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Sunflowers raise hope for Rust Belt city

Marc Lefkowitz  |  01/30/09 @ 10:24am

Can the deceptively simple act of helping inner-city kids plant sunflowers on vacant, contaminated land stand on its own merits as a social venture, or should it be a self-sustaining business?

GTECH, a year-old nonprofit in Pittsburgh, is proving that an emerging science called phytoremediation, or drawing the toxins out of soil with plants like sunflowers (and then crushing the seeds to make biodiesel), provides hope to urban communities that could use some. It does so by providing an aesthetic and functional counterpoint to blight. It also provides a training ground for green jobs that circulate benefits back to the community.

"We think there's value in giving people hope," said GTECH co-founder Andrew Butcher. "Even if it's a temporary use, don't underestimate the value of hope."

The simple but powerful appearance of a field of sunflowers growing in the city has captured some attention.

Butcher presented recently to a Cleveland group interested in exploring green remediation, including the Botanical Garden, the county, and community development organizations. He explained how in Pittsburgh they managed to sow together a partnership with local universities (providing research) and the city to test their ideas on a 100 acres of former industrial property so contaminated it was used to test the Mars Rover.

This was Pittsburgh's biggest brownfield, and thanks to Pennsylvania's Renewable Portfolio Standard, which includes a mandate for a certain percentage of locally grown biofuels, GTECH (which stands for Growth Through Energy and Community Health) was able to convince the Regional Industrial Development Corp., the city's largest brownfield manager to try something new.

GTECH has since put their ideas and sunflowers into 12 acres, scattered sites where the city demolished homes. Pittsburgh, like other Rust Belt cities, has an abundance of vacant, often contaminated land (5,000 acres or 10% percent of its total. Put in perspective, 7% of Cleveland's land is vacant).

Lots of land means lots of opportunity, said Butcher who formed GTECH with two buddies who also graduated from Carnegie-Mellon Business School last year. GTECH got a boost when East Liberty, one of Pittsburgh's most respected community development groups, decided to take a chance on their idea. East Liberty believed in GTECH and dedicated three vacant properties and identified neighborhood kids to help (GTECH partners with a workforce training organization which provides funding for the labor).

After last year's first growing season, research is showing the sunflowers seeds are not holding onto their toxins. GTECH partners with a local startup business Steel City Biofuels, to crush the seeds into biodiesel. It might not be enough to make a living from, and the remediation might take 10 years for mild to medium levels of contamination, but it's better than doing nothing at all, Butcher said.

"There are some mixed feelings about this as a remediation strategy, but the worst case we're building soil. We think it's not about how many biofuels you produce, but the impact you make (in the community)."

They also think they're making a case for green jobs. GTECH's small but quick success has caught the attention of national Student Conservation Association, which will work with GTECH on future projects. GTECH was also awarded an Echoing Green Fellowship in green entrepreneurship. They will use the fellowship to introduce a phytoremediation project in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward.

GTECH has plans to expand to cities with similar contaminated land problems like New Orleans (where they will) and possibly spread its seeds to Cleveland (where some locals hope they will). Some question whether the model for GTECH can work without workforce training groups subsidizing the labor. Their $6,000-$10,000 per acre/per year budget includes labor which is paid for elsewhere. Conversely, Butcher says the cost to the city of Pittsburgh just to maintain that acre is $4,000.

Butcher was also asked if his social venture would be strengthened by land-use reform at the city, such as zoning or other policies that dedicate vacant land for green infrastructure like phytoremediation, tree farms or gardens?

He answered that his venture is strengthening the city even if it is temporary use by restoring value to the land and giving kids a sense of hope and pride in where they live, not to mention hands-on training. Of the former, if the remediation bears out, it may make the land available for growing food and safe for public access in the future.

"For every acre under commercial conditions you can get 100 gallons of sunflower oil per year," Butcher said, adding that he doesn't anticipate GTECH's work to reach commercial scale. "We're talking about doing this on a distributed basis. So, the question is 'how do we utilize underutilized land, especially in the urban context?'"

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