Scarred by foreclosures, a city turns vacant land into a natural resource
Courtesy of Sharon Glaspie
The foreclosure crisis hit Cleveland, which already ranked among the five poorest large cities in the nation in 2008, particularly hard. The city registered about 14,700 home foreclosure filings from 2007 to 2008, meaning that the equivalent of a city neighborhood went bust every month, The Columbus Dispatch calculated. Cleveland has responded by pouring tens of millions of dollars in Neighborhood Stabilization Program grants into demolitions—1,400 of the most blighted homes are slated to come down in 2010. There are 3,300 acres of vacant land, just over 6 percent of Cleveland’s total acreage, and the city expects the glut of land to continue before it can be stabilized.
At the same time, Cleveland is recognizing that its vacant land is not a source of shame, but a resource to tap. It 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. At the top levels, the mayor and other city officials have agreed to identify policies that make land use central to their green economic agenda.
The great organizing force is a study called “ReImagining a More Sustainable Cleveland.” ReImagining kicked off in 2008 with discussions among city officials, soil and water technicians, and environmental organizations, aiming to carve out 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 ReImagining study.