America's Largest Urban Farm Takes Root in Pittsburgh

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Plan for urban farm in Pittsburgh.

Perched on a hill high above the Monongahela River on Pittsburgh’s South Side, the old St. Clair Village is a site ripe for rebirth if there ever was one.

Once dominating a small residential neighborhood of the same name, St. Clair Village was a 1950s-era public housing project that, at its peak, housed over 900 families spread across a sprawling complex of row houses and low-lying brick apartment buildings. Largely isolated from surrounding neighborhoods and wracked by violent crime, the Pittsburgh Housing Authority-managed community eventually fell into serious decline as its population dwindled in the late 20th century. In 2005, a huge swath of the deteriorating compound was demolished. Five years later, any remaining residents were evicted and St. Clair Village was razed entirely. Since then, the hillside site has sat empty — an eyesore, a plus-sized patch of blight, a sizable piece of Steel City real estate patiently waiting to be molded into something new.

That period of limbo, however, has been relatively short-lived as ambitious and community-benefitting plans for St. Clair Village's afterlife were hatched not too long after its last residents were (controversially) displaced and its last buildings bulldozed into the ground.

Now, thanks to several years of tireless planning — land negotiations, community engagement, feasibility studies and the like — led by the nonprofit organization Hilltop Alliance, initial site prep work has finally begun on the 107-acre site’s new function: a full-fledged agri-hood complete with 23 acres of farmland, a fruit orchard, greenhouses, stormwater mitigation ponds, a community garden, an on-site composting facility, a youth education center, a farmers market area and an event space housed in a 5,000-square-foot barn.

Additional acreage will be dedicated to open, undeveloped green space as well as a modest CSA (community supported agriculture) farm and a farmer incubation program. Fourteen additional acres will be set aside for future mixed-income housing on the site, which, for now, is still owned by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and managed by the Pittsburgh Housing Authority. (Next City notes that the ownership and management details have yet to be fully ironed out as the project moves forward and will likely remain a “complicated, many-party affair.”)

When all is said and done, the Hilltop Alliance, a community reinvestment-centered umbrella organization that brings together nonprofits from 11 different South Pittsburgh neighborhoods and the borough of Mount Oliver, envisions the so-called Hilltop Urban Farm as being the largest urban farm in the United States.

St. Clair and the "Hillside" neighborhoods of South Pittsburgh.
St. Clair, site of the former St. Clair Village housing project, and the "Hillside" neighborhoods of South Pittsburgh. (Photo: Google Maps)

St. Clair, site of the former St. Clair Village housing project, and the 'Hillside' neighborhoods of South Pittsburgh. (Screenshot: Google Maps)

From blight to bok choy and bell peppers

While Pittsburgh can claim many superlatives (the steepest streets, the most bridges, the most delicious French fry-stuffed sandwiches, etc.), being home to the largest urban farm in the country fits tidily into the city's role as a nationwide leader in sustainability, environmental stewardship and responsible growth.

For example, in the early days of the U.S. Green Building Council’s signature green building certification program, Pittsburgh boasted more LEED-certified square footage than any other American city. (Other cities have since caught up but Pittsburgh still shines as a leader in green building.) Dedicated bike lanes are on the rise, green tech jobs are booming and most of the city’s abandoned brownfield sites have been cleaned up and redeveloped. And if Mayor Bill Peduto has his way, the city will be powered with 100 percent renewable energy by 2035.

In 2015, Pittsburgh City Council adapted one of the most progressive urban agriculture zoning codes in the country, which made it far easier for residents to keep chickens, bees and goats as well as sell homegrown produce without overstepping any existing laws.

This is all to say that Pennsylvania’s second largest city — once a soot-smeared and smog-shrouded coal-mining capital referred to as “hell with the lid taken off” — is a town with dramatic reinvention in its DNA. Hilltop Urban Farm, a large-scale urban agriculture hub-cum-engine for community revitalization, taps into this transformative spirit and then some.

"I can't imagine the last time that a mayor had the opportunity to cut a ribbon on a farm in the city of Pittsburgh, and not just a farm, but the largest urban farm in America," remarked Peduto at a project ribbon-cutting ceremony held in late August. "We have very few areas where we have a very large green footprint that we can actually preserve and be able to use it as an opportunity to teach kids, to be able to provide healthy food to a neighborhood, to be able to use as an urban agricultural, basically, experiment.”

“You've taken a place that was vacant, blighted and turned it into something positive,” added Allegheny County Executive Richard Fitzgerald at the event.

Goodbye food desert, hello farm-centered affordable housing

As detailed by Next City, most of the available farmland not set aside for CSA operations, community plots and youth education will be reserved for a Penn State University-headed workforce development and entrepreneurship program where aspiring farmers can hone valuable new skills. Residents of the proposed on-site housing development (a planned 120 energy-efficient townhomes linked to the agricultural areas by a network of walking trails) along with those in the surrounding St. Clair neighborhood, an area long devoid of fresh and nutritious food options, will have full access to the community plots and other ag-amenities.

While actual buildings and infrastructure can’t be constructed until the aforementioned ownership and management details are worked out, Hilltop Alliance plans to start growing crops as soon as the soil is ready, which could be as soon as next summer. Brush clearing and cover crop planting is already in full swing.

"Communities thrive with well-managed green space assets,” Aaron Sukenik, executive director of the Hilltop Alliance, tells Next Pittsburgh. “Something as multi-faceted as this, that includes things like food production and youth engagement, is really an opportunity that cannot be ignored when you’re working with communities like these that have seen so much disinvestment over the past 40-50 years.”

It’s expected that the final cost to complete Hilltop Urban Farm, which will be built in phases over the course of several years, will be in the ballpark of $10 million. Early funding has come from a variety of sources including the PNC Foundation, the Hillman Foundation and the Heinz Endowments.