Onorato Launches “Allegheny Grows” Initiative to Promote Urban Farming and Community Gardening

Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato has launched “Allegheny Grows,” a new initiative to encourage urban farming and community gardening on vacant lots and blighted properties. Allegheny Grows will offer startup materials, as well as technical and educational assistance to municipalities that show significant interest in developing urban farms and community gardens.

Nine municipalities will participate in the inaugural year of the County’s effort. McKees Rocks and Millvale will create urban farms, and Bridgeville, Elizabeth Borough, Millvale, Sharpsburg, Stowe Twp., Swissvale, Tarentum and Verona will develop community gardens.

“Allegheny Grows is an exciting new initiative that will help to improve the environment, strengthen communities and provide access to fresh produce,” said Onorato. “Allegheny Grows builds on the County’s ongoing efforts to revitalize our older communities and distressed municipalities through sustainable development and strategic investment.”

Urban farms and community gardens offer a host of environmental, economic and social benefits. Vegetation can reflect as much as 20 to 25 percent of the sun’s radiation, reducing the heat island effect and cooling urban areas. Garden soil is absorbent, and it reduces runoff from rain and helps to minimize surface erosion. Gardens reduce pollutants in the air by absorbing carbon dioxide and other substances. Small open spaces in urban areas provide crucial corridors for retaining native wildlife and supporting migratory species.

In the United States, a meal travels approximately 13,000 miles on average before reaching the dinner table. Eating locally produced foods reduces fuel consumption, carbon dioxide emissions, and a variety of other environmental consequences associated with the transportation of foods.

Urban farms offer fresh produce and healthy food opportunities, especially in economically challenged communities where access to abundant nourishing food choices is often absent. Community gardens and urban farms become gathering places for residents, fostering social interactions and civic pride, which often helps to reduce crime. Green space also has strong potential to increase property values and encourage investment.

To be eligible for Allegheny Grows, municipalities have to demonstrate significant interest in urban farming, provide letters of interest from partners, and have a leader willing to spearhead the project. They must have access to a suitable farming site that has significant amounts of direct sunlight, available water source and nearly flat slope. Municipalities must also be eligible to receive Community Development Block Grant funds, meaning 46.7 percent or more of their populations qualify as low/moderate income households. Applications for Allegheny Grows will be made available in January of each year.

Urban Farm Effort

The first two communities that will participate in the Allegheny Grows urban farm effort are McKees Rocks and Millvale because they meet all of the requirements of the program and have demonstrated strong commitments to developing farm plots.

The McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation, Youth Advocate Programs Inc. (YAP), and several residents have started an urban farm with eight beds on a vacant lot in the borough’s Bottoms neighborhood. The farm is centrally located in the distressed Helen Street corridor on a former vacant lot. Helen Street between Ella Street and the McKees Rocks Bridge includes a mix of long-time residents, vacant lots and buildings, a historic church, and community park.

Allegheny Grows will expand the current McKees Rocks urban farm by reconfiguring the existing beds, which will be tended by YAP, and adding seven new beds, which will be tended by community members. When completed, there will be a total of 15 vegetable beds on Helen Street. The County will provide $19,704 for the McKees Rocks urban farm.

Millvale sponsors a weekly farm stand during the growing season, and a number of residents have expressed strong interest in starting farming plots. Allegheny Grows will work with the community to develop a farm of 15 raised beds on a cluster of borough-owned lots on Butler Street.

The County will work with staff from the borough, Millvale Community Development Corporation, and Allegheny River Towns Enterprise Zone to develop a volunteer engagement strategy for the farm and to ensure the effort complements other community and economic development activities currently under way, including Millvale Clean Sweep, Millvale Brew Festival, Millvale Days and riverfront trail activities. The County is committing $19,704 for the Millvale urban farm.

To ensure the success of the urban farms, the County is partnering with Grow Pittsburgh, an organization formed in 2005 to promote the development of community gardens and urban farms, and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

Allegheny County Economic Development will: accept and review applications from interested communities; select communities; verify site conditions described in the application; work with Grow Pittsburgh and local community groups to develop and organize a leadership team; provide oversight of technical assistance partners; and conduct follow-up visits as the County’s portion of project is completed.

Grow Pittsburgh will: verify site conditions described in the application, including soil testing; lead community organizing and site planning efforts; recruit individuals to take plots based on local guidance; lead community members in bed construction, planting and maintenance; drive educational programming with hands-on training for community members; and ensure garden leaders participation in the three-part Green Growers Class, an educational series on the basics of community gardening.

The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy will provide supplemental technical assistance with site plan implementation, such as raised beds and water lines.

Allegheny Grows is an outgrowth of the County’s successful partnership with Grow Pittsburgh to create the Braddock Urban Farm, which turned eight vacant lots in the heart of the borough into a 20,000 square-foot farm with 90 raised beds. Allegheny County provided $40,000 to enable Grow Pittsburgh to acquire the land in 2007, and food production began the same year.

The Braddock Urban Farm produces a wide variety of vegetables and herbs using intensive planting techniques and all-organic methods of growing. The farm sells produce to eight local restaurants and sponsors an on-site farmer’s market. A hoop house at the site produces seedlings and extends the growing season. The Braddock Youth Project sponsors six summer positions on the farm, which has beautified a central area of the borough and become a source of community pride.

Community Garden Effort

Bridgeville, Elizabeth Borough, Millvale, Sharpsburg, Stowe Twp., Swissvale, Tarentum and Verona will participate in the Allegheny Grows community garden effort by planting sunflower gardens on vacant lots in their business districts. The County will provide $4,000-$5,000 for the creation of each community garden.

Allegheny County is partnering with GTECH Strategies, a local non-profit organization that works with communities to develop and implement Bioenergy Reclamation Projects that reclaim vacant and blighted land through the cultivation of sunflowers. Bioenergy gardens serve as place holding investments to transition vacant space into positive productive community assets.

GTECH will work with each municipality to identify potential lots, and once they are identified, the organization will assist volunteers in each community to plant and harvest sunflowers. The harvested sunflowers are used to teach individuals how to produce biofuel through community demonstration projects, and the sunflower seeds are packaged and sold to the East End Food Co-op and Whole Foods.