2021 in Summary

2021 in Summary

Frequent volunteer, and doctoral student at Point Park Universtity, Aram Kolesar shares an annual summary of Grounded's work in 2021.

Written by Aram Kolesar

Over the past year, Grounded Strategies’ work on vacant lots has flourished. In 2021, we embarked on new initiatives, broke ground on new sites, and expanded existing projects. As we continue to survey our projects and consider directions for the years ahead, we invite you to take a look at some of the great programs Grounded has worked on in 2021!

Due to our industrial heritage, sustainable soil reclamation is a particularly important part of vacant land reclamation in Pittsburgh. Lead contamination poses serious health risks to our residents, and city regulations prohibit the development of land with soil lead concentration above 1000 parts per million. Grounded has continued to explore sustainable soil remediation solutions to reduce dangerously high lead concentrations in vacant land. One of these promising remediation strategies is biochar, a black carbon product similar to charcoal which has been used by indigenous people to improve agricultural yields for centuries. Biochar can remediate soil contaminated with heavy metals at a lower cost than traditional soil-removal and other more commonly used methods. This year, Grounded released a report demonstrating the effectiveness of biochar soil remediation, with laboratory testing showing significant reduction in soil contamination and a promising cost comparison to soil-replacement remediation techniques. Biochar offers a cheap, sustainable solution to reclaim lots deemed hazardous and improve the health of communities affected by environmental toxicity.

As Ed Gainey steps in as Pittsburgh’s new mayor, Grounded has been working closely with his transition team to center vacant land as a policy priority. Grounded has been coordinating with the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Pittsburgh Land Bank to streamline the process of reclaiming abandoned and vacant land and buildings. Under the current system, gaining a Memorandum of Use to access and improve vacant lots is a process that can take several years. The Pittsburgh Land Bank has the authority to use an expedited foreclosure process which can reduce this lengthy procedure, reducing the financial burden on the city and allowing communities to access and improve empty lots. We look forward to continued collaboration with the new mayoral administration in the years to come.

Since being piloted in 2017, Grounded’s CommunityCare program has supported community members working on vacant lot reclamation and beautification through an incentive-based program which provides stewards an hourly rate that truly helps offset the time burden of stewardship activities. CommunityCare started in Homewood and has expanded to Wilkinsburg and the Hill District, connecting with residents and area organizations to build networks at the neighborhood level. The initiative was started to support existing informal and organized community efforts to clean up and maintain vacant parcels through grant funding. In 2021, Grounded was able to increase payments for CommunityCare stewards to $15 an hour. Grounded Strategies is committed to grassroots public engagement that draws on the strength and vibrancy of Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods.

Grounded developed new partnerships with the Mattress Factory, National Aviary, The Andy Warhol Museum, and other cultural institutions in the Northside for the Space Between project, a placemaking initiative which identifies the pedestrian corridor connecting public spaces in the area. Grounded utilized its relationships with community leaders and residents to determine the neighborhood’s needs for this project and ensure that local voices were heard throughout all parts of the process. Out of this project, Grounded created a brochure which serves as a map and raises awareness for the Northside Cultural Corridor, working to build stronger relationships between the area's cultural institutions and their neighboring communities. 

Working with Chapman Properties, Grounded designed a new play area for the Duquesne Family Support Center. The Family Support Center offers mental healthcare, reunites families in hardship and conflict, provides classes, and other support services to residents of Duquesne, West Mifflin, and surrounding areas. Grounded improved the play area with creative privacy fencing and a natural jungle gym installation. We are continuing to develop our Design and Placemaking Program to provide consultation for groups seeking to reclaim and develop vacant spaces.

As part of Grounded Strategies’ Stewardship First campaign, we completed an extensive assessment on 68 of our 121 existing project sites, reviewing the condition of hardscapes, softscapes, water management, and beautification at each site. This audit helped Grounded take inventory of our work and set an agenda for future services throughout the Pittsburgh area.

We are excited about our direction as we enter 2022 and anticipate many new opportunities for outreach and growth. We are grateful for the energy of our employees, volunteers, stewards, and community partners. Grounded hopes to continue building relationships with community members to combat the negative impact of vacant lots on the quality of life in our community.

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