“You hear that Pittsburgh is a city of neighborhoods, but you don’t realize it until you come here and see that each one really has a personality and there’s a place for everyone.”
In Allegheny County there are 54,000 vacant lots and Evaine K. Sing and her team are on a mission to transform each of those spaces, one by one, into meaningful community resources. Born in South Africa and raised in Maryland, Evaine studied Landscape Architecture at Virginia Tech and made her way to Pittsburgh in 2006 for a job opportunity with Burt Hill (now Stantec), designing resorts in Dubai. Always drawn to people, Evaine transitioned within the company from international work to US-based campus planning that allowed her to get a step closer to the end users. Eventually, Evaine started doing pro bono work in Pittsburgh communities while at the firm, working to find creative ways to reuse space and was first exposed to the community development world. “I was really intrigued by the sociological aspect of landscape architecture and the idea that we can shape environments that will shape people’s behaviors and finding a way to make things fit within existing contexts.”
In 2009 during the recession, she was laid off, which turned out to be advantageous as she used the opportunity to take a consulting role for former Mayor Ravenstahl’s, Green Up initiative. The program assisted communities with repurposing vacant land and buildings and it was in this role that she first connected with GTECH, the organization that she would come to lead and transform.
In 2011, Evaine pursued a master’s degree in public policy and management from the Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon: “I realized that I was being seen as a designer and I was speaking a different language than the business and finance folks. The Heinz College program provided me with the skills to bridge the gap from design to business.” Toward the end of grad school she reconnected with GTECH and jumped on the team. She held nearly every job from intern to project manager within the organization, combined with her contracting and corporate skills, she was able to gain a solid understanding of the business from top to bottom. In 2017, she took over as Executive Director and with organizational and culture change came a name change; GTECH Strategies became Grounded Strategies, to better reflect their mission and purpose: “We are grounded in people, communities and change for good.” Being grounded in the communities they serve, Grounded empowers residents to be part of the process and decision making to create spaces that are unique to their needs and benefits the entire neighborhood.
Evaine and her team enter communities with a broad brush and allow residents and the community to drive the work, which helps build trust and make sure that the transformation retains the culture and history of the space. Working with so many partners can make metrics and timelines challenging, but the people always make the process rewarding: “The thing I love most about Pittsburgh is the layers of history. Everyone we meet has a story and we work to include those stories in the work.”
Though Evaine travels the vast system of Pittsburgh neighborhoods for work, she’s also lived and worked in quite a few of them over the years, most recently settling into the East Deutschtown neighborhood with her husband, Chris Watson, in 2015. They love being so connected to the city, walking to the Strip District, riding on the various trails nearby, and checking out the endless activities the city has to offer. “I’m a festival junkie. Arts Festival, Bloomfield Little Italy Days, May Market at Phipps Conservatory. I tend to shape visits from friends and family around events, it really gives people an idea of the ‘best of’ Pittsburgh'.” Some of their favorite spots include DiAnoia’s Italian restaurant in the Strip and Kaffeehaus, a local shop in their neighborhood that has fantastic dessert catering and a great cup of joe. For aspiring leaders and community builders, Evaine has this advice:
“Find the work you want to do and go where you’re needed. The biggest thing about being a leader is identifying the gaps and using your skills to fill them. Be comfortable with being uncomfortable, be willing to fail publicly and repeatedly, and then keep going.”