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Back to the future: Cleveland urban agriculture movement

Marc Lefkowitz  |  01/12/09 @ 2:57pm

Now that we have recommendations from Neighborhood Progress, Inc. on turning vacant land back into productive use (urban gardens, farms, etc.) the next step will be leveraging it to influence land-use decisions at the city of Cleveland, which was a major partner in the study.

It might seem hard to "Re-imagine a More Sustainable Cleveland", but anyone familiar with Cleveland history will take heart that urban agriculture rose up to help folks feed themselves and their families in the past, especially during times when the economic picture looked bleak. More on that in a minute.

GCBL has reported on Mayor Jackson's stated willingness to reform the city's land use plans, to perhaps set aside land for urban agriculture with the caveat that urban growers show him they are ready to work that land. Recent trends indicate a rise in interest where food comes from and a desire to have it grown closer to home, including:

  • An increase in the number and size of farmer's markets in Cleveland in the last two years (to the point where there are not enough farmers to meet the demand)
  • Growing numbers of urban residents getting trained to grow and sell food in OSU Extension's Market Garden Training Program
  • A group of 50-60 folks have been participating in a newly formed urban growers group.
  • The even larger group organizing online at localfoodcleveland.org
  • The hundreds who pack the house when local food leaders like author Michael Pollan speak
  • Recent state legislation creating countywide land reutilization corporations.

These are all indicators of the growth curve for urban food production. Is it so hard to picture growing our own food or seeing rows of crops in the city? Not for those old enough to remember Cleveland City Schools' K-12 horticulture program, which provided hands-on learning to hundreds of kids and restless teens from the 1920s to the late 1970s. Elementary school students at Benjamin Franklin and Harvey Rice once learned how to plant and cultivate gardens (see picture above). At West Tech High School, one could see open fields of food crops planted and tended by students in the Green Thumb Program.

Thanks to Cleveland State University, the city's horticulture knowledge will not fade into mythology. The CSU Library has acquired the entire curriculum of the Cleveland urban horticulture program, according to Barbara Strauss at CSU.

Don't take our word for it. Compelling images of Cleveland's proud urban agriculture heritage can now be found at Cleveland Memory Project/Feeding Cleveland: Urban Agriculture site. Kids planting school yards, workers at the Greenhouse Vegetable Packing Company at Berea Fairgrounds, Mayor Raymond Thomas Miller's work relief gardens as seen from the Denison-Harvard Bridge in September, 1933 and more.

Cleveland now has an abundance of land. Teaching the lost art of growing food in the schools is a great vocational opportunity (and can be matched to local horticulture jobs and internships like these). Market gardens can create 'green' jobs for middle and lower income residents of Cleveland who might lack the resources to break into a highly technical field or can't get themselves out to the outer suburbs where lower wage service jobs have moved. Did we mention the health benefits of eating hyper-local food?

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