They say good things come in small packages, and as a nonprofit social enterprise, GTECH Strategies is no exception. Through a multi-faceted approach, the 14-member team tackles Pittsburgh’s sizable challenges by transforming vacant lots into productive spaces and improving community health.

With a sense of duty and plenty of heart, GTECH has forged a mission over the last 10 years to breathe new life into Pittsburgh’s vulnerable neighborhoods, and it all began with a group of college grads, a dream and some sunflower seeds.

The Great Sunflower Hunt

45,000—this is the number of vacant lots that can be found in Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh today. With 27,000 disused lots in the City alone, Pittsburgh knows a thing or two about blight and disinvestment.

Beginning in the 1940s, suburbanization and deindustrialization began to rear their heads, and droves of Pittsburghers took off in search of opportunity elsewhere, leaving behind a mass of abandoned buildings. As time went by, many of these structures fell or were demolished, resulting in empty land haunted by the collapse of industry and outmigration.

Typical vacant lot, post-demolition in Pittsburgh. GTECH Strategies.

Typical vacant lot, post-demolition in Pittsburgh. GTECH Strategies.

Fast forward to 2006.

It never crossed GTECH Founder Andrew Butcher’s mind that he’d be farming a Hazelwood brownfield while attending Carnegie Melon University. But there he was, seed in hand. Finishing up a degree in public policy, Andrew was on his way to working in community development. Then an epiphany struck like a bolt of lightning.

He realized that a lot of good could be brought about by the simple act of planting.

Along with Chris Koch, Matthew Ciccone and Nathaniel Doyno, he saw an opportunity in Pittsburgh’s vacant lots. Up to this point, the land was viewed as more of a burden rather than a blank canvas to bring about positive community change. By growing sunflowers, the team devised a plan to rejuvenate dilapidated properties, while adding the potential for sustainable projects, such as biofuel crops, to the equation.

Founded in 2007, GTECH Strategies (Growth Through Energy and Community Health) began its mission by revitalizing empty lots and advising community groups on how to raise funds for these initiatives. Formed right before the financial crash, the organization learned early on to be nimble and creative.

GTECH: From Neglected Places to Productive Spaces

Vacant lots have created a slew of issues in Pittsburgh, including lowered property values, weakened tax base, increased illegal activity, environmental hazards, maintenance costs ($3-4 million each year alone for the City), health issues, decreased community pride and lack of safe places for children to play.

Today, GTECH employs a four-pronged, systems-based methodology—Investigate, Act, Connect and Sustain—to tackle blight and disinvestment while transforming “vacant spaces into thriving places everyone can enjoy.”

With an annual budget of $1.4 million sourced through philanthropic support and fundraising, GTECH facilitates its initiatives by mobilizing a wide network of communities, policy-makers and collaborators. The organization also earns revenue through design and consulting, government contracts for program design and delivery, and corporate partnerships.

GTECH Volunteers from the Pittsburgh Pipeline Program and neighbors help with Northside Green Playces. Alexander Denmarsh.

Volunteers from the Pittsburgh Pipeline Program and neighbors help with Northside Green Playces. Alexander Denmarsh.

“We approach the issue of vacant land and land use in general from a policy perspective, data collection, analysis and community planning. We also work at the local scale through design, implementation and volunteer management,” GTECH Executive Director Evaine K. Sing says.

The key to its success is its “people and places” focus. By building off the residents and assets already in place rather than utilizing new investment and development, GTECH increases the chances of neighborhoods welcoming innovation (accessible to all), taking ownership and driving change themselves.

One example is its Ambassador model program. Enthusiastic residents are recruited for education and training on land use issues and community engagement. As a targeted strategy, these recruits are selected in areas with high concentrations of vacant lots. Applicants are self-selected, and when recruited, join the program for about a year, but remain Ambassadors long after.

GTECH provides education, network building, and space for Ambassadors to turn their ideas into action. Ambassadors receive micro grants (usually $3,000) to apply what they learn to their own neighborhood projects. Currently, there are about 100 Ambassadors who form various Reclaim cohorts. The model focuses on a geographic area and often crosses neighborhood lines, helping to bridge communities that may not otherwise connect.

GTECH Working on the Northside Green Playces. Alexander Denmarsh.

Working on the Northside Green Playces. Alexander Denmarsh.

Another initiative is Green Playces, a youth-focused program that combines education and implementation of safe spaces to learn and play.

“What we found is where there’s a lot of vacancy, there’s less investment. Where there’s less investment, there’s less amenities. Some of those amenities include youth programs, especially with an environmental focus,” Evaine said.

From a policy perspective, it’s not “rocket science.” Forgoing an expensive, resource-intensive approach, GTECH encourages the use of volunteers and reclaimed materials as much as possible. The results are natural playgrounds, gardens and community spaces created by the imaginations and hands of those who enjoy these Green Playces.

“Having a seven-year-old child say, ‘That’s my bench. I painted it, my name’s on it, that’s my bench, be careful with my bench,” Evaine says with a smile. “They take ownership of it in a way that is so much fun to watch.”

GTECH Children Playing in Transformed Lot in the Allentown neighborhood. Alexander Denmarsh.

Children playing in transformed lot in the Allentown neighborhood. Alexander Denmarsh.

The projects not only provide spaces for creative pursuits and healthy activities but also act as “visual products” to encourage community engagement.

“For us, that’s the process that we use to engage people. We’re trying to encourage this notion of civic engagement, building capacity and encouraging participation in the process,” adds Evaine. Bridging policy, development and green practices, this method is intended to improve the social, economic and environmental health of the whole community.

GTECH isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty, and its on-the-ground approach has helped build trust with the residents involved. It believes that change happens from within these communities, and so, is dedicated to forming strong relationships with local anchors and volunteers. Through inclusiveness and a little elbow grease, it continues to earn the respect of the people it serves.

A Team Thing

Made up of a group of spirited individuals, the GTECH team is unified in its mission to foster community connection, well-being and empowerment.

For Administrative Coordinator Shequaya Bailey, “community and community land improvement” keeps her motivated. For James Snow, Project Manager of Planning and Analysis, “the people we work with and the diversity of the communities we’re in” are inspiring. And for Sarah Koenig – Project Manager: Land Use and Environment, the “variety of work, learning new skills and never doing the same thing twice” is what she enjoys the most.

As stated by Evaine, “Our team is wholly passionate about what we are doing. Each of us has a very different background, studied different things—we all see problems and challenges differently and are able to come up with the most robust solutions possible from the various perspectives of design, planning, data, biology, water resources, sociology and so on.”

GTECH Team + Chief Canine Officer, Wickett (Not Pictured: Kevin Gieder, Joe Marren, Thomas Mulholland and Andrew Butcher). GTECH Strategies.

GTECH Team + Chief Canine Officer, Wickett (Not Pictured: Kevin Gieder, Joe Marren, Thomas Mulholland and Andrew Butcher). GTECH Strategies.

The enterprise’s endurance as an institution was recently put to the test when GTECH Founder Andrew Butcher stepped down as CEO and moved out of state with his family; on January 1st,  Former COO Evaine K. Sing officially became Executive Director, securing the torch passed along by Andrew.

Grounded for Good

In celebration of its 10-year anniversary, GTECH Strategies will be holding an event, Grounded for Good: 10 Years of GTECH, at The Heinz History Center on April 21st (the day before Earth Day). It will mark a decade of accomplishment and honor those involved in the organization’s success. The event will also pay tribute to former members and the nonprofit’s current transition.

Of course, there’s still plenty of work to be done.

PGH Mobile Toolbox. GTECH Strategies.

PGH Mobile Toolbox aims to help the City realize its potential as the world’s most innovative metropolitan area when it comes to the transformation of dilapidated lots for community well-being. GTECH Strategies.

GTECH has recently secured funding and other resources in partnership with the Hillman Foundation, which will allow it to address projects more independently. Through June 2019, it will partner with 24 communities and provide technical assistance in the form of targeted land use interventions, strategic data collection and analysis, among other things, as well as direct financial support ($5,000-30,000 awards) to foster healthy initiatives.

The intention is to create a seamless experience, maintaining a focus on blight mitigation and capacity building, while concentrating on projects and growth rather than fundraising.

Additionally, gearing up for a spring release, GTECH and partner Neighborhood Allies have introduced a shared community resource called the PGH Mobile Toolbox—a trailer system (the first-of-its-kind in the county) that will support the growing network of Pittsburghers dedicated to taking ownership of their surroundings.

At the end of the day, Pittsburgh (and Allegheny County as a whole) is a place of resilience and resourcefulness. Its residents have learned to do more with less. For GTECH, it’s not so much about revitalizing vacant land as it is about building a network of empowered Pittsburghers. The core team may be small, but coupled with the relationships it has built over the years, its numbers are in the thousands.

Ready to embrace the future, GTECH Strategies is excited to write a new chapter for the coming decade and beyond.

The #CreativeCitiesUSA Pittsburgh Editorial project was made possible with the support of: