ReImagining a More Sustainable Greater Cleveland
Returning vacant land to productive uses—such as helping Cleveland's hungry grow their own food or creating natural habitats that improve quality of life, soak up rainwater and act as a carbon sink—is at the center of a new policy discussion in cities and suburbs.
A groundbreaking effort called ReImagine a More Sustainable Cleveland envisions how to convert some of Cleveland's 3,000 parcels of vacant land into greenspace, farms, stormwater parks or renewable energy sites. The recommendations from the ReImagine plan were presented in 2011 to the city of Cleveland (which was a major partner).
Suburbs, which were also hit by waves of vacancy from 2007 to 2012, are looking to how Cleveland's ReImagine action shapes local economies. South Euclid, with its Green Neighborhoods Initiative and its Farm-to-School pilot program, is a leading example.
In 2011, Cleveland adopted some laudable urban agriculture policies, such as allowing the raising of chickens, bees and livestock, and allowing urban agriculture and farm stands on vacant lots in residential districts. Some urban farmers have argued that the city needs to resolve long-term issues like land ownership and access to water.
It might seem hard to “Reimagine 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 (such as the Victory Gardens during World War II) during times when the economic picture looked bleak.
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 as part of an even larger group organizing online at localfoodcleveland.org
- The hundreds who pack the house when local food leaders like author Michael Pollan speak
- The city of Cleveland investing $450,000 in 56 ReImagine pilot projects (2010)
- Recent state legislation creating countywide land reutilization corporations.
These are some of the 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 students at Benjamin Franklin and Harvey Rice once learned how to plant and cultivate gardens. 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 to myth. The CSU Library has acquired the entire curriculum of the Cleveland urban horticulture program, according to Barbara Strauss at CSU.
Compelling images of Cleveland’s proud urban agriculture heritage can now be found at Cleveland Memory Project/Feeding Cleveland: Urban Agriculture site. Kids planting rows of crops in 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). 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.
I envision a New America with artisanal regional craft foods, replacing our fast food stereotypes; I long for a time when farmers are respected members of the community just like the chefs of today, and folks harken back to when people knew their farmer. Going forward just bear in mind, a farmer has to eat too.
–Justin Husher, Cleveland urban farmer
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