a vacant lot and building a support center for mothers. Her one-day “Mastering Motherhood Outdoor Workshop” will provide meal planning, sewing, budgeting, DIY cleaning, and meditation training to moms of color in the area. And check out the other ambassadors who are teaming up with ioby right now to raise funds for their reclamation projects: from little free libraries to community gardens to a reservoir retreat, there’s something for everyone. See if any of them calls out to you!
The Land of Possibility
GTECH stands for “growth through energy and community health,” and that’s a mission we can really get behind. This year, they’ve got 22 community ambassadors on board, and twenty projects in the works in the North Side and around the city. They’re all about connecting the dots, so they work with residents, community development corporations, neighborhood associations, nonprofits, government, local businesses, churches, schools – you name it.
“Today’s Pittsburgh is the land of possibility,” says Innamorato, a Pittsburgh native who sees more and more of her fellow natives engaging with their neighborhoods. “If you come to Pittsburgh and you have an idea, you can easily connect with CEOs, people who’ve done it before. Everyone is so willing to help you out and give you a piece of their time or expertise. It’s the connectedness and the fabric of the city.”
[GTECH’s annual bike tour of Pittsburgh’s vacant lots]
So why partner with ioby? “You see a lot of nonprofits struggling with incorporating and using technology, and being intimidated by it,” says Innamorato. “So ioby’s doing a great thing in marrying grassroots efforts and traditional community outreach with technology, and bringing it into a new age. Getting a new group of young people involved in it. So we thought it was a really innovative approach to fundraising and community organizing.”
The “Burrito” Approach to Community-Building
GTECH staff sometimes talk about their “burrito” approach to community building; you throw in a bunch of ingredients that may not seem to make sense together, and the result is delicious. Obviously, we had to ask what ingredient we were in the GTECH burrito, and we’re proud to report Innamorato’s answer:
“ioby is the guacamole. It definitely belongs in the burrito. Looking at the kinds of things you guys do at ioby, this is a natural fit. You’re really specializing in the grassroots, civic-minded, community oriented projects, and you have this great set of tools, and it doesn’t make sense for us to reinvent the wheel.”
The guacamole! We’re thrilled to be partnering with such an inspiring organization, and can’t wait to see what the future holds.
If learning about GTECH’s work is inspiring you to take action in YOUR neighborhood, or if you have awesome ideas about how to make your town greener, safer, and more fun, let us help! Tell us your awesome idea right here. We’re here to help you get started today.
We just learned that today is Crossing Guard Appreciation Day in Pittsburgh (it’s different in participating cities). This fine city has mapped their crossing guards, and made a video about Cathy Gamble, known as the “kissing crossing guard.”
Pittsburgh is about to make the largest public investment in its history. Like hundreds of cities across the country, the Pittsburgh Region’s sanitary authority, ALCOSAN is under a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) because it is not in compliance with the Clean Water Act, meaning that when it rains, raw sewage from the city’s overburdened sewer system over flows and pollutes the area’s rivers. ALCOSAN is under a mandate from the EPA to fix the problem, which gives Pittsburgh a tremendous opportunity to make real, long lasting changes.
“I am an outspoken advocate of Pittsburgh’s ability to become a leader of green initiatives and infrastructure in dealing with our stormwater overflow. We need to get this right because what we decide today will shape our future for the next 100 years.”
– Mayor Bill Peduto, July 2013
The Clean Rivers Campaign is leading the way. This coalition of organizations led by Pittsburgh UNITED and including Clean Water Action and Action United was launched as an advocacy and education campaign almost three years ago that was tasked with informing ordinary people and elected officials about the opportunity to create a sustainable and vibrant Pittsburgh by investing in green infrastructure to repair the City’s sewer system. Together, the partner organizations knocked on more than 40,000 doors, hosted speaker series on the benefits of green solutions, and met with elected officials from Pittsburgh and from other municipalities across the region to discuss how investing in green solutions can bring economic, social, and environmental benefits to cities and the people who live there.
Emily Alvarado, age 32, who has worked as the interim director of the Clean Rivers Campaign for the past year explained, “Not many people think about sewage…but when you show people that this sewer investment will be the largest ever public investment in our region’s history (over 2 billion dollars), they agree that we must maximize the benefits of that investment to clean our water and rebuild communities. The Clean Rivers Campaign has been key in creating a public dialogue about our sewer fix and advocating for green solutions as a sustainable approach to our water infrastructure needs that provides many community benefits.”
Using green solutions means investing in infrastructure that uses natural processes to manage stormwater. There are a whole array of strategies to help absorb water into the ground rather than having it run straight into the sewer system, such as rain gardens, bioswales, properly maintained and planted trees, permeable pavements, and green roofs. However, few cities have water management systems that use these techniques. Tom Hoffman, the Western Pennsylvania Director at Clean Water Action, explained that when it rains in Pittsburgh currently the water runs off of the roofs, the parking lots and the streets and the sidewalks and it goes into storm sewers. “Unfortunately, like many cities our ‘storm sewers’ and our ‘sewers sewers’ are the same thing,” meaning that storm water runoff ultimately flows into the same sewers used for raw sewage. This is called a Combined Sewer System (CSS). During heavy rainfalls, the amount of water in the CSS exceeds the system’s capacity, and is ultimately discharged directly into rivers, spilling raw sewage into natural water bodies to relieve overburdened sewers.
Green infrastructure offers a more sustainable and environmentally friendly alternative. One of the most vocal advocates for these types of solutions in the City of Pittsburgh has been Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto. When the EPA ruled that ALCOSAN’s current plan to fix the sewer system using gray infrastructure was deficient, Alvarado explained that Mayor Peduto responded passionately about the city’s opportunity to use green infrastructure for the City’s sewer fix.
Mayors want the best for their cities, which makes green infrastructure investments an even more positive choice since the benefits go beyond just the environment. Because the sewer repair will be funded by ratepayer increases, it is important that local people can see improvements in their communities. Green solutions will produce more green spaces in communities, increase property values and decrease crime, as well as create good jobs.
“Our vision is to use this investment as one that both solves our water quality problems and meets many community needs at the same time,” said Alvarado. For her, some of the most exciting aspects of this work have been the moments where the strength of civic engagement shines through. “By doing education and organizing work we have brought thousands of ordinary rate payers to meetings and public hearings. Some of these people have never been involved in community advocacy before. But they understand that we must work together to ensure that this massive public investment creates healthy communities and economic opportunities for generations to come. And they get that we have the chance to transform this investment to rebuild the Pittsburgh region in an equitable and sustainable way.”
Being at the forefront of cities making a green-first sewer fix isn’t always easy. While there is research from around the country, Pittsburgh needs more local data to demonstrate the kinds of impacts created by investments in green infrastructure. Using ioby, the Clean River Campaign has begun to generate the revenue to get the local data they need to show the sanitary authority that green solutions are really a cost effective way of maximizing benefits. Alvarado explained, “The technical analysis resulting from this study will show the potential for green infrastructure, paired with right sized gray infrastructure to address our region’s water quality problems. The study will provide a data-driven, technical framework to assist the region’s decision makers, in making informed decisions about this infrastructure investment.” They can continue to conduct this important research with your support.
One afternoon in April 2013, located between North Graham and North Aiken Street in the Garfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Leah Thill anxiously awaited the arrival of neighborhood volunteers. Thill, then 23, was a first year AmeriCorps participant with the Pittsburgh Urban Leadership Service Experience (PULSE) and garden coordinator at the Kincaid Street Community Garden. The plan was to fill ten more new garden beds with soil, which involved transferring several hundred pounds of dirt from piles to wooden framed sections. Not an easy task! But, no adults showed up that day.
Instead, Thill was joined by an army of ten enthusiastic neighborhood kids, no older than thirteen years of age, who worked all afternoon to haul all of the dirt with just one wheel barrow and a few orange buckets. As most kids tired after two hours, Thill recalled one young boy who, as he kept the dirt flying with a wide smile on his face, burst, “This is the most fun I’ve had in a long time!”
It is this kind of excitement that inspired the creation of the Children’s Discovery Garden, a special section of the Kincaid Street Community Garden designated especially for the neighborhood’s children. The community garden had its first season during 2013, and while it began to bring the members of Garfield together in new ways, it became clear very quickly that there wasn’t enough planning or programming to engage the youth who wanted to be involved.
“I would just be out in the garden and [they] would come and want to help, but they didn’t really have their own space and they would want to water everyone’s plants, and they would want to weed everything. I think some of the adults felt a bit encroached upon.” Thill explained, “We really wanted to make gardening and the garden a place where they could be and have their own space.”
The creation of the Children’s Discovery Garden is a community driven effort, made possible by the collaboration of about twenty families, PULSE participants, like Thill, who live communally in a house adjacent to the garden and neighborhood volunteers with the Garfield Community Action Team (GCAT) who are involved in fundraising for the garden and coordinating volunteer events to the make the expansion happen.
Between the construction of a Little Free Library by GCAT and a local youth art gallery, Assemble, signage differentiating the herbs, tomatoes, and berry bushes, and special gardening time on Wednesdays from 6pm until dusk, the Kincaid Community Garden members have been working hard to create a special place for the children.
One of the most challenging aspects of trying to do agriculture in an urban area is how expensive it is to bring in all of the soil, lumber, and other necessary materials. But this community is unstoppable in their determination and creativity. Instead of spending $2,000 dollars to build a fence, they made their own garden fence out of pallets donated to the garden by a local hospital, and the Little Free Library was constructed entirely out of doors donated from a company non-profit called Construction Junction. Jarmele Fairclaugh, age 43, a regular garden volunteer who has lived in Garfield for twenty years, said, “What I keep telling [the children] is, ‘It’s hard work now, but just wait until things start growing.”
And, according to Fairclaugh, the children are learning a lot more from the garden than just patience. They’re growing vegetables they’ve never seen and seeing the benefits of earthworms.
“It’s teaching them to get along with each other. It’s teaching them to be responsible, not only for themselves, but for other people’s property. It’s teaching them that you can work with all types of people. They’re learning how to interact with other adults, they’re learning how to interact with other races,” said Fairclaugh. “It’s teaching them to have pride in their community and pride within themselves.”
Even beyond the children, Kincaid Community Garden has been a uniting force in the neighborhood. With parts of Garfield and many of the surrounding areas experiencing rapid gentrification and rising rent prices, a gathering space that strengthens communities through shared experiences and the creation of relationships built on trust and friendship has become ever more valuable.
“I think as a neighborhood as a whole, we needed [the garden] because it just seemed like we never talked to each other,” explained Fairclaugh. “For me, it gives me a chance to actually get out and meet people and learn something and then be able to share that knowledge with other people.”
And there is no better place to start that sharing than with the neighborhood children. With your support, the Garfield community can continue to become stronger through the communal experience of growing food together in a place that nurtures curiosity and fosters exploration in young and old alike. Thank you to everyone who contributed financially or donated their time and energy to make the Children’s Discovery Garden expansion come to life.