Vacant Lot Transformation for Green Jobs and Neighborhood Revitalization

Vacant Lot Transformation for Green Jobs and Neighborhood Revitalization

I just found this little blue-print I drew up for a vacant lot by one of my houses in Pittsburgh. I never had the chance to put this into place, but it would be wonderful to have more non-consumerist places to spend time between home and work.

Break it Down!

There’s tons of space in Pittsburgh and tons of bricks from demolitions so it would be pretty great to build a rainy or very sunny day pavilion as you see in the top left corner.

The top right corner would hold the Constance Street community bread / pizza oven and would also benefit from spare bricks.

Going down the top center are several long picnic tables.

Trees are much needed on this highway-side of Pittsburgh’s Northside so some nice fruit and shade trees in the middle of a block will sooth the residents and be beautiful and delicious. Sporadic dots both labeled and unlabeled represent trees.

The bottom center of the lot includes plans for some weird seating to be designed by one or several of Pittsburgh’s many amazing artists.

And at the very bottom, a lovely long row of soil-cleansing, sun-worshiping, smile-making sunflowers!

Let’s Make Green Jobs Fixing Our Communities

We have so much public land that’s being wasted as over-grown and trash-filled lots. At the same time, we have so many under and unemployed people. Let’s find a way to create and fund jobs that would enhance our communities, like rehabilitating abandoned lots, while putting under-worked Americans back in the workforce.

I’m underemployed myself and I’d jump at the chance to have a part-time job cleaning up and beautifying my neighborhood.

Give Me Work and Give Me Beauty

We want bread but we want roses too!

Help Flood Victims in Nashville

Help Flood Victims in Nashville


With all the excitement and rage about BP’s reckless management of offshore drilling, the massive flooding of Nashville has lost opportunities for press coverage and sympathy. If you have some extra money lying around and want to donate to restoration efforts in the land of country music, the Community Foundation is a non-profit organization that is accepting donations of any size.

In partnership with Davidson County’s Office of Emergency Management, The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee has activated its Metro Nashville Disaster Response Fund to help to those affected by the May 1, 2010 floods. Donations of any size are welcome. Grants from the fund will support relief and restoration in the Davidson County area.

Photo by Southern Tabitha, Flickr

Nashville is the city where I was born, where my parents bought their first house, where I learned how to walk, and talk, and ride a bike. It’s the home of my grandma who gave me my name and tons of vintage clothes, as well as the home of numerous aunts, uncles, dozens of cousins, and relatives that I haven’t even met yet.

Flooding in Nashville, Photo by Southern Tabitha, Flickr

Nashville is my first city. I was born there and lived right by Vanderbilt University until I was seven, and I even went on my first upside down roller coaster there. I started my life walking everywhere: to school, to the grocery store, to friends’ houses, to the park down the street. Nashville is the fantastic city that I no longer know but that spoiled me for the next ten years that I spent living in the suburbs of Washington, DC. (Sorry parents, but blech! What a wretched departure!)

Yield to Pedestrians

So if you have a little disposable income and want to help out some people who are drowning in dirty water, please pass some dollars along to the Community Foundation or another reputable non-profit.

For a little swoon from my childhood, here is the Dragon Park down the street from my semi-ancestral home:

The Dragon Park, photo by Brent, flickr

For more pictures of this incredible park, check out this blog on Mosaic Art.

How to Turn a Vacant Lot into a Pizza Parlor – GOOD

How to Turn a Vacant Lot into a Pizza Parlor – GOOD

Great article from GOOD Magazine.

Seven steps to figure out how to get a community oven in your neighborhood.

How many parties have you walked into only to find the living room empty and a crowded kitchen, everyone huddled near the stove or around the table? Maybe it’s the smell of food. Maybe it’s the warmth of the stove. Maybe it’s our ancestral heritage. Kitchens are the hearts of our homes, so why not for the whole neighborhood? “Community ovens can be the glue that keeps a neighborhood together,” says Ray Werner, a Pittsburgh based community oven builder. Want to build a hearth for your hood? Here’s how to get started.

I want to build a community oven! I live on a street that doesn’t have any green space except for two vacant lots and so I drew up this very professional design to make better use of the space:
I graduated from the School of Looseleaf Design
The top right hand corner of the paper is the Oven.
I imagined the fairly large vacant lot having:
  1. Fruit trees: a row of fruit trees to provide shade and food for residents.
  2. Picnic tables throughout, of course.
  3. Sunflowers.
  4. Weather-proof seats designed and installed by local artists.
  5. And a pavilion.
Because buildings are often being demolished in Pittsburgh, there are a lot of extra
bricks lying around. So why not also build a pavilion so residents can escape their homes even if it’s raining, and still have a place to sit outside? A place to read, or sketch, or lament, a place to meet with friends, a place where you can sit comfortably outside your home without having to buy anything?
Can’t Get There From Here: The Woeful Tale of a Stranded Pedestrian

Can’t Get There From Here: The Woeful Tale of a Stranded Pedestrian

This is the soundtrack for my exploration stroll the other day around my neighborhood. Unless you loathe R.E.M., it is a good accompaniment to reading this post.

Several times in the past I have celebrated my neighborhood and home on the North Side of Pittsburgh. But I have to tell you that I exaggerated a little and omitted much.

There are many beautiful areas of the North Side and much of it is quaint, wonderful, and convenient. But I have to confess: I live on the OTHER North Side, the part that was cut in half by a neighborhood dividing highway.

The parts that contain all the amenities like the National Aviary, the Andy Warhol Museum, coffee shops, grocery stores, and parks are all on the other side of this highway:

That is the scene I have to ride or walk across when heading to other, more lovelier parts of the North Side.

And if I want to go downtown or shopping in the Strip District, I find myself facing signs like this:

No Pedestrian Signs are More Common Than Crosswalks

Riding bikes is not much of a problem as you’re on the road, but if you are trying to get around by foot, as are children and many elderly who do not own cars, it is a death-trap. A place filled with crumbling gravelly sidewalks that are dangerous for nearly everyone except the most fit.

What if I depended on a wheelchair to get around? I’d never make it in this neighborhood.

Getting to the bus stop is quite perilous and I waited through three lights at one intersection waiting for a pedestrian signal. Over 50 cars drove by in three light switches and not one stopped to let me cross,  so I finally had to just make a run for it.

To cross to this intersection:

If you look really closely there used to be a crosswalk

Then the friendly pedestrian must run across another faded crosswalk, but this time there is a light for the walker!

Crossing East Ohio

Seems like that should be hazardous enough, right? But if I want to get my groceries from the Strip, I still have to get to the 16th Street Bridge and walk past the highway exit where this sizable vehicle powered up to the sidewalk where I was standing:

Intimidatingly Large Truck

And though I wasn’t trying to walk onto the highway, seeing this sign just reinforced how my walk felt:

Pedestrians Prohibited

By this point I’d walked less than half a mile but it took me nearly 20 minutes with all the waiting and trying not to die.

I’m fairly young and in shape, I ride a bike and move around all the time and this area is really difficult for me to navigate. Imagine how dangerous these streets are for people who are older, maybe less fit and less able to make a run for it across the street.

This area is incredibly unfriendly to pedestrians and many people do not have the luxury of investing a substantial amount of their income on a vehicle.

We need, very soon:

  • Crosswalks to be repainted
  • Pedestrian crossing signals at all intersections

Can you think of any other easy-to-implement solutions that could make this area safer for everyone?

Changing the Face of the Allegheny Riverfront, Tonight

Changing the Face of the Allegheny Riverfront, Tonight

Attention Pittsburghettes and Pittsburghers,

Reminder about the Allegheny Riverfront Meeting tonight! (And after that there is going to be a fantastic dance party at the Brillobox).

This is a major cycling corridor, and plans and ideas are being put on the table that need your input.

Thursday, April 29th

6:30 to 8:00

the History Center

1212 Smallman St


“For decades, Pittsburgh’s riverfronts were used as transportation corridors for industrial production, and the land surrounding them did not connect to our communities. Today we recognize the riverfronts as our most treasured assets that have tremendous potential to improve our quality of life. We now have the opportunity to reconnect our neighborhoods, reclaim these waterways as amenities, and provide new venues for recreation.”
– Mayor Luke Ravenstahl

Why Words Matter: This isn’t a Plaza, it’s a Strip Mall

Why Words Matter: This isn’t a Plaza, it’s a Strip Mall

This is why words matter. When you call a strip mall a plaza, the meaning of the word plaza is twisted and becomes meaningless. A strip mall is “a long usually one-story building or group of buildings housing several adjacent retail stores or service establishments” which is what we find in the not so lovely Shadyside “Plaza”.

If this location were actually a plaza we might find “a public square in a city or town” or “an open area usually located near urban buildings and often featuring walkways, trees and shrubs, places to sit, and sometimes shops”

Instead, we see this:




A plaza is a gathering space, a beautiful respite in a city, a place where people take pictures, meet friends, a place to show off to out of town visitors.

A strip mall is none of these things. Rather, it is a waste of precious urban land, a careless, unplanned, ugly, quick construction; a symbol that no one cares what it looks like, what it feels like, or the experience that people have when going to or by it.

Strip malls have no place in dense urban centers and certainly do not deserve the honor of the title plaza. They are usually inhabited by bland, faceless corporations with zero ties to the community that have no investment in making their location a better place to live.

This is just one small example of the importance of language and how inaccurately describing something limits our ability to correctly interpret.
Some other examples:

The difference between car accident and car crash. Car “accident” automatically removes any responsibility and accountability from a driver.

Global warming vs. climate change. Global warming sounds GREAT, doesn’t it? Everyone likes being warm and doesn’t that mean reduced heating bills? When incorrect terminology becomes popularized, it changes the scope of the debate.

Alternative transportation. The word “alternative” automatically isolates and alienates anyone who chooses to use a method of transport beyond a car.

Why I Love Pittsburgh in Five Pictures or Less

Why I Love Pittsburgh in Five Pictures or Less

I left DC in November to move to Pittsburgh, which is not the ideal time to explore a new city in the Western Pennsylvania, but yesterday, March 18 was perfect. It was 65 and sunny! It was so warm it felt like a light weather massage all day. The sun gave me some more freckles and my hair started to redden around my helmet.  I rode my sometimes trusty, very tiny, yet extremely heavy bicycle all around Pittsburgh’s North Side, my super glamorous side of town.

One reason why I love Pittsburgh: I pay $250 a month in rent and I live a five minute bike ride to the Andy Warhol Museum, the National Aviary, the Children’s Museum, the Mattress Factory (a museum of contemporary art that presents art you can get into — room-sized environments, created by in-residence artists!), a baseball field, if I’m feeling summery. I’m also just a short ride across a bridge to the Strip District, the market district packed with yummy foods from all over the world.

I rode my bike this afternoon to visit a tasty vegetarian coffee shop called Hoi Polloi. I ordered a yummy chai that came out all scaldy, the way I like it, cooking my insides for a minute and sending flavor everywhere. The grilled cheese sandwich was less than $4. It even came with tomato! I asked if I could add anything else and was suddenly moved to add a slice of mango, something I’d never tried before. It was … quite good. the mango was a bit slippery, but it was an interesting compliment to the sweet tomato. And for less than less than $4, impressive.

They have a neat bike rack outside the coffee shop. It looks clever, but is practically useless against theft.

We used it anyway:

Cute, but structurally unsound

(PS: Pittsburgh Councilmembers, vote for bike parking next week, and businesses, add more reliable racks! If someone stole my bike from this rickety rack, I’d be without my main mode of transportation.)

I was planning to ride to the Andy Warhol Museum to write in the museum cafe after lunch. The Museum is close to my house and the cafe has cheap tasty coffee with unlimited refills. So you can work there surrounded by art for $2 plus tip while only 40 feet away from a real film photo booth! But I forgot the power cord to my computer which only has three minutes of battery life…  so I decided to ride my bike around the neighborhood, to get a look around on the way back to my house.

I slowly pedaled my clunky steel bicycle, while the wind blew on my arms and in my hair. I could feel my legs getting stronger again after a winter stuck inside, and I was appreciating the sound of a variety of birds, and the occasional flowers starting to bloom.

Spring is wonderful, but it’s much easier to appreciate every little warm lively detail after a long, cold, hard, dreary, dark, wet, endless winter.

Soon I was in this neighborhood:

Mexican War Streets Neighborhood

Enjoy this Imported Historical Blip about the Mexican War Streets: In 1848 General William Robinson, Jr. (later Mayor of Allegheny) plotted out the Mexican War Streets immediately following his return from the Mexican-American War, which annexed Texas and California. With patriotic fervor, he named the streets after the war’s battles (Buena Vista. Monterey. Resaca, Palo Alto) and military leaders (Taylor, Sherman, Jackson).

Nearly all the architectural types popular in the Victorian era are represented in the Mexican War Streets: Italianate, Gothic Revival, Richardson Romanesque, Empire and Queen Anne. Wow.

I rode by this mysterious house:

I could study the details of this house for a week.

This magical place is called “Randyland” and there are more pictures of it here on my shiny new flickr account.

But I thought I should keep exploring.

More pictures to come soon-ish. I am working on a new flickr account, but my computer is really old so it takes about a day to upload a couple of pictures.

I’m off for the tomorrow to spend the weekend celebrating wacky, functional, handmade, tall bicycles in Chicago.

The Citizen’s Handbook: Practical Assistance for Those Who Want to Make a Difference

The Citizen’s Handbook: Practical Assistance for Those Who Want to Make a Difference

“Practical Assistance for Those Who Want to Make a Difference”

This morning I was looking for some organizing tools for planning the 2010 Three Rivers Bioneers Conference and discovered  The Citizen’s Handbook, produced in Vancouver, BC.

Developed to encourage citizens to become active participants in shaping their own communities, the Handbook provides guidelines for tackling problems locally. Though many of the resources mentioned are Canadian, the U.S. is referenced frequently and the strategies shared are largely universal. I highly recommend taking a look at this resource and sharing it widely.

What happens when people stop observing and start acting?

“When people become involved in their neighbourhoods they can become a potent force for dealing with local problems. Through co-ordinated planning, research and action, they can accomplish what individuals working alone could not. When people decide they are going to be part of the solution, local problems start getting solved. When they actually begin to work with other individuals, schools, associations, businesses, and government service providers, there is no limit to what they can accomplish.”

How can my involvement change anything?

“When citizens get together at the neighbourhood level, they generate a number of remarkable side effects. One of these is strengthened democracy. In simple terms, democracy means that the people decide. Political scientists describe our system of voting every few years but otherwise leaving everything up to government as weak democracy. In weak democracy, citizens have no role, no real part in decision-making between elections. Experts assume responsibility for deciding how to deal with important public issues.
The great movement of the last decades of the twentieth century has been a drive toward stronger democracy in corporations, institutions and governments. In many cities this has resulted in the formal recognition of neighbourhood groups as a link between people and municipal government, and a venue for citizen participation in decision-making between elections.”

In the past several decades, people have moved around more, become less connected to their communities and less likely to know their neighbors. This is not inevitable, and small actions can help redefine our neighborhoods, making them safer, healthier places to live.

“Active citizens can help to create a sense of community connected to place. We all live somewhere. As such we share a unique collection of problems and prospects in common with our neighbours. Participation in neighbourhood affairs builds on a recognition of here-we-are-together, and a yearning to recapture something of the tight-knit communities of the past. Neighbourhood groups can act as vehicles for making connections between people, forums for resolving local differences, and a means of looking after one another. Most important, they can create a positive social environment that can become one of the best features of a place.”

Thoughts from an Urban Visionary – Enrique Peñalosa

Thoughts from an Urban Visionary – Enrique Peñalosa

“A premise of the new city is that we want a society to be as egalitarian as possible. For this purpose, quality-of-life distribution is more important than income distribution. [And quality of life includes] a living environment as free of motor vehicles as possible.” – Enrique Peñalosa

I stumbled onto the website of the Project for Public Spaces the other day and was revisiting the work of Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia whose ideas have been very influential to my own. When I decided to start planning a Carfree Day in Washington, DC in 2007, I had stars in my eyes and was imagining a city-wide stoppage of car usage such as happened in Bogotá in February 2000 for the first Carfree Day under the leadership of Enrique Peñalosa.

Over 600,000 residents left their cars at home and walked, cycled, or took the bus in Bogotá, this is what I was hoping to see happen in Washington, DC. According to the BBC, “The empty streets marked a tremendous change for Bogota. Usually, the morning and evening rush hours bring paralysis to the city streets, and every year more than 1,000 people are killed in road accidents in Bogotá.”

The change faced some resistance initially but was popular enough that people voted for a referendum to adopt a “yearly car free day and decided that from the year 2015 onwards, there would be no cars during rush hours, from 6 AM to 9 AM and from 4:30 PM to 7:30 PM.”

This radical change in regulation and perspective on the part of the government and residents show a dedication to re-creating their city with a focus on people rather than cars. Here are some notable quotes from Peñalosa on his building cities with children in mind, creating cities that are “marvelous”! (Thanks to the Project for Public Spaces for compiling).

  • “We had to build a city not for businesses or automobiles, but for children and thus for people. Instead of building highways, we restricted car use. … We invested in high-quality sidewalks, pedestrian streets, parks, bicycle paths, libraries; we got rid of thousands of cluttering commercial signs and planted trees. … All our everyday efforts have one objective: Happiness.”
  • “Over the past 80 years we have been building cities for cars much more than for people. If only children had as much public space as cars, most cities in the world would become marvelous.”
  • “The importance of pedestrian public spaces cannot be measured, but most other important things in life cannot be measured either: Friendship, beauty, love and loyalty are examples. Parks and other pedestrian places are essential to a city’s happiness.”

We need to follow his example in the United States to eliminate the horrendous congestion that is dominating our landscape.

If you’ve got several minutes, check out this interview with Mr. Peñalosa by Streetfilms:

For more on Enrique Peñalosa’s other accomplishments and background, visit the Project for Public Space.

Some Views of Pittsburgh

Some Views of Pittsburgh

I’m enjoying exploring my new city by bicycle and by foot. These are some pictures I took while walking around in the first couple of weeks of the year when it snowed every day.

The skyscrapers at eye-level from an overlook at the top of Mt. Washington on the South Side:

A collection of bridges over the three rivers:

After climbing up a cobblestone street on the North Side where I live, I found one of Pittsburgh’s several hundred sets of stairs:

I climbed 100 stairs and was rewarded with this view:

From “The city of Pittsburgh has 712 public stairways with a total of 44,645 steps … Tallied together, that’s more than 24,000 vertical feet, or four miles in height – more than 4,000 feet higher than Mt. McKinley, the highest mountain peak in North America. It also gives Pittsburgh the distinction as the U.S. city with the most public stairways. With 712 sets of stairs, the city of Pittsburgh has almost as many steps as the next two cities on the list (Cincinnati, 400 and San Francisco, 350) combined.”

According to Wikipedia, Pittsburgh is tied with Prentiss St. in San Franscisco for steepest urban street in the United States. Canton Ave. is nauseatingly steep at 37% grade which means that “for every 100 ft of horizontal distance traveled, the elevation changes by 37 ft”. This photograph has been temporarily borrowed from that same website until I can take one.

Check out this video from the terrifying-sounding bicycle ride in Pittsburgh, the Dirty Dozen, as riders struggle to make it up this hill.