Monday, March 15, 2010

Reimagining the City from the Ground Up By Marc Lefkowitz

Repost from

Cleveland’s Comeback

Reimagining the City from the Ground Up
Sharon Glaspie and her Garden Boyz are at the center of a new movement to repurpose vacant land in Cleveland, a city racing to reinvent itself. Three years ago Glaspie leased a quarter-acre from the Cleveland Land Bank, which manages 3,300 acres of vacant land, or 7 percent of the city’s total acreage. She found six neighborhood teenagers to share what she had recently learned about growing and selling food. Now the Garden Boyz arrive promptly at 7 a.m. every morning to work the soil and to tend and harvest collard greens, carrots, onions and other popular sellers at the weekend farmers markets in Central, a neighborhood where more than half of families live below the poverty line and often pay with food stamps. If they weren’t learning how to garden and run a business, Glaspie says, the Garden Boyz would most likely be indoctrinated in drug gangs.
“They’d tell you, ‘If I wasn’t a Garden Boyz, I don’t know what I would be doing,’” Glaspie says. “Jobs for 13- to 17-year-olds are nonexistent. They earn about $50 a week, which isn’t a lot. But they use it to buy their own clothes and school uniforms. They’ll help their mother out bringing food home and cooking for the family. I had one boy who bought his brother winter boots with his money. They are looked up to by most of their peers.”
Word of the Garden Boyz’s success has spread, and Glaspie plans to bring on four more boys this year with a $15,600 grant from Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) funds that Cleveland received from the federal government. While the vast majority of the city’s $54 million in NSP money will be used to demolish blighted and foreclosed homes, the city is also investing in 58 pilot projects that move vacant land strategies beyond temporary fences and lawns. The city, along with nonprofit community development groups, plans to bring the pilot projects to scale by building on investments from prominent local and national philanthropic organizations, including the Cleveland Foundation, the George Gund Foundation, the Surdna Foundation and Living Cities — all funders with a strong interest in land use.
Indeed, vacant land reuse is currently the hottest topic in urban planning. It may be hard for a visitor to find evidence of this, especially if they drive through Cleveland’s east side neighborhoods such as Central, Hough and Fairfax, where whole shopping districts are abandoned and some streets consist of two houses surrounded by a dozen vacant, weed-choked lots. City streets that 50 years ago were teeming with more than a million people are completely wiped out today. Some are reverting back to a natural state, with grass and trees covering over the asphalt.
Certainly, there are Rust Belt cities struggling with more vacant land than Cleveland: Ten percent of Pittsburgh’s total land and 30 percent of Detroit is vacant. But the foreclosure crisis hit Cleveland, which already ranked among the five poorest large cities in the nation in 2008, harder than any city in the Midwest. The city registered 10,000 home foreclosures from 2007 to 2008, meaning that the equivalent of a city neighborhood went bust every month, The Columbus Dispatch calculated. The city has responded by pouring tens of millions of dollars into demolitions — 2,000 of the most blighted homes are slated to come down in 2010. The glut of vacant land is expected to continue before the city can stabilize it.
Still, there are signs that Cleveland is finally prepared to deal effectively with this crisis. When author Alex Kotlowitz visited Cleveland last May, he recounted in a speech what drove him to write in The New York Times Magazine about the foreclosure tsunami in Cleveland. He couldn’t turn away, he said, from the narrative of injustice and unanswered questions about why banks and mortgage companies — and state elected officials who nullified Cleveland’s antipredatory-lending law — were allowed to tear apart the fabric of the city. But for Kotlowitz, who spent years with two young boys in Chicago’s projects in the 1980s to tell their story in the classic book There Are No Children Here, Cleveland’s situation goes beyond telling the story of foreclosure crisis victims. “It was the one place I could find,” he said, “the only place I could find in the country, where people are pushing back.”

Policymakers, officials and academics have been talking about the vacant land problem for years. So what’s different now? A decade’s worth of programs, such as Ohio State University Extension’s Community Garden Program, which has trained hundreds of urban farmers, are ratcheting up simultaneously with the need for a response to the foreclosure and poverty crises. Many powerful tools, collaborations and projects under the umbrella of how to make a shrinking city more sustainable are emerging. For example, Cleveland is one of the only cities in the country to have approved an urban garden zoning overlay, a response to local food advocates who wanted to protect community gardens from being destroyed by developers. And last year advocates won a hard-fought battle for an ordinance allowing city residents to raise chickens, bees and even cows and goats in their backyards. Last August, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson embraced sustainability at a summit where 700 participants, from CEOs to high school students, created an agenda for rethinking land, transportation and food as “an economic engine to empower a green city on a blue lake.” The city is recognizing that its vacant land is not a source of shame, but a resource to tap.
The great organizing force is a study called “ReImagine a More Sustainable Cleveland.” Funded by Surdna, ReImagine kicked off in 2008 with discussions among city officials, soil and water technicians, and environmental organizations, convened by nonprofit community developer Neighborhood Progress, Inc. (NPI). The study aimed to identify a strategic approach to intractable issues such as health disparities. “In Cleveland that quickly pointed to vacancy and vacant land,” says Bobbi Reichtell, senior vice president for programs at Neighborhood Progress and steward of the ReImagine study.
First the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative mappedwhere “food deserts” (areas where residents have no access to fresh fruits and vegetables) and vacant land align with watersheds,  green space and parks. They then produced a “Pattern Book,” which shows, for example, where one might restore a culverted stream to support a network of community gardens and provide functional stormwater services; how to use plants to draw toxins from soil; and where low-tech renewable energy systems might extend a growing season. ReImagine, as it’s known, also produced a “decision matrix” that the city now uses to categorize long-term vs. short-term vacant land strategies. So a vacant property with the right size and characteristics, such as proximity to green space, might make the first cut toward preservation. Once it makes that cut, the city might consider a menu of green development approaches, such as a tree nursery, community garden or maybe even an urban wind farm. Proximity to defined “Core Development Areas” will also help determine its development potential as “strong” or “weak.” Either way, the city has a path for that land.
The Pattern Book and the ReImagine study are about to become more than a well-reasoned argument: Last November, the Cleveland Foundation awarded the nonprofits Parkworks, Neighborhood Progress and the Urban Design Collaborative $250,000 for ReImagine 2.0, tasking them with finding specific sites, designing large-scale interventions, and writing a local food business plan. This spring, Neighborhood Progress’ Reichtell expects ReImagine 2.0 to identify the best opportunities for green infrastructure projects, to figure out how much and where land needs to be set aside for farming, and how to scale up the system so the city can handle vacant land in a comprehensive, lasting way. For example, the city land bank currently offers only a one-year lease. Reichtell argues that this policy needs to be updated, since it usually takes a year before an urban farmer can remove debris and repair the land.
City officials are on board with the nonprofits and foundations: They have agreed to identify policies that make land use central to their green economic agenda. Living Cities, the country’s largest city-focused foundation and corporate collaborative, has focused intensely on Cleveland over the past two years and has been instrumental in uniting city, state and philanthropic leaders. Moreover, it provided funding for the city to hire design and policy personnel to identify programs that will translate the ReImagine study into reality. Living Cities has also committed two staffers to lead highlevel strategy sessions with the likes of Chris Warren, Mayor Jackson’s chief of regional development, and Marvin Hayes, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland’s chief of urban policy, to shape policy and support projects such as ReImagine. “We’re looking at 3,000 acres of vacant land, to rethink of it as serious economic development,” says Neil Kleiman, director of policy and research for Living Cities. “But all of this demands moving beyond the silos that the state and city governments have inherited.”
“It starts with a management strategy,” suggests Terry Schwarz, interim director of the Urban Design Collaborative. “We’re stabilizing the city, so when longer-term shifts happen, we’re ready.”
We’re coming up with a way of managing the landscape enough so it looks like an intentional wildlife corridor. It makes the spot where development occurs obvious.”
An implicit challenge in the work of ReImagine is debunking the notion that development always means “growth.” “We’re talking about pushing people together into dense urban nodes,” Schwarz says. “We’re coming up with a way of managing the landscape enough so it looks like an intentional wildlife corridor. It makes the spot where development occurs obvious.”
“We’re going to look at where in the city some of those strategies make sense,” Neighborhood Progress’ Reichtell adds, “and what are catalytic projects — urban agriculture districts or green infrastructure or a greenway network.” Reichtell is perhaps most excited by ReImagine 2.0 as a way to bolster the burgeoning urban agriculture community. Greater Cleveland already has 225 community gardens, two dozen farmers markets, and a well-organized, communitysupported agriculture program called CityFresh, where members at the higher end of a sliding scale help subsidize members who might be using WIC or food stamps to buy fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables. “We have identified several recommendations, including tax structures, for urban agriculture, so that it’s taxed differently than residential,” Reichtell says. “There’s also an issue of water access, and streamlining the land bank to get properties out or in.”
Some worry that urban agriculture and greening alone are not enough to combat the foreclosure crisis. “How do you deal with a city that has changed overnight, where now you have blots on whole areas?” says Chris Warren, Cleveland’s regional development chief. “Not just foreclosed, but hard-to-get-title-to and facing a whole second round of exploitations?”
Warren thinks the answer lies partly with ReImagine, and partly with a cadre of his peers who cut their teeth as community activists in the 1960s and who now hold key positions in city and county governments and at the big nonprofit developers, such as NPI. Warren, Cuyahoga County treasurer Jim Rokakis and Neighborhood Progress’ Frank Ford organized and lobbied a General Assembly — one with a staunch majority in favor of private property rights — to pass legislation in December 2008 establishing Ohio’s first countywide land bank, the Cuyahoga County Land Bank, which formally launched in June of last year. “It’s more than an entity to hold land,” Warren says. “It’s a revenue stream of $9 million a year in local money. The important tactic is we didn’t sit back. We didn’t wait for a sugar daddy to come. We found local resources and tools and imaginative approaches to get control out of the hands of exploitative owners.” Warren hopes to use the County Land Bank’s revenue stream to seed green enterprises that will build on or otherwise reuse the vacant land for higher functions such as agriculture.
There are more stakeholders in vacant land reuse than ever before, and more partnerships: The city plans to forge an alliance with the Evergreen Cooperative, an employee stock owner plan launched by the Cleveland Foundation and Shorebank, to build a commercial greenhouse in an area of the city known as the Forgotten Triangle, a large swath of abandoned land, mostly industrial, on the east side. Warren thinks there’s a way to link into Evergreen’s Ohio Solar Cooperative, which, if all goes according to plan, will ink deals with Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic, who will lease their rooftops and buy back solar energy. “We’re talking with them about solar panels not only on the rooftops of major institutions, but also on fallow land,” Warren says. “Can it be tied to the grid as a source of energy for our municipal-owned utility?”
Gus Frangos, the Cuyahoga County Land Bank’s president, says the bank, imbued with property disposition powers and a permanent revenue stream, plans to acquire 120 properties and demolish 15 structures in 2010. But land use planning isn’t the bank’s strong suit. “We don’t want to be a superplanning agency,” Frangos says. “If it’s catalytic, supports the tax base, if it removes blight and ties into other community investments, we can take these properties efficiently and not be saddled with sheriff’s sales and the disposition side. If you are an investor, I can donate the land and I can be an equity partner. We could do what a private developer can do.”

The test ahead is whether ReImagine 2.0 can produce change at the scale of the whole, to borrow a phrase from Case University’s Fowler Center for Sustainable Value faculty director David Cooperrider.
In the short term, hope rests with the pilot projects, which, if not immediately economically sustainable, are already having other positive effects: As Reichtell puts it, they help “build a sense of community stewardship over vacant land, and give people ideas of what they can do on their street.” She would like to leverage vacant land as a “community organizing tool,” something residents can use to “take control of their neighborhood.”
Ultimately, what separates the ReImagine plan from the hundreds of examples of urban agriculture taking root in America is that it is a multilevel solution with support from everyone from the mayor down to the guy who wants to garden on the vacant property next door. This spectrum, of course, includes the usual suspects of urban agriculture: white twentysomethings with college degrees and a green mindset. Todd Alexander, Matt Pietro and Sarah Sampsell will soon start clearing debris and building raised beds on three properties on Thackeray Avenue in Central, on a block where half of the homes have been demolished. Brimming with hope and living again with their parents — Alexander and Pietro clutching recently earned bachelor’s degrees in sustainability — the three plan to operate their own agriculture business. Over the next five years they plan to build a natural cob toolshed and connect rain barrels to supply irrigation, and experiment with everything from integrative pest management to phytoremediation to a homemade solar panel, made by daisy-chaining soda cans.
But more important, they want to provide a service for the community they’re operating in. “I remember reading about food deserts and realized there’s a need not being met,” Alexander says. “From an entrepreneurial point of view, there’s a huge recognition that this land is an opportunity.” This means forging close partnerships with community members: The three want to reach out to a local school and be part of Central’s growing network of urban farmers, which includes the Garden Boyz and the Hitchcock Center for Women, which just built a hoop house and raised bed gardens just down the road.
“This process is going to be a lot of trial and error, but I see that as a good thing,” Pietro says. “There needs to be movement on this, because if something is not done, it will dwindle away. A year from now I hope we have community involvement and people following this, not just in Cleveland, but from a national perspective.”
This article appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of Next American City magazine. SUBSCRIBE NOW!