The scaling back of a highly regarded but ‘soft funded’ urban agriculture program that has repurposed vacant land since Cleveland Botanical Garden launched it in 1996 highlights the tenuous hold that even well-organized efforts to re-conceive urban land as anything other than dwelling space or bricks and mortar business often face.
It may just be coincidence that an insightful new book from Island Press, Vacant to Vibrant detailing the travails of keeping urban agriculture going and Cleveland Botanical Garden’s decision to shrink its Green Corps, a work-study program where city youth tend gardens on once-vacant land and sell their goods at farmer’s markets happened in the same week.
The book’s author, Sandra Albro, is an urban land reuse researcher at Holden Forests & Gardens, the holding company for the botanical garden. Albro has an insider’s perspective having managed vacant land reuse projects, and gives an honest appraisal of what worked and what didn’t in Cleveland, Gary, Buffalo and other post-industrial cities struggling with a glut of vacant land.
She recounts how a groundswell of support in 2008 lead to a solid plan, Reimagining a More Sustainable Cleveland, that she and many other non-profit and city leaders formed. It also lead to 156 pilot projects — gardens, pocket parks, and natural stormwater capture — supported by federal Hardest Hit funds in the wake of the subprime lending fiasco planted on scattered sites throughout the city.
Albro notes that the challenge, particularly with Cleveland, is city leaders and older residents do not accept that organizing neighborhood redevelopment around green space or urban agriculture is more practical than waiting for large redevelopment of residential and industry. Cleveland has a grudging acceptance rather than plays an active, supporting role in urban agriculture, and of its non-profit institutions that are filling the void.
“Many city officials and residents, in Cleveland and elsewhere, still cling to midcentury images of crowded parcels, filled with impervious surfaces…as a badge of their cities’ heyday,” she writes. “Even with clear evidence that modern development patterns should change.”
She goes on to suggest practical steps Cleveland can take, such as, preserving some vacant parcels as permanent urban green space. Pittsburgh is doing so with the open space portion of its 25-year plan: OpenSpacePGH details land-use and infrastructure decisions that affect the city’s 30,000 vacant, distressed and undeveloped properties.
On the bright side, Albro notes the $44 million commitment from the Northeast Ohio Sewer District to install green infrastructure on vacant land. Green infrastructure makes use of natural systems, or engineered systems that mimic natural processes, to manage stormwater.
Cleveland is not far behind cities considered leaders in re-orienting vacant space around green infrastructure including Philadelphia with its LandCare program (which Albro says has the added benefit of lowering violent crime) and Milwaukee with its Monomonee River stormwater park, a huge reuse of a former heavy industry site into light industry, natural area and active recreation. But, Cleveland needs to enshrine the Reimagine study, its pattern book and the analysis of experts like Albro into an open space plan of its own.
“Scaling up green stormwater infrastructure will require detailed information about social and environmental attributes,” she writes. To test this, Albro studied three sites in Cleveland where residents were engaged and a very calculated matrix was developed to select for social and environmental attributes. The results were mixed, but the data and selection process is solid ground from which city leaders can build.
“Typically, they start with a neighborhood eyesore (when) a parcel’s position in the watershed, soil permeability, slope and other physical attributes that affect stormwater management are not considered until later stages,” she observes. “A risk of this approach is that implementation costs can be out of scale with the resulting level of stormwater control.”
Cleveland is dipping a toe in with its $1 million tree fund announced at this year’s Sustainability Summit. Albro suggests that the city invest health funds “because of clear evidence that they improve public health outcomes.”
With non profits like CBG struggling to keep even flagship green jobs projects like Green Corps going, it is time for the city to step up its game, and decide how much and where vacant land can be re purposed for economic, social and environmental gains, and to support it with capital.