Greening Vacant Land

Urban agriculture projects bring hope -- and food -- to communities that have long suffered from a glut of empty lots.

Lilah Zautner is optimism personified when it comes to handling the challenges of vacant land in her native Cleveland — a city facing serious challenges, but also one with endless opportunity, particularly when it comes to urban agriculture.

Zautner is the project manager for Reimagining Cleveland, an initiative of the Cleveland-based nonprofit Neighborhood Progress Inc. (NPI). NPI has worked in Cleveland for over 20 years and was the convening organization of a yearlong study, “Reimagining a More Sustainable Cleveland,” launched in 2008, which looked at innovative methods of land reuse and formed the basis for the Reimagining Cleveland project.

The project provides residents and community-based groups with $2,500 to $20,000 to manage a parcel of vacant land. There was community-wide interest from the outset, Zautner says. The Reimagining grant committee received 110 project proposals. Of these, 56 projects were chosen, including permeable parking lots, phytoremediation, native plantings, pocket parks, side yard expansions, community and market gardens, vineyards, and orchards. In total, residents will maintain fifteen acres of land held in the city’s land bank. This isn’t surprising given the interest in sustainability, greening projects, and urban agriculture already demonstrated in Cleveland, a city with 165 community gardens and 40 market gardens.

The program is funded with public and private money. Cleveland directed $500,000 of its $25 million in NSP 1 funds to Reimagining, and the Surdna Foundation provided an $86,000 grant to NPI for the project.

Doing something with vacant land is a timely and urgent issue in Cleveland. In a city that has struggled for years with population decline, the foreclosure crisis only made matters worse, with approximately 22,000 foreclosures occurring since the beginning of 2008. These foreclosures have worsened the city’s problems with vacant lots and homes, of which it now has 20,000 and 11,500 respectively. Frank Ford, senior vice president of research and development at NPI, sees the Reimagining pilot projects as attending to the “end problem” of vacant land and explains that the problems moving forward are a growing inventory of vacant structures, an even greater growing inventory of vacant lots, and the fact that both will keep growing.

Numerous benefits will come from the projects, says Zautner. They will “provide local food, provide sustainable land development, and also relieve some of the stress on the city of Cleveland … these lots that are being transitioned and leased into these projects are going to be maintained by neighborhood folks, which is a big weight off the city’s back in the long term.” The grantees are a diverse group, varying in education, race, ethnicity, income, and age, but, Zautner says, “one thing they all have in common is passion and motivation to create something great within the city.”

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