Pitt's Interactive Neighborhood Database Gains Traction in Revitalizing Pittsburgh

Issue Date: 
June 21, 2010

Citizens, civic groups, and government entities working to further renew and reinvent Pittsburgh are increasingly turning to Pitt’s online Pittsburgh Neighborhood and Community Information System (PNCIS), an interactive database of property and neighborhood conditions, in their efforts to restore dilapidated homes, promote urban farming, and even help young artists find homes.

PNCIS is maintained by Pitt’s University Center for Social and Urban Research (UCSUR) and provides a neighborhood-by-neighborhood, parcel-level snapshot of information intended to improve community planning and outreach, including crime and vacancy rates, housing market and foreclosure figures, tax delinquency, and election results.

To recognize and discuss ways to enhance PNCIS’ value in shaping Pittsburgh, those Pittsburghers who regularly use the database gathered with national experts in urban revitalization at the University Club on June 11 for the inaugural PNCIS Users Conference. The conference was cosponsored by UCSUR and the Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development, a longtime PNCIS partner with UCSUR and the City of Pittsburgh.

Representatives from local organizations and agencies spoke about PNCIS’ efforts to reduce blight, expand services, and renew communities, ranging from forming block watches in the city’s Homewood neighborhood to identifying areas of Pittsburgh in need of better access to banking services. A few of the reported uses of PNCIS follow.

• North Side resident and urban farmer Jana Thompson uses PNCIS in cooperation with Grow Pittsburgh to review and help the city set urban agriculture codes. For instance, proposed regulations suggested a minimum lot size that maps from PNCIS show is larger than nearly half of the city’s residential lots, which would effectively prohibit urban farming, she said.

• Artist incubation researcher Courtney Ehrlichman of Carnegie Mellon University studies strategies to keep young, graduating artists in Pittsburgh, particularly by making it easier for them to own property in the neighborhoods they help revitalize. Ehrlichman is exploring a strategy to attract artists to Pittsburgh by creating neighborhood profiles based on PNCIS data about vacant and tax-delinquent properties, as well as on current property owners in the area.

• “At the URA, we use PNCIS almost every day,” said Lena Andrews, planning and development specialist for the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) of Pittsburgh. “One way is to help expand Pittsburgh’s green space by using vacant-land, vacant-building, condemnation, code-violation, and tax-delinquency data  to identify areas where blight can become parks and woodlands. Another is to measure the effectiveness of URA brownfield-revitalization projects by tracking the nearby sales prices and building-permit activity to see the result of large-scale projects.”

Conference speakers from the national scene talked about how stores of community data like PNCIS are influencing urban revitalization policy, research, and government programs.

Kathy Pettit, codirector of the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute’s National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, discussed innovative uses of community information systems across the nation and their role in neighborhood development. Robert Renner, from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Office of Policy Development and Research, talked about the growing role of research at HUD, new neighborhood revitalization programs, and the implications for local communities and neighborhood information systems. Mike Schramm, from Case Western Reserve University’s Center for Urban Poverty and Community Development, recounted how Case Western’s data system was used to reduce foreclosures and help to stabilize communities affected by the 2009 foreclosure crisis in the Cleveland area.

More information on PNCIS is available on the PNCIS Web site, www.pghnis.pitt.edu.