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Giving Love to Pittsburgh’s Vacant Lots

In 2015, the City of Pittsburgh’s Adopt-A-Lot program was created to encourage the transformation of vacant neighborhood lots into vibrant food, rain and flower gardens. Vacant land can cause several problems for a city, including a decreased tax-base for surrounding neighborhoods, public health issues, social isolation and environmental hazards.

Through Adopt-A-Lot, residents are able to “adopt” unused city-owned properties throughout all 90 neighborhoods within the City of Pittsburgh for community gardens or for personal use, including selling the produce and flowers they grow. In the first two years alone, 114 vacant lots had been transformed around the city as part of 40 community projects. More than 27,000 empty lots are still currently available throughout the city.

The Adopt-A-Lot program aims to foster neighborhood interaction, reimagine the potential of vacant lots and to encourage environmental awareness. Vacant lot projects can help to manage stormwater, provide greater access to fresh food and beautify neighborhoods. Gardens provide the opportunity to gather and connect with neighbors, while turning blighted properties into community assets. The Adopt-A-Lot program can also serve as a great educational opportunity for gardeners and enthusiasts alike who are wanting to learn more about the environment and how to grow food.

Applying for the program

Interested gardeners can submit an Adopt-A-Lot intake form via the City of Pittsburgh’s website to first verify whether or not a vacant lot they have identified is available for adoption. Once the city verifies the lot, the next step is to perform a soil test. The Open Space Specialist from the city will also provide applicants with further details to complete the application.

Before submitting an application, residents are encouraged to check out to locate potential garden sites, as well as the Allegheny County Real Estate portal in order to confirm that the vacant parcels are city-owned, as only city-owned lots may be adopted. The Lots to Love website provides an interactive map showing every vacant lot in Allegheny County. The map shows each lot’s unique identification number, ownership and tax delinquency status. Some of the vacant lots on the map are red, blue or green, reflecting communities that have already begun a greening project.

Soil testing

Soil is an environmental building block that supports plant life, influences the water cycle and provides a habitat. The health of soil on a vacant lot plays a critical role in health, especially if the lot will be in direct contact with community members whether through physical contact or through food consumption. Soil sampling is a tool used to identify the health of the soil on a particular lot. The results will give baseline information on nutrient levels, pH levels and certain possible contaminants on a given lot. Knowing this information is highly important for anyone looking to use a vacant lot for green space and to do so with health and safety in mind. The City of Pittsburgh requires a test for lead levels on all public parcels before use by residents for community green space.

Successful garden sites

One notable example of a transformed lot is Mwanakuche Farm, located on N. Charles Street in the Perry South neighborhood. Comprising of 15 vacant parcels, this farm has actively utilized the Adopt-A-Lot program for over five years, growing a variety of greens and vegetables annually to feed their community. Mwanakuche exemplifies how urban farming can serve to address food insecurity and showcases the program’s ability to provide the land access needed for gardeners to support their communities with the food they grow.

“We are very proud of the number of vacant lots that have been reactivated throughout the city over the years,” said Mackenzie Pleskovic, community planner, City of Pittsburgh—Department of City Planning. “There are many dedicated urban stewards who have transformed these lots into vibrant gardens in their communities.”

Around 10 local organizations have officially partnered with the Adopt-a-Lot Program including Green Space Alliance, Grow Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. For more information on Adopt-A-Lot, visit the City of Pittsburgh’s website.

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