How Does Playing in the Dirt Make Pittsburgh Healthier?

Tactical Philanthropy is currently covering the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference with the help of a blog team. This is a guest post by Gale Berkowitz of the David & Lucile Packard Foundation.

By Gale Berkowitz

image Parents (or those of us who are kids at heart), gardeners, and those interested in social change, read on.

At the last GEO conference in New Orleans, GEO had an idea to organize a community service activity on the day before the conference began.  We spent the day volunteering in the Ninth Ward.  As terrific as the regular conference was, GEO reported that this community service event was the highlight of the conference for many.

So when GEO announced that it was organizing another community service event in Pittsburgh, I enthusiastically signed up. 

We assisted GTECH Strategies reclaim a vacant lot in the Larimer community, located in the East End of Pittsburgh.  Their theory of change is that transforming vacant or blighted properties leads to community economic transformation through green redevelopment.

But back to my original question:  How Does Playing in the Dirt Make Pittsburgh Healthier?  And the corollary question to that is:  Can you measure it?

When we first showed up at our vacant lot filled with rocks, broken concrete, and garbage, it seemed unlikely that we could transform this into a sunflower garden, not to mention create social change.  But a few hours later, we had a dozen rows that had been cleared and mulched and almost ready for sunflower seed planting.  As the morning went on, passers by stopped to ask what we were doing; several asked how they could pitch in.  Founder and CEO Andrew Butcher gave me a compliment when he said “Gale, those are the straightest rows I have ever seen!”  (What would you expect from an evaluator after all?)

But what next?  If any of you have ever watched a cooking show, you know that they usually prep all the ingredients and then pop them in the oven.  In the next moment, another oven opens, and voila! the finished dish.  Our work felt a little like that.  By the time we returned to our original meeting area, that field now had a patio, painted fence, tilled raised beds, and a lot more volunteers than were there at 9am.  (The previous year that field was in the same condition as ours was…vacant, debris-filled, and lifeless.) 

We could see the immediate change within hours, the outputs.  By comparing one field to another, we could see the short-term change, the outcomes (vacant lots to community gardens that feed people).  We could hear about longer term impact, community change—more partners, more volunteers, more projects, all growing in numbers and sophistication.  Communities are getting involved and showing more interest in making their neighborhoods not only prettier but healthier. 

How are they documenting all this?  While I haven’t seen nor heard of a conventional evaluation, their website is full of stories in the making, including video clips and interactive maps.  The story is very compelling and the change is visual. Digging in dirt really does seem to be leading to broad social change.


  1. Laura Wolfe says:

    Great post. In Bakersfield, CA, we are doing something similar with murals and signal boxes for anti-graffiti, but we haven’t involved conference attendees. What a great idea. I also liked your line about evaluators and perfect rows. Will definitely share with our grant writer.

    Laura Lollar Wolfe
    Arts Council of Kern

  2. Jeff Jackson says:

    Thanks for the post Gail. The story and the lessons are inspiring. Thanks for taking the time to smell the roses, so to speak. BTW, I’m just back from my 8th or 9th annual trip to Havana and I too was in the noticing mode when it came to how many urban gardens and parks had sprouted over the last year. I wondered if it took me time to notice, or if it took time for the replication effect to take, or both.