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A bold vision for greening Cleveland

Marc Lefkowitz  |  12/08/08 @ 4:38pm

We have lots of places in Cleveland where it's not so great to grow up, next to vacant land. But, we can make a healthier future for kids. We need to be strategic about how we develop this land?to build a local food system in Cleveland.

-Bobbi Reichtell, Senior VP of Planning, Neighborhood Progress, Inc. (NPI) describing to the Cleveland Planning Commission last week their study to re-imagine uses for Cleveland's 3,300 parcels of vacant land.

For the past year, NPI and the Kent State Urban Design Center (UDC) have led what GreenCityBlueLake Institute Director David Beach describes as "some of the most exciting land-use planning I've seen in the last thirty years."

Informally known as the Cleveland Land Lab, it's the result of monthly gatherings of city staff, nonprofit groups and planners. Alternately they met around a giant table to discuss data maps or spent an afternoon in small group charrettes puzzling out how to deal with decades of unraveling from dense neighborhoods to a pattern that more closely reveals a suburban landscape. Last Friday, they aired their conclusions-captured in what they call a 'pattern book' and a set of recommendations-on how 'shrinking cities' such as Cleveland can think strategically about redeploying an abundance of abandoned property.

Freddy Collier Jr., Cleveland Citywide Plan Project Manager, introduced a decision matrix developed to guide the process. First, the city could look at vacant land through the lens of its development potential, proximity to existing infrastructure, open space and a number of related factors. That informs solutions, ranging from planting low maintenance ground cover to designating the land as an urban farm. The latter was the subject of conversation among planning commission members Bob Brown, Joe Cimperman and Lillian Kuri who remarked that the city might consider a zoning overlay district for urban farms.

"Long term, this could be part of the city's larger sustainable land-use strategy," Reichtell remarked. "It could even help us address climate change."

The Land Lab plans to formally reveal all of their recommendations at the next Planning Commission meeting in two weeks. One offered by UDC Senior Planner Terry Schwarz is splitting vacant lots for discounted sale to neighboring property owners. Lot splits are a strategy being pursued in other shrinking cities such as Detroit, which offers vacant parcels for $200, restoring at least some of the $60 million in uncollected property taxes each year the city loses. The land is used variously for growing food to large, fenced in ball fields.

Generally, the recommendations fall into categories such as Neighborhood stabilization & holding strategies and Productive landscapes.

"We might pull out those best suited (for urban agriculture) and coordinate with a group like the OSU Extension which is running its market gardening training sessions in the city," Reichtell said. "The focus could be in neighborhoods that have food deserts."

Another recommendation ? an experiment whereby the foundation and plumbing of a house that the city plans to demolish is kept and reused for a greenhouse ? was revealed when Councilman Cimperman asked about its feasibility.

NPI has $80,000 in grant funding for pilot projects that illustrate the feasibility of the recommendations, Reichtell said. One already under way is a native planting project in Tremont with EarthDay Coalition as a partner. Reichtell hopes to leverage their funds with the recently announced federal Neighborhood Stabilization Funds.

"This is an important bottom up piece that needs to be paired with a vision from the city," Kuri concluded. "You can use this moment to create a dramatic vision of large scale food production and home-grown renewable energy."

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