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Can Clevelanders make a living in concert with life?

Richey Piiparinen  |  07/10/10 @ 1:00pm  |  Posted in Vibrant cities

Cleveland's natural resources enabled the pinnacle of us as a city of machines and built steel-of paychecks. But we taxed these resources, in fact squeezed the life out of them until we made bodies of water that burned. It was a parasitic mentality: we made a living at the expense of life. But then even that livelihood left, the joblessness the last stitch in a patch of harm sewn under the promise of prosperity.

Speaking to that promise, perhaps the takeaway here is that appearances are not what they're all cracked up to be, and so just as that assurance of Cleveland as an industrialized, job-filled jewel never panned out, so too can our decline really foretell something else: or that the demise of our city, the misery of our city, the deadness and abandonment and smokeless smokestacks of our city, how it is really all about chance. In fact maybe what Cleveland has on their hands is not the so much the death knell of disinvestment as it is a blank slate full of weaknesses that can be leveraged to hem Cleveland back into an ecology that we not only live off of, but indeed can make a living off of.

As precedence, one needs to look no further than a series of gems created by the circumstances of the Great Depression. Particularly, what Cleveland needs-or really any shrinking city for that matter-is a smaller scale works program based on FDR's successful Civilian Conservation Corp, which employed three million 18-24 year olds in the conservation and development of our natural resources. Except here it won't be national lands as a source of quality-making as much as vacant plots-or abandoned buildings-or paved swaths of run-off-producing parking lots with nary a car in sight…

To facilitate this, we need a sustainable workforce development plan that capitalizes on the budgets that area workforce agencies work with (Cuyahoga County's 2010 budget alone is approximately $25 million). And it should be a plan with a clear mission: to train the unskilled in the skill of piecing a broken city back into a broken earth. And while simple, it is such initiatives that really help lay the foundation for a city's resurgence, if only because the next generation of city-building will allow for worth to flow from quality as opposed to quality being squeezed for gain.

That said, if we can find a way to pair the training of our workforce into the health of our built and natural environment, then what we have is a self-feeding model of economic development, one in which jobs are attracted to a green-collar workforce while residents are attracted to a mended urban ecology-with more jobs following more people.

A first step at doing this is to break from the silo thinking within both workforce and neighborhood development to an approach in which investment in one area of weakness can be turned into a product addressing the brokenness in another area of weakness. Specifically, we need to be funding a workforce curriculum specific to the problems that Cleveland's been left with: the food deserts, the vacant structures and land, the disecology from past industrial ventures. Think, then: construction programs emphasizing deconstruction techniques-or carpentry programs training in the cleaning and reuse of old wood-or landscape programs focusing on strategic planting as a way to curb such resource-sucking affects of heat islands and stormwater run-off-or farmer's market programs that train in both the horticultural and entrepreneurial aspects of the trade.

To have much of an impact, such programs would work in unison, with each workforce development outfit developing supply lines enabling their "training" products to reach real-world demand. For example, a deconstruction team would supply a re-use carpentry team with resources from which needed city elements are built. Such elements could be planter boxes that can be used by the landscape team who then strategically set up vegetative buffers to make breathable our paved spots, both in regards to carbon sequestering and soaking in runoff. Likewise, the carpentry team can provide the cores of raised beds to the urban ag teams, or perhaps sheds for tools or stands for the selling of produce. In fact, the supply line combinations are endless, the point being is that we must use our limited investment in human training wisely so as to achieve a model of building the city through the human and the human through the city.

Current programs that are developing a kind of shrinking city workforce curriculum are piecemeal. An example is the Garden Boyz (see picture at top), a program in Cleveland's Central neighborhood that trains (and pays) teenagers in the specifics of urban ag and sustainable small business. Funded by a hodgepodge of donors both private and public (including a recent ReImagining Cleveland grantee), the Garden Boyz work before and after school and during the summer, turning a vacant plot into a soil of grown greens, kale, turnips, sweet corn, pepper, and other fresh foods. On the deconstruction front, the Urban Lumberjacks of Cleveland (ULOC) have also experimented with training youth in the art of deconstruction. And while the initiative was small-scale, a template was laid in which a few became invested in the sustainable dismantling of the city's vacant structures.

In Cleveland, we are slowly finding out that in our weaknesses lay our strengths. And just as the creation of these weaknesses were inextricably linked-i.e., how the degradation of our urban ecology influenced business disinvestment, which hastened a decrease in the quality of our workforce-so too can these weaknesses be leveraged to rebuild the fabric of a city intertwined with its natural resource strengths. Imagine, a city being able to make a living in concert with life.

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