Greening Vacant Land

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

Urban agriculture projects on once-vacant land bring hope -- and food -- to communities. Image shows urban garden/market
Arionna Brasche

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.”

Agriculture in the City

Cleveland is not alone in exploring urban agriculture. In Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, and beyond, urban agriculture is increasingly being used on vacant land, providing community benefits such as improved aesthetics, increased value of surrounding properties, and lessened demand on city services. Because it increases access to nutritious food in low-income neighborhoods, urban agriculture is also widely promoted as a way of dealing with “food deserts,” those neighborhoods that lack accessible grocery stores or other means of getting healthy, fresh food. Urban agriculture also has social benefits, including creating spaces that residents can enjoy together, thus building social capital and community connections. Economically, it can create jobs and boost incomes, keep money in local economies, and reduce food costs.

Just as the presence of vacant land is nothing new, urban agriculture isn’t new to Cleveland either. Several of the Reimagining grants have gone to expand established operations. The nonprofit Garden Boyz, for example, started three years ago, training and employing at-risk male teenagers from Cleveland’s Central neighborhood growing and selling vegetables. Garden Boyz received a Reimagining grant that will enable them to increase production, in turn allowing the hire of additional teens. In addition to earning a income — required to first be spent on school supplies and school clothes — these teenagers also gain urban farming and marketing skills.

Similarly, Ecovillage Produce LLC is a market garden that was formed several years ago and received a Reimagining grant to expand upon its existing garden. Zautner describes the three individuals who run Ecovillage Produce as having an “entrepreneurial spirit” and a vision of vacant land as a way to “serve a social mission as well as an economic mission.” Located in the Cleveland Ecovillage, itself a national model of sustainability principles, Ecovillage Produce is experimenting with a new form of growing developed by the Ohio State University Extension Service, the goal of which is to maximize the yield obtained from small urban plots of land. Says Zautner, “It was very exciting to give them a grant to pilot this new form of growing.”

Mansfield Frazier runs the organization Neighborhood Solutions, which works with former prisoners on reentry into Cleveland. Described by Zautner as an “amazing community leader” and an “advocate for his neighbors as well as for [those going through] reentry,” Frazier dreamed up a Reimagining project that goes beyond vegetable garden fare. With a grant of $15,000, Frazier is creating The Vineyards of Chateau Hough in the Huff neighborhood, which has long experienced severe abandonment, degradation, and neglect. He has a vision of “bringing the wine industry back to Cleveland and into the Huff neighborhood.” To bring this vision to life Frazier has collaborated with two other vineyards, also pilot projects, in order to share resources and provide support.

Urban agriculture can be a prosperous business. Most of the Cleveland grantees with new projects won’t start making a profit until next year, as this year was mainly for establishing necessary infrastructure such as raised beds, fences, and irrigation systems. But in coming years, projects could supply many grantees with perhaps half of their income needs, says Zautner.

Greensgrow Farm began started in 1998 on a former brownfield site in a low-income neighborhood in Philadelphia and today serves as a national model for urban agriculture. It encompassed a farm, nursery, and farmers market. “We did about a million dollars worth of business last year and probably produce accounted for about $900,000 of that, and pretty much as a rule of thumb we’re producing 10 to 15 percent of what we sell. So if we’re talking about $900,000, then we’re looking at about $90,000, or maybe $100,000, worth of produce” grown on site, says Matthew Brener, technical advisor to Greensgrow Farm since 2000. Greensgrow plans to expand the shares available in their Community Supported Agriculture program, which should generate an additional $280,000.

Cleveland is only one of many cities looking to urban agriculture as a way to reuse vacant land. Says Brener, “Philadelphia is definitely very interested in using their vacant land for urban agriculture, specifically for interim usage. There’s a lot of land that’s just not going to be redeveloped in five or 10 years out and urban agriculture, at least for Greensgrow, has shown that a farm can really step a property’s value up and build up the values of the properties around it.”

Based upon the success of Greensgrow and due to the growing interest in urban agriculture expressed by other cities in the United States, Greensgrow has partnered with the consulting firm Brownfield Redevelopment Solutions to assist interested city governments in bringing, or expanding, urban agriculture in their cities.

Brener explains that they have “put together a program where we help municipalities get funding in place, policies in place, help them basically put together a program to foster urban agriculture in their cities. Everybody’s interested in that right now.”

Already the partnership has worked with the New Jersey cities of Newark, Jersey City, Trenton, and Camden and has spoken with several others. Brener says they “get contacted by municipalities all the time, not just local, but from all over the country.”

Given the combined experience of BRS and Greensgrow, along with the financial success of the farm in Philadelphia, Brener predicts, “This partnership between Greensgrow and BRS is going to be a very powerful combination.”

Not all of Cleveland’s Reimagining urban agriculture projects are focused on growing produce for sale. One project is taking place at the Waterson Lake School — a K-8 school with no green space and a playground in disrepair, says Zautner. She explains that all of the pieces came together in this project when a vacant lot adjacent to the school was donated by its owner to the Cleveland land bank on the condition that it would go to a good cause. This land is now being used for a Reimagining project in which a $6,700 grant will be used to create a school garden that will be integrated into curriculum.

A small portion of the land was also donated to the affordable housing developer Cleveland Housing Network in order to create a driveway for the vacant house adjacent to the donated land, which is in the process of being renovated. Zautner describes this as a “win-win situation” because the garden will add value to the school as well as to the renovated house and the new homeowners can help keep an eye on the garden when school’s not in session.

Though just getting started, and with projects in various stages of implementation, Reimagining Cleveland has had significant success in leveraging resources and advancing urban agriculture within Cleveland. For instance, grantees will be contributing $250,000 worth of labor, time, and energy to the Reimagining project because of the 50 percent match requirement, which could be met through money or labor. Most were able to meet this prerequisite through an estimation of labor expected during the first year of their project. However, since grantees are required to maintain projects for five years, Zautner explains that what’s really being mobilized is “over a million dollars of sweat equity.”

Five projects have attracted additional funding, such as the aforementioned Ecovillage Produce. The City of Cleveland is receiving $1 million in NSP 2 funds as part of a $40 million award to a consortium including Cuyahoga County Land Bank, Cuyahoga County, and the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority. The city’s expected to dedicate some of those funds to the implementation of another land reuse project modeled after Reimagining Cleveland. Cleveland will also be receiving funds from NSP 3, and Zautner hopes some of that will expand this model as well.

Farm-Friendly Policies

Cleveland is supporting urban agriculture with more than money. A number of ordinances to make urban farming welcome, such as regulations that allow the raising of chickens, bees, and other small animals, have been passed and more appear to be on the horizon. The impetus for most of these ordinances have come from Councilman Joe Ciperman and they have been drafted by Robert Brown, director of the Cleveland Planning Commission, with help from several people with extensive experience in urban agriculture such as Morgan Taggert from the Ohio State University Extensive Service.

Two pieces of legislation relevant to urban farming have recently been introduced to the Cleveland City Council. One would change some residential zoning categories to promote urban agriculture by allowing fencing, signs, and structures such as greenhouses, barns, hoop houses, and farm stands on the lots of single-family homes. These zoning changes would also allow retail farm stands as long as 75 percent of the products have been grown on-site or within 500 feet. Brown explains, “We not only want to promote urban gardening, but we want to promote the sale of that urban garden product in city neighborhoods.”

The other bill would allow the creation of urban agriculture overlay districts that would designate large pieces of land, a minimum of 10,000 square feet, as urban farms. Also allowed in these areas would be accessory structures such as greenhouses, barns, and farmer’s stands. This legislation has to potential to turn large areas of vacant, abandoned land into productive spaces that provide healthy food and supplemental income for residents. Both pieces of legislation are expected to be voted on in September.

Zautner is hopeful that these pieces of legislation will pass and attributes their introduction at least partially to the Reimagining projects. She says, “These projects really are succeeding in our goal of building a movement and pushing policy forward, and now they’re going to change the landscape going forward for urban agriculture in the city.”

As vacant land continues to be a problem for cities around the country, model projects such as Reimagining Cleveland and Philadelphia’s Greensgrow Farm may serve as inspiration for other communities to step up and turn blighted land into socially and economically productive community spaces.

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