Throughout Pittsburgh are signs of a city that once pulsed with wealth and prosperity as the steel industry boomed in the early 1900s, only to suffer decline with the fall of American steel in the 1970s. Abandoned factories along the waterfront and boarded-up stone chapels stand like ruins, reminding residents of what once was. Today, the city has more than 14,000 vacant lots, scattered mostly in low-income neighborhoods such as Hazelwood and Larimer.
Amid the urban plight, however, a startup called GTECH—Growth Through Energy and Community Health—is giving Pittsburgh new hope. Founded by three graduate students from Carnegie Mellon University in partnership with Steel City Biofuels, GTECH hopes to revolutionize vacant-land management in an unconventional, earth-friendly way: by planting sunflowers in Pittsburgh’s empty lots.
“Sunflowers improve soil quality and produce seeds that can be turned into biofuel,” says Andrew Butcher, co-founder and CEO of GTECH. “This biofuel can be sold to help offset the cost of vacant land, which is often a prohibitive factor in managing vacant space.” After two years of existence, the organization has planted sunflowers in four Pittsburgh neighborhoods and has started a job-training program to teach low-income locals how to tend and cultivate the fields.
But GTECH’s strategy is more than just a business model—it’s a vision for a green economy to replace the steel economy of the past. “This is an ideal mechanism to create a platform for green job opportunities,” says Butcher. “The heart of this project is the convergence between multiple sectors in the green economy: renewable energy, agriculture, and waste management environmental services.”