Community Lawns is a big idea that started out small, a way to give entrepreneurs working in East Liberty a chance to give back to the community where they work.

The seeds were sown and the idea took shape and grew. It quickly became clear that the focus on community building would allow three goals to be accomplished at once, says Les Gies, director of community engagement for Tech Shop and the inspirational force behind the lawn experiment.

First and foremost, Community Lawns is a workforce initiative for teens living in underserved neighborhoods in the city, allowing them to spend several weeks exploring the world of making on their own turf. At the same time, the initiative cleans up and revitalizes vacant, urban lots and turns them into greener places for everyone to play, children and grownups alike.

The idea was a hit. It was game on.

Local partners lined up. Tech Shop in Bakery Square. AlphaLab Gear. City of Play. GTECH. The Kingsley Association. The Penn State Center, 4-H and Making it in America.

The pilot program was launched in June 2014 and was a celebrated success. The first Community Lawn is now open for play at Baum Lofts Park directly across the street from Whole Foods in East Liberty.

Five teens from the East End, ages 16-18, comprised the first class. Together they participated in a six-week day camp that taught them skills and exposed them to the entrepreneurial world of making.

“College is a great path for many, but it’s not for everyone,” says Gies. “We wanted to expose and empower students to learn about other possibilities in a fun way.”

In the mornings, the teens reported to Tech Shop at Bakery Square where they learned to use the tools and began making games. They became adept as welders and learned about using wood routers and laser cutters.

One student proved to be a natural welder. Another clearly emerged as the group marketer. Students also received a one-year membership to Tech Shop, a $995 value, to continue honing their skills.

“It’s a kind of boot camp, explains Ben Saks, the Tech Shop instructor who worked daily with the students. “It gave them a full-on exposure to all the aspects involved in building things.”

At Community Lawns in East Liberty. Photo by Deb Smit.
At Community Lawns in East Liberty. Photo by Deb Smit.

In August, the teens cleaned a grassy swath of vacant property along Baum Boulevard to make space for the classic games they had created—corn hole, ladder golf, bocce.

“Everyone can relate to games,” says Gies. “That was the rallying point. It really opened up not just one world but multiple different worlds they hadn’t seen.”

In the afternoons, the teens moved to AlphaLab Gear, the Innovation Works accelerator for manufacturing startups in East Liberty. There they worked with the teams and learned the basics of a business plan and the workings of a successful startup.

The exposure was invaluable, says Ilana Diamond, director of AlphaLab Gear.

“People tend to think of manufacturing as dirty, dark and dangerous,” she says. “Community Lawns introduces the kids to alternatives, something they might not have previously considered as a career choice.”

The idea was perfectly aligned with the goals of City of Play, formerly Obscure Games, an initiative founded by Adam Nelson that promotes community building through indoor and outdoor play events throughout the city.

“This is a City of Play project that coincided with goals for youth in the city,” says Nelson. “The idea is to expand it so more communities can have a Community Lawn.”

Each Community Lawn site will be equipped with several games, a picnic table and a locker where game equipment is stored. All are welcome to play on the lawn.

An annual membership fee of $15 provides combination access to the gaming equipment located on each site. Members receive the combination codes through regular emails.

Community Lawns plans to expand next summer to other Pittsburgh neighborhoods. Assistance of company sponsors and foundations is being sought to make it more widely available to those served.

“Our main goal (going forward) is to provide stipends for the students,” says Gies. “These are students who need to earn income in the summer. We can’t expect them to give up their summer jobs for a great learning experience.”

GTECH is working to identify the next Community Lawn community. The sponsors would like to do create another lawn in East Liberty. Other possibilities are Homewood, Hazelwood and the North Side.

“It’s built by the community, in the community, for the community,” says Gies.

This article is part of a media partnership between WQED, WESA and Pittsburgh Magazine, funded by the Grable Foundation.


Deb Smit

Deb is an award-winning journalist who loves ancient places and cool technologies. A former daily newspaper reporter and Time-Life Books editor, she writes mostly about Pittsburgh. Her stories have appeared in Fast Company, Ozy and Pittsburgh Magazine.