Stirring Up Change in the Steel Belt
Posted by Andrew Macurak on May 12, 2008
The steel belt, once famous for its smoky cities, is capitalizing on a renewed public awareness of the environment to achieve tangible neighborhood change.
Over the past few years, Youngstown, Ohio has garnered national press with a radical, green redefinition of its urbanism. Recognizing that some of its neighborhoods have lost as much as 60 percent of their population, Youngstown has developed a revitalization strategy centered on open space planning.
Open-space planning constitutes allowing vacant or nearly vacant blocks to actually return to nature. Youngstown’s plan, developed with extensive public input and hinging on community participation, takes blighted property and returns it to residents as an asset for recreation, and can serve as an organizing tool through urban farming and gardening. Furthermore, it takes the fiscal strain of maintaining infrastructure for a long-since-departed tax base off the City of Youngstown.
Many of the dangers of vacant lots are apparent, such as their tendency to harbor criminal activity and act as visual deterrents to investment. But the environmental hazards they pose frequently go unnoticed and present dangerous health risks to already distressed neighborhoods. In Pittsburgh, a group of Carnegie Mellon University graduates have created a company that uses biofuel crops to remediate brownfields. GTECH, with a mission of bringing the new green economy to the most marginalized neighborhoods, has planted hybrid poplar trees, switch grass, and sunflowers on sites as contaminated as the former LTV Steel plant in the city’s Hazelwood section. These crops leech toxins from the soil, removing environmental hazards from the community while simultaneously promoting energy independence — and since they are non-food crops grown on contaminated dirt, they do not compete with food items for arable land.
Often, community-builders look at vacant lots and see potential for developing affordable housing. In strong-market cities, strategies to increase the supply of quality, low-cost residential units are of the utmost importance; weak-market cities with declining populations call for a more nuanced approach, all the better if it’s green and all the stronger if it’s predicated on quantitative analysis. A group of Pittsburgh-based public and nonprofit sector community development agencies, following suit with Philadelphia and Baltimore, recently contracted with the Reinvestment Fund to perform a residential market value analysis of the city.
These professionals are now using a more data-driven approach to strengthening neighborhood markets, again based on open-space planning: greening lots where appropriate and returning blighted properties to the community as an asset. The Brightwood Civic Group, located in the Marshall-Shadeland neighborhood of the city’s North Side, once eyed a plot of land left after the demolition of nuisance properties for 17 new units. But the market-value analysis demonstrated the value of a slightly different approach: building three houses and leaving the rest of the lot as a grassy mini-park. This strategy is expected to not only provide the higher quality of life associated with neighborhood green space, but to boost the desirability of older homes nearby, and thus boost the desirability of the entire neighborhood.
Braddock, a neighborhood just outside of the city in the Monongahela Valley, has lost 90 percent of its population over the past 50 years. Among many innovative strategies being pursued in a neighborhood that has to an extent become Pittsburgh’s urban laboratory is larger-scale urban farming. Located directly on Braddock’s main commercial strip, the nonprofit Grow Pittsburgh has collaborated with volunteers, AmeriCorps fellows, the Penn State Cooperative Extension of Allegheny County, and the YouthBuild training program to create a raised-bed, all-organic vegetable farm (photo above). Along with creating job opportunities, offering career training to at-risk youth, and bringing new use to vacant land, Braddock Farms increases the availability of fresh, healthful produce to an underserved urban population.
The synergy of community-centered real-estate development, community organizing, and environmentalism shows just how effective collaboration across progressive causes can be.