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Transitioning a Low-income, Inner-city, Marginalized Community

by Fred Brown, Transition Pittsburgh (interview by tina clarke)

In the 1970s and 80s, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania lost 100,000 jobs when steel mills transferred their manufacturing to countries around the world. The massive loss of employment devastated our communities, and minority neighborhoods were hardest hit. Today our community struggles with inadequate jobs, schools, health care and resources. Our housing stock needs massive investment. Buildings rot and are condemned. Bulldozers then push asbestos siding, fiberglass insulation and building materials into the basement, leaving vacant lots that are difficult, and toxic, for food production or parks. In my neighborhood, you can buy a building lot for as little as $500. The houses on either side of my own home have been vacant for years, and one is now condemned and being torn down.

abandoned house in pittsburgh

People in our community are poor. They don't have resources, or political might, to implement their dreams. Powerful entities have historically made it difficult for us to access what resources are available. There is intense racism in some parts of the city, and institutional racism: prejudice in everyday interactions such as applying for a job, negotiating a contract, or obtaining a cab.

I believe that the Transition is powerful for our community because we are very hungry for finding ways to cope with emerging climate change issues, in the context of the enormous challenges our community faces. We see sustainability issues from many perspectives, with economic sustainability as essential. We're becoming aware of the many benefits of environmental living -- not just energy saving and preventing climate catastrophe, but organic foods, eating healthier and exercise. Transition is like a glue – pulling together disparate parts of our lives, inviting us to create together new ways of living.

Since 2010 we've been working on a community vision and plan for sustainability. Our Larimer Vision plan is a framework that everyone in the community has been using to create a sustainable future. Now Transition is adding another layer to how members of the community understand and leverage our resources to build more sustainable neighborhoods.

Members of the community face enormous problems as energy costs go up and Pittsburgh remakes itself into a dynamic urban center. Already our neighborhood is being redeveloped by land and housing developers, and powerful businesses, and the future of our community is at risk. Google recently built a new facility at one side of the community, benefiting from millions of urban redevelopment funds that were intended to help our low-income residents. Land values are going up, and the community is worried about gentrification – wealthier people displacing the poor. Thirty-four percent of the homeowners in Larimer are elders. Another third are owned by absentee landlords, and the last third of the homes are vacant land or lots. Instead of being pushed aside as oil prices go up and land is taken for redevelopment by those with money, we seek to increase home ownership, home renovation, and land reclamation for community food, energy production, and resilient livelihoods.

Our community consensus process -- the Larimer Consensus Group – is about empowering the community to envision a positive future and take action to make our dreams reality. In my role as Associate Director of the Kingsley Association, Transition is helping me empower people to step forward to create a more sustainable, resilient, vibrant and healthy community. Transition has less redtape than other environmental practices and programs. It helps us build partnerships of mutual support and encourages people to collaborate and create opportunities.

One of our major challenges is obtaining resources for transitioning. There are many people with greater access to resources, and knowledge, but historically it has often been hard to get people with knowledge to understand how to work with the community. We've found that intellectuals often don't like to work with others collaboratively. They really just want to be right – to be in front of everybody saying their ideas. Poor communities come to the relationship suffering from oppression. They need ownership and control, even if they are just learning what to do with it. They need respect and resources, and they need true partners. They need people with resources and knowledge who want to learn – want to work together with deep respect – rather than saying their ideas and wanting an audience.

group meeting in larimerTransition is assisting our community in analyzing the confluence of inter-related challenges that we face as energy costs rise, economic problems deepen, and climate change threatens our well-being. Transition is helping to empower us to work together -- to develop a common vision and take more action to achieve it. And, especially important in a neighbourhood like ours that is struggling with unconscious, as well as deliberate, prejudice, it's a tool helping us to engage with the broader community. Transition is helping diverse groups to come together in partnership and collaboration.

Larimer has a new vision for itself – a vision of trees and gardens, insulated homes, green jobs and green businesses, and young people who are nurtured, elders who are receiving care and support, and peace in our streets. This vision requires neighbors to stretch themselves to do work that they don't know how to do. In the past, outsiders would come in as the experts. They would tell the community what to do, get paid well for telling us what to do, and then leave.

The community doesn't need or want more experts telling them what to do. We want partners and we want help to develop and implement our dream. Transition is helping us come together, deepen the vision, create working groups, get practical work done, and understand community-wide needs. It is also giving us language and a process for negotiating with those who seek to take, or to give on their own terms. Transition is empowering us to be proactive and co-creators.

coloured picket fenceI'll end with a story. Last summer heavy rains – a deluge of water – swept down from the mountains of western Pennsylvania into our city. Several people were injured and one person died by drowning. Out of that tragedy we are working together as neighbors to create a green space – to transform a part of our community into a park and water management zone. We are working together to propose to agencies that there be a storm water management and grey-water reuse system as part of that redevelopment.

At every level of the sustainability challenge, we seek to create a community where at-risk people have, imbedded in their home matrix, a set of practical tools to be able to stay in the community, be healthy, and thrive. Transition is helping us to empower community members to step forward and offer their gifts, and to stand together to hold onto our community – and implement our vision of sustainability -- as resources and partnerships emerge.

Fred Brown is Associate Director of The Kingsley Association, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. Interview by Tina Clarke, Transition US.

Larimer Consensus Group website 

Photographs of Abandoned House and Picket Fence, Pittsburgh by Michael Goodin (Creative Commons with Attribution); Larimer meeting by Fred Brown