Leaf Litter

Cleveland Reimagines its Vacant Lots

See how a City with an industrial legacy is converting its vacant land into farms, gardens, vineyards, and 0rchards.

By Amy Nelson

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Over the last sixty years, the city of Cleveland has seen its population drop by more than 56%. With the city demolishing 1000 empty homes each year, its mounting supply of vacant land–currently topping 10,000 sites–might be viewed as a dismal omen and a management nightmare. But for the people behind a city-wide vacant land reuse initiative called “ReImagining Cleveland” the stockpile is a colossal, extremely valuable asset to leverage in the effort to redefine a former industrial giant as a thriving, green, and resilient city.

In 2008, Neighborhood Progress, a community development funding intermediary, collaborated with the City of Cleveland and Kent State University’s Urban Design Collaborative to convene a 30-member working group to explore strategies to return the city’s vacant properties to productive use at the city-wide scale. The results, a report entitled “Re-Imagining A More Sustainable Cleveland” is now guiding the city’s vacant land use decisions. No longer merely a study, ReImagining Cleveland has become a powerful initiative that has helped transform 56 decaying, vacant parcels into community and market gardens, vineyards, orchards, pocket parks, rain gardens, and other green spaces.

Reimagining Cleveland’s grant-making process to fund the initial 56 pilot projects was guided by a pattern book [Ideas to Action] that was also created by the working group. Grants for the pilot projects were for $10,000, and although some projects required professional support (and additional dollars) to get underway, others moved forward through the sweat equity of neighborhood volunteers.

“The urban agriculture movement is large and growing here inCleveland,” said Terry Schwarz, director of Kent State University’s Cleveland  Urban Design Collaborative. “Even beyond the ReImagining Cleveland program, there are over 200 community garden sites around the city.”

One reason for this surge in urban agriculture may be the level of support it receives from the City of Cleveland and from local organizations and institutions. Though some might turn to cities like Portland and San Francisco when looking for a model in urban agricultural zoning, Cleveland should not be overlooked.

In recent years, the city altered its zoning code to be more accommodating to crop growing, beekeeping and chickkeeping. The code also allows agricultural uses for free standing lots. The region even has its own organization dedicated to establishing Cleveland and Cuyahoga County as a model for food security through regional food system development. The Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Food Policy Coalition, led by Morgan Taggart of Ohio State University Extension, led the charge to get zoning code changes made and make it easier and less expensive to access water.

Given Cleveland’s industrial history, one might wonder about contamination getting in the way of urban agriculture. Although all 56 ReImagining Cleveland pilot sites were formerly residential, and not industrial, lead and arsenic were concerns because of the ages of the homes. A soil scientist on the Reimagining Cleveland team found that the real risk of lead exposure would come from working in the site, rather than from any vegetables, so appropriate protection for workers and volunteers became essential.

Soil quality presented a greater challenge than soil contamination, primarily because of compaction. Houses destroyed before 1986 were actually demolished into their basements. According to Schwarz, EPA researchers found the level of infiltration on a typical vacant lot in Clevelandto be like that of asphalt. Soil on all of the pilot sites is tested, and for most of the food producing sites, raised beds and lasagna gardening techniques are used.

“Cleveland is one of the poorest cities in the country, and we have a high degree of food insecurity,” said Schwarz. “There is a lot of focus on food production as a way of getting healthy calories to people who need them and creating opportunities for income generation for city residents through market gardens.” But the benefits of urban agriculture often multiply and end up positively impacting other community issues.

Schwarz highlights the Chateau Hough vineyard as an example. Located in a neighborhood that has, according to Schwarz, struggled since racial rioting in the 1970s, this inner city winery was the brainchild of local entrepreneur, Mansfield Frazier.

Aiming to rewrite the neighborhood’s narrative, Frazier employed and empowered neighbors, residents of a nearby halfway house, former prisoners, and community service crews to help prepare the soil and armature to support nearly 300 grapevines.

“One of the things that is particularly special about Chateau Hough,” said Schwarz, “is that Mansfield Frazier has established such a degree of credibility, ownership, and stewardship in the neighborhood that he doesn’t even have a fence around the vineyard. Nobody messes with Mansfield and his grapes.” Now in its third year, Chateau Hough expects to produce a useable yield, and a challenged neighborhood will soon have a signature product.

Schwarz is quick to point out that despite the success of the Reimagining Cleveland initiative, not all pilot projects received immediate community approval and support.

For agriculture to truly integrate into the urban landscape in the long term, she cautions, neighborhood acceptance is critical. She advises Leaf Litter readers and anyone involved in designing an urban agriculture project to give careful consideration to the way the site will be perceived by city residents. In the end, she says, details such as edges and entrances, can make a tremendous difference.

“Applying a level of design thinking to food production,” said Schwarz, “would increase the amount of community acceptance across the board.”

Here’s hoping that that the Re-Imagining Cleveland initiative continues grow, yielding stronger, more resilient communities in a city that is truly redefining itself.

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