North Side's vacant parcels surveyed

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When three North Siders began counting vacant lots in the area’s 19 neighborhoods last spring, they used the city’s designations to define them and, with help from a nonprofit that focuses on green redevelopment, came up with 5,399.

But numbers can mislead: 38 percent of the total is woods; 11 percent comprises side yards people use, legally or not. That takes care of about 50 percent of the North Side’s vacancy. What is left are gardens, little parks and parking lots, temporarily “greened” links between commercial buildings, and a whopping 2,039 lots in need of love.

GTECH [Growth Through Energy and Community Health] Strategies hired residents to help collect data with funding from the Buhl Foundation. The Reclaim Northside survey took three months. GTECH, a nonprofit social enterprise investing in community revitalization through green economic development initiatives, is now doing an in-depth review of the data.

Beyond its North Side project, GTECH has been working on a mapping tool in partnership with the tech firm LocalData, which developed the digital platform. The work will help standardize the way conditions are measured and how they are described in inventories to eliminate inconsistency for sharing and comparing across neighborhoods, said Evaine Sing, operations, policy and research director for GTECH.

People still have to do the legwork, but they don’t have to go back to an office to transcribe. Electronic tablets show parcels and addresses on an aerial photo. Information can be entered on the spot.

Pittsburgh North Side: unimproved lots

Ruth McCartan, of McCandless, was one of the three counters. She thought she knew the North Side pretty well, having lived and operated a hardware store there for many years.

“I went to places I had never been or known about,” she said. “Walking is a completely different story. It was a wonderful way to get an appreciation of the North Side, a very rewarding experience.

“It was fun being with young people who have completely different perspectives on Pittsburgh, who are not from Pittsburgh but chose to come here.” 

She and GTECH data collectors happened upon the sites of old foundations, remnants of a part of East Street that was consumed by Interstate 279 North, and what looked like the early shoots of a knotweed farm in Fineview.

“In the North Hills, the only people who walk the streets are exercising,” she said, “and nobody asks what you are doing. On the North Side, people come out and ask and they talk.“

Many people told her they have been calling the city to ”do something“ about vacant lots near their homes, although many of these lots are privately owned.

She said she was surprised at the numbers. ”A lot of them were full of invasive species.“

Ms. Sing said the data will help return such lots to purposeful use with precise information about their potential and their ownership.

GTECH is also putting its North Side data into play for this fall’s group of “community ambassadors,” a program it has sponsored for the last two years — the first year on the North Side and last year in the southern hilltop neighborhoods. 

Through this month, GTECH is taking applications from North Siders who want to work on individual projects, either of their own choosing or from the data collection list. The ambassadors are expected to pair their projects with a community anchor, such as a church or nonprofit organization.

Ten will be chosen in September to begin a year-long project. To apply, visit

“Unimproved lots are what we’re focusing on,” Ms. Sing said. “We have mapped usable sites that are near schools, churches and community centers, anywhere people gather.”

The data from the land inventory is expected to be part of a finished draft on the GTECH website later this month. The site is

Diana Nelson Jones: or 412-263-1626.

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