When Andrew Butcher saw vacant lots, he also saw the potential to make them the heart of a community revitalization strategy. Vacant lots are empty parcels of land that pose a number of challenges – the appearance of disuse can attract illegal dumping, decrease property values in the surrounding area, and lead to general disrepair as well as significant costs for both neighbors and the municipality. In urban areas that house disadvantaged populations, lack of resources can lead to more vacant lots and blight designation.
Andrew, 32, first came to Pittsburgh from Boulder, Colorado as a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, where he was pursuing his degree in public policy and management with a focus on community development. In 2006, Andrew and friends began building partnerships with community-based organizations, public agencies, small businesses, and other non-profits. Through these partnerships, the team began to trial innovative methods reclaim vacant lots in an effort to transition blighted lands into green spaces.
Fields of sunflowers began popping up throughout Pittsburgh. Sunflowers naturally absorb toxins that build up in the soil, and the seeds can be used to create biofuel. But beyond the practical uses, sunflowers introduced beauty and a shared space where there had only been empty land and waste before. This visual transformation may be the most powerful feature of this strategy – it not only spurred a change in the perception of a neighborhood, but invited interest and more opportunities for partnerships. Building on this initiative, Andrew and friends incorporated GTECH Strategies in 2007, one month before he graduated.
GTECH stands for Growth Through Energy and Community Health, and the best way to do it is from the bottom-up. GTECH Strategies currently runs two ambassadors programs – the ReClaim program, and the ReEnergize program built with support from Green For All. Over 40 ambassadors have trained with GTECH Strategies since 2007. First they go through a one-year training period to learn about environmental issues and develop skills to continue building community initiatives around sustainability. The ambassadors are selected by neighborhood and among a cohort of individuals who have already shown initiative in community or green endeavors.
The two programs were built on a core principle that GTECH Strategies has found crucial when building a broader and more inclusive network; communicating across completely different sectors, all of which use different language to point to the same thing, or think of the same issue in entirely different ways.
Andrew says that it takes a village to reclaim a vacant lot, or to create a job. GTECH Strategies is so successful because their green initiatives are not exclusively for environmental benefits, but also develop into opportunities around employment and answering community needs. Repurposing vacant lots halts the decline of property values and attracts interest. Energy efficiency leads to more money in the pockets of residents and less carbon in the atmosphere. Installing even small tracts of solar panels makes clean energy available to residents, and local electricity generation. All of these initiatives create local jobs, and communication is what cements key partnerships around these initiatives.
In the past six years, GTECH has transformed Pittsburgh in many ways. Right now GTECH directly employs 13 staff in addition to 23 ambassadors. In addition, GTECH also supported the development of 400 jobs since 2007 through partnerships and programs. These partnerships have also led to over 350 vacant lots converted, close to 200,000 lbs of mitigated carbon. Energy savings through the new ReEnergize program will soon follow through accessible energy efficiency upgrades.
As GTECH Strategies moves forward into its growth phase, it is starting to tackle a number of issues. As with all organizations on a growth trajectory, access to capital is a constant issue. GTECH is also developing new methods of evaluation that demonstrate their impact clearly.
A number of external factors could also make GTECH’s job easier. In the field of energy efficiency and renewable energy financing, repayment mechanisms such as on-bill repayment (paying back the cost of an efficiency upgrade through a surcharge on the utility bill) and PACE (paying back the cost of an efficiency upgrade through property tax) would open up options and access to more residents. Part of ReEnergize’s policy committee is also developing an initiative around including information on energy efficiency upgrades in real estate Multiple Listing Services to inform prospective homebuyers. In order to expand their work with vacant lots, Andrew is a proponent for developing a public authority called a land bank, which has authority over all publicly owned and controlled land. A land bank is a managing authority around acquiring, holding, and transferring property title for empty plots of land. This would make access to and repurposing of vacant lots much easier for the community.
GTECH Strategies’ initiatives are based on a vision of creating opportunities in ways that continue to inspire and resonate with other people to take action in ways that they haven’t thought about before. Seeing a previously vacant lot now filled with sunflowers sparks interest and shifts perspectives in a way that inspires further action. Creating that change is what empowers communities.