Drew Carey has jumped on efforts to help save Cleveland in a big way with a six-episode (10 min each) documentary series called “Reason Saves Cleveland” that aired on Reason.tv in mid-March. First detailing Cleveland’s history of decline, the series then goes into a selection of issues, including: schools, public-private partnerships, redevelopment and how to bring people back. It is a well thought out series and nice to see some celebrity intervention.

Check it out at:


Intro to the series:

“Like all too many American cities, Cleveland seems locked into a death spiral, shedding people, jobs, and dreams like nobody’s business. When it comes to education, business climate, redevelopment, and more, Clevelanders have come to expect the worse. Is a renaissance possible? Of course it is, but only if the city’s leaders and residents are willing to learn from other cities such as Houston, Chicago, Oakland, and Indianapolis. And only if they’re willing to try new approaches to old problems.

Reason.tv’s Nick Gillespie narrates and talks with educators, elected officials, businesspeople, policy experts, and residents from all walks of life. Stay tuned for a documentary series that maps a route back to prosperity and growth not just for Cleveland but for other once-great American cities.”

Great work Drew…and as you would say: Cleveland Rocks! Cleveland Rocks! Cleveland Rocks!…Ohio!…(echo)


The use of ‘blots’, or ‘side lot expansions’, is a technique that gives homeowners with vacant land adjacent to their home the opportunity to purchase that property as an expansion to their own for a nominal cost. Essentially, this concept is an incentive to de-densify neighborhoods. This immediately strikes me as contrary to many smart growth principals, notably that in reducing density it makes transit less feasible and reduces the community attributes of neighborhoods.

Blot in Detroit

Blot in Detroit

The article, “IMPROVE YOUR LOT!” from Cities Growing Smaller, analyzes the growing use of blots in Detroit and shows several photo examples of blots with high, unfriendly fences (like the example above). This privatization of urban space might be contrary to the community-oriented fundamentals of New Urbanism, but not to what they call “New Suburbanism” – a term for “the process through which entrepreneurial homeowners take, borrow, or buy adjacent land.” Their analysis points out the many suburban amenities these blots enable homeowners to develop, including: additions to their homes, garages, pools, playgrounds and gardens.

Diagram of various uses of blots

During a class visit to Cleveland in October, my thoughts on blots quickly began to evolve into something more positive. The density of many neighborhoods in the city, built for mid 20th century industrial workers, no longer suits the city’s needs or many citizens’ ideology.  Cleveland’s metropolitan population statistics tell the tale; the city is shrinking but the region is sprawling (see map below). There are many reasons for this, but one is certainly the quest for more space and privacy…attributes that blots can help supply.

Cleveland Sprawl

Blots, or the New Suburbs, may not be part of smart growth, but they can serve as a valuable tool for “smart decline” as well as a way to combat urban sprawl. Setting aside certain neighborhoods with the best potential for successful density, mixed use and transit as “urban catchment hubs”, other areas can then be set aside for reducing density with the use of blots and other incentives, such as conservation easements, that set aside open space. Additionally, by attracting people seeking suburban values to stay in the city or move closer to urban hubs, this could also work to bring metropolitan growth back in to the city. This could be combined with many existing growth management tools that could be tweaked for shrinking cities, such as growth boundaries, impact fees and TDRs.

Creating a systematic way to use blots in this way is something that land trusts and land banks are already toying with, but perhaps government could take a stronger role. If nothing else, blots remove the burden of maintaining vacant lots and put that land back on the tax roll. Even modest shifts of population back towards the core would lead to many other positive outcomes that shrinking cities would definitely benefit from.

Upon visiting a new city, I love to put on my running shoes and experience the city on foot. When given this opportunity on a recent trip to Cleveland, my instincts led me straight to the city’s Lake Erie waterfront. During my trek through the monumental downtown and past the impressive Brown’s stadium and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I was surprisingly impressed by the city’s design and aesthetics…that is, until I reached the water.

The small nub of accessible waterfront stretches only a short distance and offers little more than a dead end with a sidewalk and barrier. Why is the Cleveland’s waterfront, an asset that most cities seize upon as their defining feature, such an underutilized amenity?

Much of the answer to this is that most of the waterfront is tied up as a port. This necessary outlet for Cleveland’s industrial-based economy is in obvious need of redevelopment, a project that a shrinking city is hesitant to even think about. In October 2009, the Kahr Real Estate group released a report entitled “Cleveland Waterfront Market Demand and Development Options” that reaches many conclusions that the city should be excited to hear.

The outlook of the report was much more optimistic than I expected, proclaiming that: “Cleveland can take on a successful, large-scale waterfront development based on three compelling reasons”:

  1. Cities around the world have successfully undertaken large-scale waterfront redevelopments while facing similar depressed local real estate and economic markets.
  2. Even under conservative assumptions about the future growth potential in the local economy, there is sufficient demand on the Port’s current waterfront site over the coming twenty-years to support development.
  3. A detailed financial analysis of potential development of the site based on results of a demand model reveals positive yields for the Port and other related stakeholders.

I had to ask myself, are they talking about the same Cleveland? Indeed they were. The report details a list of ten successful waterfront redevelopment projects in cities dealt a similar set of cards to Cleveland, including the US cities of Baltimore, NYC, Chicago and Pittsburgh. These projects all reconnected downtowns to waterfronts and catalyzed positive economic change – with repercussions across the city.

Suggested reorganization of Cleveland's port

I was actually able to meet Josh Kahr, of Kahr Real Estate, at the Urban Land Institute’s Fall Meeting in early November where he was a speaker on a discussion panel entitled “Post-industrial can mean regeneration…Especially on the Waterfront.” While the panel acknowledged the significant challenges of similar redevelopment efforts, overall it was a very upbeat presentation. This was especially striking considering the generally somber tone of the conference given the downturn’s stagnant effects on real estate. So, if the ULI thinks post-industrial waterfronts have potential in today’s economic climate – then perhaps Kahr’s report is something Cleveland should seriously consider.

With the commencing of the Copenhagen climate conference this week, it seems appropriate to bring the subject of climate change into the context of shrinking cities. More specifically, looking at potential impacts that could lead to major future geographic shifts in population that could lead to shrinking cities of the future.

The climate change effect that comes to mind in thinking about need for shifting populations is sea level rise. The map to the right shows the a map from the EPA that exposes areas vulnerable to sea level rise on the Gulf Coast, starting at a potential rise of 1.5 meters (~5 feet). Predictions from bodies such as the IPCC and the United State Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) range from 8 inches to 6.5 feet by the end of the century, but consensus is closer to 2-3 feet max. Such projections could, and in the case of New Orleans, already are creating migration patterns out of vulnerable areas. This shift will require planning responses with some parallels to shrinking cities, but more dramatic “busts” of currently booming cities are a greater correlating concern in a hotter and drier US southwest.

The possibility of cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas, who have experienced decades of excessive growth, are now looking at real possibilities of water shortages that could very well lead to their demise. As a 2007 article in Toronto’s The Star, entitled “Could climate change herald mass migration?” suggests:

“At first glance, the crises of the rust belt and the Southwest would seem unrelated. They are, in fact, inexorably linked. Each has what the other does not. In Phoenix, tremendous affluence; in Cleveland, and in Detroit, Toledo, Youngstown, Buffalo, Rochester, Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie, abundant, near-endless water – in the Great Lakes alone, as much as 25 per cent of the world’s supply.”

The article suggests, that an increasingly mobile population that quickly moved to the sun belt might very well be packing their bags to head back to the rust belt! The human need for fresh water is what led to the location of every historic city in history, only in the last 100 years or so have we decided that it was a good idea

to build megapolises in the middle of the desert. I will restrain myself from a lengthy diatribe of unsustainable land use patterns (see photo I recently took flying over Las Vegas) and water use with a lack of concern for the consequences, but the point remains that it may soon come to an end.

Las Vegas sprawling into desert - Future vacant property?

The USGCRP map of the US shows projections of a drier west…could this lead the horse back to water?

More than likely technology will offer solutions, but they will cost. If the true externalities of building golf courses and swimming pools in the desert must be paid, then by the end of the century many cities will be facing the same problems of the Detroits and Clevelands of today. Either way, Toronto is looking at this as a potential opportunity and perhaps other Great Lakes cities should do the same. At the same time, growing cities in the deserts of AZ, TX and CA should be seriously considering how to better adapt to a warmer and drier future.


The topic of community gardens is a great opportunity to link our work on shrinking cities to the capstone work of a fellow classmate in the Virginia Tech MURP program in Blacksburg, Basil Hallberg. He wrote his major paper in May 2009 on urban agriculture, entitled: “Using Community Gardens to Augment Food Security Efforts in Low-Income Communities.”

This is a great accompanying resource for the posts of Lindsay and myself on community gardens. Basil’s paper has more of a focus on health benefits of community gardening and food security that is very interesting. He notes that:

“Thirty-one million Americans live in homes with limited or uncertain access to adequate nutrition (Lawson & Knox, 2002). The same demographic that disproportionably suffers from food insecurity, low income minorities, is also prone to higher rates of diabetes, stroke, asthma, obesity, heart disease, cancer and other chronic health issues.”

He also links the lack of access of people in low-income communities leads to “poor diets which are high in caloric intake but inadequate in nutrients” and therefore connected to obesity and a realm of other health issues. The bulk of the paper is a very comprehensive and thoughtful analysis of urban agriculture and local municipalities role in encouraging and maintaining community gardens. Among a diversity of other issues, he also touches on the benefits of local foods and the empowerment associated with neighborhoods growing their own food.

Basil overviews two case studies, one of which is on the Philadelphia Horticulture Society’s Philadelphia Green program. A city like Cleveland could gain a lot from this program, as Basil summarizes:

“Community gardens clean-up vacant land that would otherwise blight Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. Transforming derelict lots of land into gardens is used as a crime prevention strategy in the city’s neighborhoods. Community gardens help retain and attract residents and business to their locations. Many Philadelphia community gardens are utilized to address food security issues within low-income neighborhoods. Nonetheless, while Philadelphia neighborhoods and communities receive many benefits from community gardens, it is important to recall that they exist as primarily a redevelopment strategy to attain other objectives.”

His emphasis on quantified short-term gains of the Philly Green program that ultimately serve the long-term goals of redevelopment is particularly poignant to shrinking cities.

Should anyone be interested in contacting Basil about his research and expertise in this area let me know and I will connect you!

I recently stumbled across a fantastic plot of community gardens only blocks away from our Old Town Alexandria campus, near the Potomac river along a greenway adjoining the George Washington Bridge. Given it was late November, I was blown away by the green and well-maintained condition of this dense collection of gardens (see images right). Upon asking a busy gardener as to details about the garden, she informed me that the sites were part of a system run by the Department of the Interior that allowed locals to essentially rent out spaces for a minimal fee that covered water supplied. She estimated that 60 different “families” had and maintained spaces within the area (that couldn’t be more than a couple of acres – see aerial image right) and that many more people were on a waiting list. This example was different to what might be applicable to shrinking cities for several reasons, including the demographic difference of being a highly affluent area primarily made up of townhouses, but such a template is adaptable to almost any urban community (including Cleveland) to accomplish a multitude of benefits.

Community gardens’ benefits to the health and well being of local neighborhoods, as well as to the natural environment, are diverse and are well outlined in Lindsay’s two posts about Flint. This example brought a couple of additional benefits into light that would be pertinent to a shrinking city, well planned community gardens are able to:

  1. Create a way to use public green space that is self-maintained, taking away the concern of community development groups of who will maintain, or pay to maintain, public parks.
  2. A sought-after community garden like the one in Old Town Alexandria offers a goal for the education-focused gardens in places like Slavic Village in Cleveland to aspire to. Once community members have the skills and drive to garden for themselves, local benefits amplify.
  3. A great way to protect property vulnerable to flooding. This is a great justification of gardens in the floodplain where often the soil is better, slopes are more flat and alternative uses are limited.

Strategic placement of these gardens is essential to ensure they serve areas with the most need and potential demand. I think that Lindsay’s suggestion of orchards is a great expansion that could easily be incorporated into such a template. It is also critical to choose areas that serve multiple benefits, more specifically the environmental benefit of protecting the flood plain. This benefit (#3 above) ties into the greater goals of  Reimagining Cleveland and addresses greater regional goals that extend to addressing climate change that I will touch on in later posts. This is yet another example of how creative use of vacant or underutilized property in shrinking cities can serve as a template for cities more universally and vice versa.

I have not yet been able to link to expand on the details of these projects by the Dept of Interior, but will be sure to share it if I do. A very similar local example to check out is Baltimore’s “City Farms” program, began in 1978 that now offers 640 plots for urban gardeners.