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2 Wheels Lots of Green: A bike tour to explore the city and renewed vacant land

Sunflowers are the bold and iconic symbol as well as a common theme at GTECH (Growth Through Energy and Community Health) Strategies. The flowers surround the non-profit’s offices on Hamilton Avenue, growing skyward between sidewalk patches and curb. Behind the building, bright yellow and black painted replicas line the fence in a proud declaration of renewal.
Sunflowers also play a starring role in the upcoming 2 Wheels Lots of Green, an urban bike tour hosted by GTECH that takes place this Saturday, August 11 as part of BikePGH’s annual Bike Fest. There will be three tours --easy, medium and hard--with routes for different levels of riders to explore community development from East Liberty to Millvale.

GTECH, whose activities include reclaiming vacant land, boosting local green economies and producing alternative fuel sources, will use the tour to showcase six of their reclaimed and rejuvenated properties—many of which began with a simple crop of sunflowers.
“Sunflowers activate a space and connect people to the process of revitalization,” says Andrew Butcher, CEO of GTECH.      
“Going directly from vacant land to vegetable garden is almost like going from zero to sixty. You have to make incremental investments,” he adds, since rehabilitating a vacant site is often a long and involved process.
These initial investments are hard work, gritty and sometimes grueling. GTECH employees and community volunteers dedicate hours to pulling brick and rubble out of the ground, removing trash from vacant sites and introducing mulch and compost to improve soil quality. Butcher has spent “hours upon hours” cleaning up sites with a tiller and pick axe.
Yet  beyond the heft of a pick axe, the greatest force behind any of GTECH’s revitalization project, he stresses, are the local community members who get behind it.
“It really does take a village to reclaim vacant land,” says Butcher. And that is one of the concepts he hopes to demonstrate with GTECH’s 2 Wheels Lots of Green bike tour.
The tour, from 10 until 2 on Saturday, will consist of three bicycle routes ranging from five to thirteen miles, and will feature short documentaries of each land project that can be accessed by riders through QR code readers on their smart phones.
The videos will document the transition of each featured site from vacant lot to usable community space, and allow residents of the each community to tell the story in their own words.
“It’s really hard to tell an adequate story of all the players; there are so many different entities,” explains Butcher. The videos, he says, attempt to highlight community partners with whom GTECH is actively working.
“Sunflowers are bright and pretty, but there is a big piece missing from sunflowers to now: community vision,” offers Mo Copeland of Borland Green, one of GTECH’s revitalization efforts in East Liberty which is on the tour. Copeland is a GTECH employee, but also a resident of the neighborhood surrounding Borland Green and another of GTECH’s sites and tour stops: the Sojourner MOMS play space.
Both sites began with GTECH’s typical three-step process: the removal of rubble, the improvement of soil quality, and the growth and harvesting of sunflowers. However, through the involvement of what Butcher describes as “strong community leaders” each site has expanded to address specific community needs.
Borland Green now supports full vegetable and permaculture gardens and, at one point, even yielded small batches of “East Liberty’s first canola oil—which I know of,” laughs Butcher. He views the customized evolution of sites to meet community needs as an example of GTECH’s principles succeeding.
“Our role diminishes over time and we feel that’s a good thing,” he says “It indicates that sites have effectively transitioned; I don’t want to say to their highest and best use, but to a higher and better use.”
These uses, which range from rain water collection to a community playground, public art space, and several cooperative veggie gardens, can be viewed either by bike or on GTECH’s website and YouTube channel following the 2 Wheels Lots of Green tour.
Need an added incentive to participate? How about an after party catered by Tapped, a pop-up beer garden, at GTECH headquarters on Hamilton Avenue. An all day event, the party will feature live music and an opportunity for community members to come together. Which, in a way, mirrors both Butcher and Copeland’s hopes for GTECH’s revitalization efforts in the future.
Copeland, for her part, views community events as one of the greatest outcomes to GTECH’s involvement. “[Borland Green] was destined to be a community gathering space. We hope to have more of that, to engage more people,” she says.
“Actions speak louder than words,” adds Butcher, who acknowledges that community members must get together to talk about a space and become more involved before he considers GTECH’s presence in a community to be successful.
“I love the work we get a chance to do. We’re really starting a process where nothing else has happened before. And if we do it right, in line with our community partners, valuable partnerships are galvanized.”
Not to mention iconic sunflowers.

Find more information about GTECH Strategies or register for 2 Wheels Lots of Green online .
Francesca Fenzi last wrote about the importance of saying hello to people on the street. There was a flower theme in that article, too.

Photographs taken at Hamnett Place Community Garden, Larimer Village Green, Borland Green; and Sojourner MOMS Play Space; copyright Brian Cohen

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