Gaining Ground: Vacant Land Justice Initiative

The State of Vacant Land In Pittsburgh

Nearly a quarter of Pittsburgh’s land is vacant or abandoned property that is disproportionately concentrated in low-income communities of color. These communities have faced decades of disinvestment, experienced an overshare of environmental hazards, and are under-resourced to tackle distressed vacant property. When neglected, vacant lots are linked to public and mental health consequences and a diminished quality of life for residents.  The practice of greening vacant lots (transforming vacant lots into parks, play spaces, green corridors, gardens, etc), adds immense economic and environmental value to a neighborhood. Even the simple act of providing intentional and ongoing maintenance to vacant lots can greatly improve the quality of life for nearby residents.

According to the Department of City Planning’s 2016 distressed parcel dataset, there are 26,743 vacant and distressed parcels without structures in the City of Pittsburgh. 8,337 (31.2%) of these parcels are city-owned vacant parcels, while 16,518 (61.8%) are privately-owned vacant parcels. The remaining parcels are owned by the URA or other public entities. This large inventory of vacant land negatively impacts neighborhood quality, diminishes the value of adjacent properties, and decreases local tax revenue.

Need Action Now!

Grounded has been working on vacant land issues across Pittsburgh for over a decade, including working to improve the condition of vacant lots by developing sustainable solutions that can address the environmental and racial injustices currently entrenched in our property management system. With a systematic approach to vacant land stabilization in place, vacant land has the power to improve social, economic, and environmental outcomes.

We must take action through a holistic lens that accounts for the full history and community needs of each lot. We must be intentional and work together to gather these stories in order to improve the systems that continuously work against residents trying to build vacant lots into tangible assets. There must be a sense of urgency and an ongoing commitment to improving Black and brown Pittsburghers’ lives. 

Gaining Ground: 10 Years To Maxiumum Ownership

The Vacant Land Justice Policy Initiative: To increase vacant land ownership rates amongst residents living in lower-income communities of color in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.


  • Restorative, regenerative, and intersectional approach to mitigating hyper-vacancy in the Pittsburgh region 
  • Returns the power of vacant land reclamation to individual residents through the processes of acquisition and ownership.
  • Helps lower-income communities of color generate environmental health and intergenerational wealth from the abandoned land around


  • Hone our internal expertise in all stages of land ownership in order to develop and launch exceptional direct services to individuals navigating land recycling systems in our target communities. Construct a framework for direct service that embodies the values of maximum approachability and accessibility.  
  • Mindfully construct internal case management, partner referral, and data sharing infrastructure to conduct ongoing impact assessments, comparative analyses with government data sets, and to implement programmatic course corrections as quickly as possible.
  • Continue to cultivate and grow relationships with community, government, and business stakeholders to push forward our policy goal to see a land recycling strategy established for all Pittsburgh city-owned vacant lots in priority districts. 

Looking at the Vacant Land Ownership Process & Pathways:

1) Access/Acquisition – what legal ownership framework should I pursue?

First and foremost, the City of Pittsburgh should be prioritizing making the process of access and acquisition as equitable and accessible as possible. By creating ease in the transfer of property to residents, the City of Pittsburgh relieves itself of the financial burden of lot maintenance and opens the door to potential new revenue resulting from the new land use. 

This includes Treasure’s Sales, Private Sales, Adopt-A-Lot, the SideYard Program, Allegheny County Sheriff’s Sales, Conservatorships, and the Pittsburgh Land Bank.

2) Activation & Stewardship – I own the land, how can I care for it? How can it serve my family and my community? 

By first focusing on transferring land ownership to residents we are able to relieve the financial burden on the city to maintain lots. However, projected maintenance and stabilization costs remain a large barrier. Activation and stewardship programs that exist include the URA LandCare Program, City Lot Maintenance Bids, the Clean Sweep Team, and community stewardship.

3) Preservation and Land-Use Planning – what is my vision for the future of my land? 

Many organizations and entities can impact how land is preserved and how it is designated for end-use. This includes Community Land Trusts, Zoning Changes and Variances, Design/Build Options, and Greenway Designations.

4) Land Loss Prevention – How can my land support my family for generations once I am gone?

In order to ensure the end of the Cycle of Vacancy, we must consider the importance of providing residents with legal and financial support to maintain and pass on the lots. This includes Heir’s Property Protections, Homeownership Training, End of Life Planning, and Family Planning