College life in Pittsburgh

What can Pittsburgh do with vacant lots? These CMU students have ideas.

Check out this placemaking decision tree.

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Paul Sableman / Flickr
Sarah Anne Hughes

There are more than 27,000 vacant lots in Pittsburgh.

The city owns a quarter of them and spends millions each year on maintenance.

Both the Pittsburgh government and community groups are trying to fight the grassy blight. Last year, the city released a toolkit to help residents turn city-owned lots into gardens. The Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh is paying community nonprofits to help maintain the lots it’s responsible for. Residents are working to beautify and buy them (although that process can be difficult).

Eight Carnegie Mellon students have ideas of their own — ambitious ones.

For their senior capstone course, these Ethics, History, and Public Policy students 1 researched the best ways the city and community can utilize these lots to “deter the negative side effects of gentrification, especially displacement of low-income residents, while also promoting broader equitable development goals.”

“Our research shows the best method for revitalizing these vacant lots is through placemaking,” the students wrote in their report, which they presented Tuesday to members of Pittsburgh City Council. “The placemaking paradigm focuses on revitalizing areas by making them more appealing, affordable and livable for current and new residents. By implementing specific interventions, placemaking aims to bring more resources and capital to these areas.”

One of the results of the four-month project was a “placemaking decision tree,” which the city and community could use to determine the best use for vacant lots in areas of Pittsburgh with high and concentrated poverty 2 .

Placemaking decision tree

Placemaking decision tree

Councilmember Dan Gilman, a Carnegie Mellon alum, commissioned the study and spoke to the class. In the past, he’s asked students from this class to study marijuana decriminalization and law enforcement surveillance technology for the council’s benefit.

Councilmembers Ricky Burgess and Daniel Lavelle also addressed the students. After learning about placemaking and speaking with Burgess about the vacant lot problem, the students decided to focus their research on that issue.

“Vacant lots are usually looked at as one of the negatives,” said student Uzoma Nwankwo. “That is an opportunity to make a negative a positive. … This is a resource available to Pittsburgh.”

The students focused their placemaking policy ideas on six topics: affordable housing, community, job opportunity, job training, health and safety. Their ideas include constructing police substations on vacant land 3 , building community centers 4 , and greening projects 5 .

The students wrote that they do not expect the city to be able to implement these policies on its own.

“Rather, we intend the decision tree to be a long-term tool for all Pittsburghers seeking to improve impoverished neighborhoods as they work with private, public and nonprofit partners,” they wrote.

While working on this project, student Ariel Hoffmaier said she was surprised by the “sheer number of options … to improve communities in small ways.”

“It doesn’t always have to be building a hospital or 1,000 units of affordable housing. It could be as simple as adding in a community garden,” she said. “Every action you take in this respect can lead to more development options.”

Read the report here.