From organic farming to land-use planning, these redevelopment initiatives depend on group participation, hard work—and Penn State expertise
By Christopher "Cole" Hons
A new farm in Braddock, Pa., gives residents hope. Around the state,
Penn State inspires citizen involvement in neighborhood growth.
Mayor John Fetterman is a man on a mission. His goal? To revive the town of Braddock, Pa. Once a booming economic hotspot that attracted folks from all over the Pittsburgh area for the best dining, shopping and entertainment in the region, Braddock fell on hard times with the steel industry’s decline in the ’70s, and the town has been slowly dying ever since. By 2005, the area deteriorated into a crumbling shell of its former glory. The population fell from 20,000 to under 3,000. Shops and homes were boarded up and falling down. It looked like a town with no hope.
But now all of that is changing. Today, on Braddock Avenue, just across from the community’s only school, sits the brand new Braddock Farm. This modest, half-acre lot, once desolate and unkempt, now sports rows of raised beds, soon to be planted for the second time with fresh, organically grown vegetables. Next to the beds, through the effort of many hands, a high tunnel greenhouse has sprung up, promising to extend the farm’s growing season by months.
“It truly is one of those projects that enjoy universal support,” said Fetterman, explaining what the farm means to Braddock. “Jobs for our young people, organic produce for our community, beautifying a large, vacant lot,” and, perhaps most importantly, “infusing a sense of optimism and an expanded sense of possibility.”
By summer, this humble lot will house its own farm stand, where neighbors can come to support the hometown economy. Dozens of school-aged youth will, for the second year in a row, find summer employment on this site. Here, beyond all odds, hope has found a home.
When Fetterman first began thinking seriously about organic local farming as an economic development strategy for Braddock, he immediately got in touch with Grow Pittsburgh—an innovative new organization housed in Penn State’s Allegheny County Extension office—for help.
Turning Liabilities Into Assets
“This project fit perfectly with our effort to provide leadership in the Pittsburgh and Allegheny County area regarding meaningful community engagement,” enthused Deno De Ciantis, Allegheny County Extension director.
After a year and a half of soil testing, grant writing, legal wrangling and plain old hard work, Braddock Farm is beginning to show its true promise. Restaurants, cafés and food co-ops are signing on as regular customers. Weekly deliveries are being arranged to a high rise occupied by local seniors. And the staff members at Grow Pittsburgh are gearing up for their first full growing season—last year, they couldn’t plant until August, when all the associated paperwork was complete.
In addition to growing vegetables and flowers, the farm will be used as a hands-on teaching facility, where people can earn a certificate in urban agriculture from Extension educators.
“Our goal is to make Braddock the county seat in urban agriculture in Allegheny County,” Fetterman said. “We have the lots, expertise, workforce and will.”
At just 6,000 square feet, Braddock Farm may seem small, but it represents the seed of a much larger idea—transforming urban blight into opportunity. Or, as De Ciantis puts it, “turning a current liability into a future asset.”
This idea is taking off all across Greater Pittsburgh, as the Allegheny County Extension staff can attest. The office is a major partner in Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s Green Up Pittsburgh initiative—an effort to convert the city’s vacant lots (of which there are some 15,000) into parklets, community gardens, edible schoolyards and even biodiesel minifarms.
Allegheny County Extension educators with expertise in soil and plant science are playing a crucial role in the project. “We are positioned to provide guidance and consultation to help make the best decisions possible as policies are developed and plans devised,” said De Ciantis.
A Focus on Land Use
In Westmoreland County, Penn State Extension is lending expertise to redevelopment efforts as well. Since 2002, Extension has assisted the Smart Growth Partnership of Westmoreland County (SGPWC) with land-use planning issues. In 2007, both organizations took part in a bold new initiative called the Route 30 Master Plan—an effort to create a sustainable economic oasis surrounding a 40-mile stretch of road known to locals as the Lincoln Highway.
Rather than taking the conventional “design and present” approach to land-use planning, officials in the region decided to embrace an innovative new model: the public design charrette.
The charrette is an approach to design in which a wide range of key stakeholders are brought into the process early on to offer and exchange opinions, suggestions, ideas and concerns, well before any professional plans are drawn up. Key to the charrette philosophy is the assumption that the public will much more readily embrace and support a design if it is built to meet its own standards and goals.
“For decades we’ve sought to improve public participation in land development,” explained SGPWC Executive Director Alex Graziani, admitting: “It’s not easy. People aren’t used to contributing. They’re more used to opposing things. You have to encourage them to give their ideas.”
More than 200 community members participated in a weeklong U.S. Route 30 Master Plan charrette process last fall. Participants included architects, engineers and environmental and real estate professionals, as well as residents and official representatives from neighboring communities. The shared vision they created through the charrette process identified three key components: quality, accessibility and “walkability.”
On Dec. 13, 2007, the resulting Master Plan was unveiled at a public meeting and greeted with enthusiastic suggestions for implementation.
Graziani said his partners at Penn State Extension helped bring a tone of authenticity and authority to the process. “Extension is about education. They’re here to teach, not to forward an agenda. People trust them.”
John Turack, Westmoreland County Extension community and economic development educator, added: “I believe that our efforts will inform and affect decisions throughout the region for a long time to come.”
Bringing greater inclusiveness to the process is just the latest manifestation of a long-standing commitment by Extension to the field of land-use planning. Since 1992, Extension has formally partnered with the Pennsylvania chapter of the national nonprofit American Planning Association, an organization that promotes good planning practices in the community, through the Pennsylvania Municipal Planning Education Institute (PMPEI).
Smarter Planning Through Education
The aim of the institute is to provide crucial education in laws and best practices for public planning to municipal and county planning commissions, members of zoning hearing boards and zoning administrators, along with elected government officials and municipal staff statewide.
“Basically, PMPEI provides the instruction these officials need to learn regarding their responsibilities in their appointed position,” explained Dr. Stanford M. Lembeck, emeritus Penn State professor from the College of Agricultural Sciences and founding member and chairman of PMPEI’s board of directors.
“What’s innovative about the partnership is that we rely on trained volunteers to teach the programs,” said Dr. Tim Kelsey, Penn State professor of agricultural economics and Extension state program leader in Economic and Community Development. “We developed the curriculum and teach an annual train-the-trainer to build the cadre of instructors,” only accepting volunteers as instructors if they have extensive land-use planning experience. Currently there are approximately 60 instructors statewide.
The institute presents 25 to 35 courses annually, with up to 600 attendees—providing more contact hours of instruction than any other educational program available for local planners in Pennsylvania.