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Local Group Reclaims Vacant Land Through Micro-Grants and Education

Six months ago, the vacant lot next door to Linda Piso’s house in Knoxville was overgrown with weeds and was a haven for drug activity.

But Piso has since transformed the lot into a community garden.

“Right now I’m picking cucumbers,” Piso said on Saturday. “My garden is completely planted. I have lettuce, tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, peppers, and soon I’ll have a watermelon.”

With the help of nonprofit GTECH Strategies, Piso planted the garden, created a group gathering area, and even put in parking spaces for the nearby Knoxville branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

GTECH stands for Growth Through Energy and Community Health. Through its ReClaim initiative, the organization provides $3,000 micro-grants to people like Piso who want to transform vacant space in their neighborhoods. They call these folks “ambassadors,” and they’re currently working in South Hills neighborhoods.

“We have 13 individuals that range from a pastor who’s pursuing her PhD, to a pair of Bhutanese refugees, to someone who has lived here all their life, to someone who just recently transferred to Pittsburgh,” said Evaine Sing, operations and programming director for GTECH Strategies.

In addition to funding, Sing said GTECH helps successful grant applicants understand topics related to land use, including slope and water drainage, sunlight, soil conditions, and issues around ownership and zoning.

Some of the parcels of land, like Piso’s community garden, are tax delinquent city owned properties. Piso decided to go ahead and purchase her two parcels from the city for $200 each. Other parcels are public land, and the city of Pittsburgh licenses the land to GTECH for community projects.

Sing said GTECH funds a wide variety of ReClaim projects. For example, the old Knoxville Incline is slated to become a hiking trail, and Mount Oliver will soon get a game park with a life-size checkerboard and tables for playing checkers and chess. One of the ambassadors is even utilizing small open spaces throughout his neighborhood.

“He is very interested in transportation, and wanted to make it more interesting for people who are waiting for the bus,” Sing said. “He’s sporadically placing little free libraries where there are bus stops, so that when you’re waiting for the bus you can grab a book, read it, drop it off at your next stop, and maybe borrow or return another one.”

Sing said the key to the success of the program is the ambassador element, which helps people feel a real sense of ownership over the projects.

“They no longer are GTECH projects. They really become projects of the community and of the people who are behind them,” Sing said. “We can get a lot more done when we have that motivated and empowered backing. People really want to make good things happen in their communities, and that’s what we want to see happen.”

Linda Piso said that feeling of empowerment is contagious. She said in all the years she’s lived in Knoxville, she’s never seen so many of her neighbors out working to beautify their own yards.

“When you see the residents come by, they’re so happy to come by and see something here instead of weeds,” Piso said. "I tell people, ‘Look what you can do.’”

Now that the South Hills projects are underway, Evaine Sing said GTECH is gearing up to launch recruitment for community ambassadors on the North Side in the next couple of weeks.