The Department of City Planning (DCP) developed the Vacant Lot Toolkit as a guide for transforming vacant lots into community assets. The Adopt-A-Lot program has streamlined the process of accessing city-owned land more user friendly in Pittsburgh

  • The Adopt-A-Lot Program has streamlined the process of accessing city-owned vacant lots for food, flower, or rain gardens.
  • The Vacant Lot Toolkit is a resource guide and offers step-by-step instructions and suggestions to help you design your project and complete your Adopt-A-Lot application. This resource has useful information for creating projects on privately owned land, too.


For project inquires contact:

Shelly Danko+Day
VLTK Project Coordinator

For the information regarding the toolkit or program development contact:

Josh Lippert, CFM, ASLA
VLTK Project Manager

Vacant Lot Toolkit

About the Ordinance

  • The Policy Guide and the Residents Resource Guide - establishes both the short and long term goals of the plan while also providing the public with procedural information.
  • The immediate goals of the toolkit include setting a vision for vacant lots by clarifying the process of their reuse in addition to creating a process for commercial uses.
  • Goals in the long run consist of vacant lot projects becoming long term cornerstones of communities.

Adopt-A-Lot Ordinance

An Ordinance

Amending the City of Pittsburgh Code of Ordinance, Title IV, Public Places and Property, Article VII, City Realty, by adding a new Chapter 454 entitled  “Adopt-A-Lot Program.”

Whereas, the City is the owner of numerous vacant lots demonstrated to be in need of improvement; and

Whereas, the City desires to create the Adopt-A-Lot Program for the purpose of permitting temporary licensing or leasing of such lots to allow individuals and groups to participate in approved gardening activities; and

Whereas, allowing such gardening activities will improve the condition of the lots and benefit the public by, inter alia, permitting the creation of green infrastructure, reducing blight, promoting access to fresh food, increasing neighborhood cohesiveness, and promoting sustainability goals of the City.  

Section 1.   The Pittsburgh Code of Ordinances, Title IV, Public Places and Property, Article VII, City Realty, is hereby amended by adding a new Chapter 452 entitled “Adopt-A-Lot Program” as follows:

Section 452.01   Definitions 

For purposes of this Chapter, the following definitions apply:

(a) Adopt-A-Lot Lease:  means a lease granted by the City to use a vacant City lot for a Vacant Lot Project for a one (1) year term. Following the successful completion of the one-year term, then-current lessees will have the option to renew the lease for up to an additional three (3) years. At all times, the lease must be revocable by the City at its convenience, without cause, by providing ninety (90) days prior written notice.

(b) Adopt-A-Lot License:  means an annual, nonexclusive garden license granted by the City to use a vacant City lot for a temporary Flower or Edible Garden by an individual.  The duration of each license, including any permitted renewal, must be less than one year.  Current licensees will have the option to renew the license, subject to compliance with the terms therein.  At all times, the license must be revocable by the City at its convenience, without cause, by providing thirty (30) days prior written notice.

(c) Edible Garden: means a garden containing annual and/or perennial flowers, herbs, seeds, berries, vegetables, fruit, and other plants that one can eat.  Participants granted authority under an Adopt-A-Lot Program may harvest edibles from Edible Gardens solely for personal use and shall remain responsible to those who consume or otherwise receive harvested items from them.

(d) Flower Garden: means a garden containing displays of annual and/or perennial plants that are not intended for eating, sale, or donation.

(e) Market Stand Garden: means the accessory use of either an Edible Garden or a Flower Garden such that a lessee or authorized Program Participants may keep harvested edibles or flowers for personal use, sell them, and/or or donate them to the public, subject to the terms of a Market Stand Lease. Lessees or Program Participants granted authority under a Market Stand Lease to harvest edibles for personal use, to sell them, and/or to donate them to the public shall remain responsible to those who consume, purchase, or otherwise receive donated or harvested items from them.

(f) Market Stand Lease:  means a subsidiary category of an Adopt-A-Lot Lease for which prior approval is granted for: 1) the limited commercial on-site sale of less than Ten Thousand Dollars ($10,000.00) annually of unprocessed edibles or flowers grown on site, subject to all applicable laws, ordinances, and regulations involved with the use of City property and/or the sale of food to the public, including, but not limited to, City vending requirements, Allegheny County Health Department regulations, federal and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania food and accessibility laws, FDA regulations, and the City’s Zoning Code, including provisions relating to Outdoor Retail Sales, and any other applicable local, state and federal laws; and/or 2) on-site donations to the general public of unprocessed edibles or flowers grown on site, subject to all applicable laws, ordinances, and regulations involved with the use of City property and/or provision of food to the public, including, but not limited to, Allegheny County Health Department regulations, federal and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania food and accessibility laws, FDA regulations, and the City’s Zoning Code, and any other applicable local, state and federal laws.

(g) Program Participant:  An individual granted authority by a lessee under an Adopt-A-Lot Lease to perform gardening activities authorized under the Adopt-A-Lot Program on the lessee’s leased parcel.

(h) Rain Garden: means a garden that takes advantage of rainfall and storm water runoff in its design and plant selection, including but not limited to, gardens with an excavated shallow surface depression planted with specially selected native vegetation to treat and capture runoff.

(i) Vacant lot(s) / Vacant City lot(s) / City property(ties) / City-owned vacant lot(s) / City lot(s):  means a parcel or multiple parcels of land owned in fee by the City of Pittsburgh not occupied by buildings or structures.    Parcels with documented uses, such as paved parking lots, recognized City parks and greenways are not vacant lots hereunder.

(j) Vacant Lot Project(s): means an authorized Edible, Rain, and/or Flower Garden permitted pursuant to this Chapter. No other types of gardening or urban farming activities are permitted under this Chapter except those falling under the definition of a Market Stand Garden.

(k) Vacant Lot Toolkit: means a guide developed by the Department of City Planning regarding the process and available tools to reuse vacant lots. 

Section 452.02   Creation of Adopt-a-Lot Program; Powers of Director of City Planning.

The Director of the Department of City Planning (the "Director") is authorized to establish a Adopt-A-Lot Program (the “Program”), which will permit the granting of  Adopt-A-Lot Licenses and Adopt-A-Lot Leases on City-owned vacant lots in accordance with all  Program requirements.  In connection therewith, the Director shall have the following powers and responsibilities:

(a) To appoint an Open Space Specialist or other designee to administer the Program for the City, to coordinate with applicable City department representatives, and to serve as a single point of contact for all Vacant Lot Projects pursuant to this Chapter;

(b) To execute Adopt-A-Lot Licenses and Adopt-A-Lot Leases as defined herein on behalf of the City.  All license and lease agreements authorized hereunder shall be subject to the review and approval of the City Solicitor; and  

(c) To promulgate Vacant Lot Toolkit amendments, supplements and / or new additions and / or to promulgate other additional rules and regulations for licensees, lessees and Program Participants, including, but not limited to, requirements regarding soil testing, hours of operation, signage, limitations on fencing and use of structures, entrance paths, refuse storage, tool storage, fertilizer use, water use, mulch use, composting, and approved vegetation.

Section 452.03      Additional Program Conditions.

(a) All Vacant Lot Projects hereunder must comply with the applicable zoning laws for the zoning district in which the garden is located, including, but not limited to, setback and use requirements. 

(b) All Vacant Lot Projects shall use the Vacant Lot Toolkit to the maximum extent feasible in order complete applications for, as well as the administration of, the Adopt-A-Lot Program.

(c) The City shall not be required to provide any funding, tools, water, equipment or supplies to licensees, lessees, or Program Participants.

(d) By creating this Program to permit authorized gardening activities, the City is not intending to create or permit the creation of park spaces, parklets, or playgrounds on the Vacant Lots authorized to be licensed or leased under this Chapter.

(e) Consideration for Adopt-A-Lot Licenses shall be garden services rendered, plus other good and valuable consideration.  Consideration for Adopt-A-Lot Leases shall be garden services rendered, plus other good and valuable consideration.  Consideration for Market Stand Leases shall be twenty-five dollars and zero cents ($25.00) annually, plus other good and valuable consideration. 

(f) Obtaining additional required permits and approvals associated with requested occupancy, building, structures, zoning and/or sales are the sole responsibility of the licensee, lessee and/or Program Participants, as applicable. 

(g) All licensees, lessees, and Program Participants gardening on City lots under the Program must execute releases to hold the City harmless from all liability in a form approved by the City Solicitor. 

(h) All lands and structures licensed or leased under the Program are subject to entry and inspection by the City and all licensees, lessees, and Program Participants gardening on City lots under the Program shall be subject  to violation notices and / or citations for failure to comply. 

(i) All proposed Vacant Lot Projects on City lots under the Program shall be subject to community process as outlined in the Vacant Lot Toolkit. 

(j) Indemnification provisions must be included in all Adopt-A-Lot Licenses and Adopt-A-Lot Leases authorized under this Chapter in a form approved by the City Solicitor.  Insurance provisions naming the City as a certificate holder must be included in all Adopt-A-Lot Leases.

(k) Violation of the terms of this Chapter, any license or lease authorized hereunder or any rules or regulations promulgated by the Director as authorized hereunder may result in an immediate termination of the license or lease and / or a permanent loss of the privilege to participate in the Program in addition to any remedies the City may have for violations of applicable law or contract. 

VLTK Background

One of the legacies of Pittsburgh’s economic shift is a large amount and wide variety of vacant and distressed property. The reversion and accumulation of properties coming under public responsibility has placed an enormous burden on the City while contributing no taxes to pay for public services. Compounding the challenge is the dispersed nature of these properties, their size, their title status, and the fact that some have historic resource value or a historic designation.

While some neighborhoods have more vacant and distressed properties than others, the parcels are distributed throughout the city. Finding viable interim uses, preserving future opportunities, and crafting long-term solutions for this inventory of land are key challenges with which Pittsburgh has been grappling, and that the Open Space Plan in particular has been tasked with addressing. The estimated cost of maintaining these properties in 2011 totals $20,457,155.

Pittsburgh’s vacant and distressed lands are not automatically considered part of the open space system. The City’s park system is already under-resourced in terms of capital and operations funding. A major part of Open Space Plan was an analysis to help determine suitable uses for these lands. 

Pittsburgh contains approximately 27,000 properties that are—for economic, physical, or other reasons—vacant, distressed, or currently undeveloped. Distressed sites include parcels that are currently vacant, condemned, or tax- delinquent. While these sites present a challenge in terms of defining a future use, they offer a variety of opportunities to shape the urban form and character of Pittsburgh.

Turning acres of vacant land into formal parks and open spaces without consideration for when and where additions are needed or desired will have a negative impact on the existing system. As part of the Open Space Plan process, the City conducted an analysis to help determine suitable uses for these lands. Concurrent with the Open Space Plan, there have been other City efforts to evaluate vacant lands as well, including the efforts of the Land Recycling Task Force.




City of Pittsburgh Vacant Lot Use Soil Policy


Soil is an environmental building block that supports plant life, influences the water cycle, and provides habitat. As such, the health of soil on a vacant lot plays a critical role in health, especially if the lot will be in direct contact with community members whether through physical contact or through food consumption. Soil sampling is a tool used to identify the health of the soil on a particular lot. The results will give you baseline information on nutrient levels, pH levels, and certain possible contaminants on a given lot. Knowing this information is highly important for anyone looking to use a vacant lot for green space and to do so with health and safety in mind.

The City of Pittsburgh requires a test for lead levels on all public parcels before use by residents for community green space. We recommend a test for nutrients but require a test for lead and other heavy metals as well.


The most common toxic substance found in our urban soils is lead. Lead occurs naturally in soil in the range 10-50 mg/kg with levels around 20 mg/kg quite common. Due to a variety of health concerns, vacant lot parcels need to be tested for lead. Lead binds with the soil at a molecular level and can be ingested or inhaled, exposing the individual to a toxic level of lead. This is particularly important if children will be in contact with the soil. These microscopic particles of lead can also cause problems with ingestion of fruits and vegetables since they can be taken up into various plants, especially leafy green vegetables such as spinach, kale, and lettuce. Some other plants could be safe, provided they aren’t grown in heavily contaminated soil and are washed before eating. As for arsenic, it is absorbed by plants but rarely has it been a human health concern except with rice. Other contaminants, like zinc, kill plants before they reach concentrations dangerous to people.


Areas with bare soil and heavy traffic are the biggest concern. Increased suspension and movement of small soil particles means the contaminated dust can be accidentally ingested or inhaled, and it can be tracked home on clothing, shoes and tools. The biggest concern is for small children who are most at risk. If a site has elevated lead, and there is currently grass growing on the site, the best thing to do is leave it. Don’t dig or plant without taking proper precautions.


Soil test should be done with gloves and all care should be taken to not inhale the soil dust. Unless the lot is noticeably different in two areas (rocky and bare in one area and lush and green in another) one soil test should be sufficient for a standard city lot (25' X 100'). Soil test kits will describe the manner of collecting samples. This is usually done by collecting 10 – 12 random samples and then mixing them together. Sample areas of suspected contamination separately, use shallow samples (2”depth) from undisturbed areas, deeper samples (6”) from disturbed or garden bed areas.

You’ll want 1-2 cups of soil for your test, so get more to account for rocks and other debris. You can use a core sampler, bulb planter, trowel, or shovel to dig the sample and a clean container for holding the samples. To dry the sample, spread the soil onto newspaper, remove all sticks, rocks, and other debris. Once dry (3 -7 days) place at least one cup of soil into a plastic bag. Seal, label, and mail it with the appropriate form and payment.

NOTE: If this is a high-risk area where there was likely dumping or other potentially dangerous contaminants, please write in the notes section of the form "questionable urban soil" so the lab workers can take the appropriate precautions.

SOIL STANDARDS – Lead testing results1

The City of Pittsburgh follows these guidelines when allowing use of city land:

0 - 150 ppm – May be used without restrictions.

151 – 400 ppm - Enforce “Clean Hands” policy – washing hands immediately after leaving the parcel.

Paths must be covered with grass or mulched to a depth of 3 – 4 inches.

401 – 1,000 ppm - Modified use* or find another lot.

Over 1,000 ppm - No use allowed; find another lot.

*Modified use requirements. For vegetables 8” – 10” raised beds lined with geotextile barriers, or other solid containers with clean soil for planting. All areas not covered with raised beds must be grass covered or covered with garden cloth and topped with 3 – 4 inches of mulch. No digging is permitted anywhere on the lot.

Currently, the best ways of dealing with moderate to high lead levels in soils are to: 1) immobilize the lead by adding 3 inches of soil and planting grass as a cover, 2) mix or cover the lead soil with clean (low lead) soil to a lead level below 150ppm, or 3) eliminate the lead by physically removing the soil and disposing of it in a certified manner.

For more information on soil and soil testing guidelines, see the following sources:

Soil tests are available at the office of Penn State Extension of Allegheny County at the Penn State Center Pittsburgh, Energy Innovation Center, 1435 Bedford Avenue, Suite A, Pittsburgh, PA, 15219.



PDF Version of this document


Adopt-A-Lot Process

Adopt-A-Lot Form

Submit an Adopt-A-Lot Intake Form at your convenience to start the vacant lot reuse process. 

Once you have talked to the Open Space Specialist, and your Intake Form is processed, they'll give you the information to complete the following Forms+Applications: