GSA Partnerships on the St. John’s Green

This blog was written by Thomas Guentner and Ilyssa Manspizer, of Landforce.

Nestled near the top of Brighton Heights sits a four-acre parcel of land which once housed St John’s Hospital. Built in 1896 and operational until 1995, St John’s served mill workers in the Northside communities until succumbing to a lack of funding and eventually being destroyed by an act of arson. For the past 20 years the land sat blighted by the remains of the old hospital and in a state of development limbo until the Urban Redevelopment Authority reached out to GTECH Strategies for support and a little creativity. This is where a new story begins, a story of collaboration and vision.

Brighton Heights community members have heard endless promises about housing replacing the former hospital site but have had to deal, first hand, with the byproducts of blight. Drug use, illegal dumping, and vandalism have plagued the grounds with the aid of unchecked vegetation growth and the red brick ruins of St John’s. With scenery such as this, it is hard to inspire a vision of what possibilities lie in wait.

As GTECH began to put together their management plan for the site, one thing became clear, help was needed. It would take a concerted effort to make way for the community’s vision and a dedicated team to see it through. Fortunately, that team already exists and was ready to go thanks to the Green Space Alliance.

Landforce, a new Pittsburgh organization, and member of the Green Space Alliance, combines workforce development and land stewardship, providing opportunities for people with barriers to employment to gain work experience while restoring the environment.  As a new organization, Landforce is eager to fill  their niche in Pittsburgh’s green renaissance, while ensuring that the benefits are felt by all of Pittsburgh’s people. By the end of Landforce’s first season, their Crews will have worked with a host of Green Space Alliance partners, including Nine Mile Run Watershed Association to maintain and install green infrastructure; Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy to restore native woodland; the Urban Redevelopment Authority to maintain vacant lots; and Allegheny Land Trust, South Side Slopes Neighborhood Association, Tree Pittsburgh, and Mount Washington Community Development Authority to construct and maintain trails.  Landforce was the perfect fit for the St. John’s property, exemplifying the useful partnerships that have arisen out of the Green Space Alliance, while providing the opportunity for people working to restore their own futures to restore degraded land and contribute towards a community’s well-being.

Working in the blazing sun for more than a week, breaking bow saw blades, and facing rampant poison ivy, Landforce worked to clear sight lines, prune trees, remove garbage, and remove undergrowth.  Yet, it took far more than hard work and heavy hand tools to complete this project — it took even more partnerships.

Representatives of Tree Pittsburgh spent four hours on the work site teaching Landforce crew members to properly prune trees and remove invasives such as Tatarian honeysuckle and ailanthus, which compromised the ecosystem and obscured sight lines. In addition, they trained Landforce as Tree Tenders so that crew members can bring their new skills back to their neighborhoods and onto their next jobs. Allegheny CleanWays also pitched in, hauling  away the last of the vegetative debris.

Brighton Heights community members are suddenly using the site, to walk their dogs, or to stroll, remarking frequently upon the stark difference of the before and the after as they pass by a cleaner, safer St John’s. The community, one step closer to reclaiming an asset from the grip of misuse, can now share the vision of the Green Space Alliance as they look at a new version of an old sight. Through it all, Green Space Alliance partners, intent upon complementing, and not duplicating, each other’s skills, proved to be a potent force for the St. John’s property.

This blog was written by Cassidy Martin, an intern at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.

The Pittsburgh Greenspace Alliance (GSA) is comprised of 30 non-profit organizations that are committed to improving the greenspace issues that are present in Pittsburgh today. Greenspaces are things such as parks, hiking and biking trails, and natural areas that benefit the Pittsburgh area’s economy and health, positively influencing the area both personally as well as recreationally and aesthetically.

Since its formation in 2013, the GSA has developed several initiatives and areas of focus.

One of the current initiatives of the Greenspace Alliance is, “[to work] with the administration on improved relationships with the non-profit community.” In other words, the GSA collectively wants to improve the relationships between the members of the alliance so that organizations can accomplish common initiatives together, and can also be as successful as possible within their own individual projects.

One person making this initiative a reality is Gavin White, who is currently an employee at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy (PPC) and at GTECH Strategies, both of which are members of the GSA. Working at both organizations gives Gavin the opportunity to experience and understand what different members of the GSA envision for the greenspaces of Pittsburgh, and how they could collaborate to improve their initiatives.

Gavin has two different titles at his respective jobs. At PPC, Gavin works as a Community Outreach Coordinator. In this position, community engagement is a critical aspect of the job. He is responsible for getting to know residents in the communities and making personal relationships. He makes himself available to people in the community so it is possible for them to have an outlet where they can voice their concerns and issues as well as give feedback on current projects. Gavin listens to the concerns of the community while making sure they have the opportunity to give input on the projects taking place in their local parks. Not only is he responsible for ensuring that residents of the community are informed about the things going on, he also participates in the work as well. Gavin explained that he works in other areas at PPC as well, such as graphic design work for printed materials and other small creative projects.

At GTECH, Gavin is a Project Coordinator where he works more hands-on, designing and building greenspace projects, especially with young people. Gavin helps design and build Green Playces, which are “outdoor classrooms and play spaces where youth can learn about their environment and how to take care of it.” Other work that Gavin does at GTECH is somewhat similar to what he does at PPC as well, in the way of community outreach, graphic design, research, writing, etc.

Gavin explained that he really enjoys working at both organizations because it allows him the chance to work at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to projects. For example, at PPC, he can work on large-scale projects and planning processes, such as the watershed planning PPC is pursuing with the city and PWSA for Four Mile Run in Schenley Park and Heth’s Run in Highland Park. He is currently managing the production of the public art for the August Wilson Park in the Hill District, which is celebrating its grand reopening on August 6. Gavin is also involved with building up the Pittsburgh Parks Prescription program. This program was created with the goal to tackle childhood obesity and other health challenges throughout the Pittsburgh area.

At GTECH, Gavin described that he works on more “affordable” projects.  Currently, Gavin is focused on building and designing Green Playces throughout Pittsburgh. The Green Playces projects he is currently working on are in Wilkinsburg, Allentown, McKeesport, and the Hill District. He is also finishing up art projects in two existing Green Playces in Homewood and Northside.

Gavin says that he feels that combining his work at PPC with the Pittsburgh Parks Prescription program and his Green Playces projects at GTECH shows how the GSA could work specifically between two member organizations who have overlapping initiatives. With an overall common goal of getting kids outside and educated about the environment, these two projects could come together and have both PPC and GTECH on board with both initiatives.  He is already working with these two organizations as well as Venture Outdoors and Student Conservation Association, who are also Greenspace Alliance members, to establish a “Remake Learning Playlist,” teaching kids to become “Young Conservationists.”  These and other collaborations would not only most likely make each project more successful, but could also bring more awareness to them as well.

Gavin’s work at PPC and GTECH is an excellent example of how bringing together initiatives from multiple organizations of the Greenspace Alliance makes these projects more successful. Working together as a motivated, supportive group would make the Greenspace Alliance’s initiatives more effective for the Pittsburgh area.

Carleton’s arboretum was originally called “Cowling’s Folly,” as its purchase in the 1920s by President Cowling was considered to be a waste of money.

Growing up in Chicago with a family full of homebodies, I rarely left the concrete jungle in my youth. Sure, Chicago is full of great parks (the city’s motto is Urbs in Horto, City in a Garden), but as someone with little hand-eye coordination, I never liked parks as a child because I associated them with how bad I was at sports! It wasn’t until I went to college in a small town in Minnesota that I really began to experience and appreciate nature. In fact, I would credit Carleton’s Cowling Arboretum with sparking my interest in and passion for the environment and sustainability. Being surrounded by 880 acres of pristine prairie is the essence of tranquility, but according to a study released last year, we as humans don’t need nearly that much green space to obtain the calming benefits of nature. At GTECH/Lots to Love we talk a lot about the impact that transforming blight into green spaces has on the health of our communities. But it also has a huge effect on our personal health, and even the way our brains work.

Last year, researchers at Penn published a study in the American Journal of Public Health in which they investigated whether viewing a greened vacant lot decreased participants’ heart rates significantly more than viewing a “regular,” blighted vacant lot or even being in an area with no vacant lots. The study was conducted in Philadelphia, which has 40,000 vacant lots but a long history of greening these land parcels. Since the early 2000s, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, through a contract with the city, has been operating a program to turn vacant and blighted properties into informal parks, with new topsoil, grass, trees and small, three-foot wooden fences. As of last May, the horticultural society was maintaining 6,500 greened lots, as well as paying neighbors a modest sum to care for 2,100 additional lots.

West Philadelphia’s Mantua Neighborhood

For the study, participants were recruited from two Philadelphia neighborhoods. One group went for a walk along a planned route in their neighborhood, passing by nongreened vacant lots while wearing GPS-enabled heart rate monitors. Three months later they did the same walk, only this time the vacant lots had been greened in the interim as described above. The second group was a control group; the vacant lots they passed in the first walk had not been greened by the time of their second walk. The results are quite significant. The average reduction in heart rate from being near the greened lots was 5.6 beats per minute (bpm) lower than when the participants were near the nongreened vacant lots, and over 2 bpm lower than when they were not near any vacant lots. The researchers conclude:


“. . . permanent downstream inflammatory changes and dysregulation of cardiovascular, neurological, and endocrine systems accumulate over a lifetime for persons repeatedly exposed to stressors in their neighborhood surroundings. Basic structural improvements to blighted neighborhood environments, such as ‘greening’ vacant lots, offers a promising and sustainable, yet underused, solution to such stressors.”


This is good news for those of us who live in cities. In a separate study published in Nature a few years back, researchers at the University of Heidelberg and McGill University found differences in brain activity between urban and non-urban dwellers. Researchers performed a stress test on participants while MRI mapped their brain activity. Urban residents showed higher activation of the amygdala, the part of the brain that regulates anxiety and fear. People who grew up in cities also were more likely to have increased activation of the anterior cingulate, a part of the brain that regulates stress. To me, this means that as cities continue to grow, green spaces are more vital than ever, a way to reduce our stress levels in fast-paced urban environments.

All this science shows that green spaces are not only good for the health of our communities, they’re good for our physical well-being. The blighted properties in our neighborhoods are untapped opportunities for better personal health. Greening these spaces doesn’t just reduce crime and increase property values. It also lowers our heart rates and stress levels, thereby making us feel calm, relaxed and happy. Plus, doing the physical work on vacant lots is great exercise! Check out Lots to Love to find a vacant lot to green in your neighborhood and start reaping all those health benefits!