Abandoned rowhouses, Baltimore. http://www.flickriver.com/photos/tags/northave/interesting/

Walking through East Baltimore’s blocks of abandoned rowhouses and vacant lots, it’s hard to imagine what was. In the 1950s, the city was a thriving port and manufacturing center, the landscape of smokestacks indicating prosperity. In the second half of the twentieth century, Baltimore struggled severely, losing thousands of middle class manufacturing jobs that had once propelled this strong economic engine. When the jobs left, so did people–to the tune of almost 300,000 people since 1970. This incredible loss of population and jobs is laid bare in the built environment, with 17,000 vacant homes and lots across Baltimore. The abandoned homes, in particular, provide a haven for drugs and other illegal activity, exacerbating the pervasive social problems that plague the city.

Much has been written about the East Baltimore Development, Inc. plan to completely reinvent Middle East Baltimore adjacent to Johns Hopkins University’s medical campus; this effort will certainly make inroads on the vacant property problem in Baltimore, but it’s not a solution that will work anywhere else. In my opinion, small, incremental efforts at the neighborhood scale will be key in reducing the number of abandoned homes and lots; I find the most compelling of these strategies to be creating parks, open space, urban farms, and community gardens. This green infrastructure doesn’t just reclaim vacant property; it also offers an opportunity to strengthen connections among residents, to improve the quality of the land and water in the city, to provide Baltimoreans with healthier food options, and to teach technical skills to an underdeveloped workforce.

Harvest, http://cdn0.mattters.com/photos/photos/1081251/salads.jpg

Parks and People is the foremost resource for those who want to create green space in their neighborhoods. They offer a number of tools on their web site, including the comprehensive Guide to Greening Neighborhoods: Creating and Caring for Neighborhood Open Space.  The guide gives detailed, step-by-step instructions on how to plan, design, build, and maintain community space, including technical details about what to plant, advice for organization roles in each step of the process, and instructions for navigating the legal aspects of using the property.

Once a community green space is established, Baltimore Green Space is one of the resources that can help protect the space from redevelopment in perpetuity. The organization is a new land trust that works with communities to preserve the green infrastructure they have built and maintained, even though according to existing zoning the green use might not be the fullest and best use of the land. The land trust approach allows the community to have control over their green space, doing the planting, weeding, and other work, while Baltimore Green Space handles the details like taxes, legal papers, and technical assistance.

The City of Baltimore has begun to show formal support for green infrastructure as a strategy for dealing with their vacant and abandoned property problem. The 2009 Sustainability Plan outlined an effort to modify the city’s zoning code to allow for urban agriculture, increasing the number of gardens, farms, and cultivated green space in the city. Furthermore, the plan calls for incentives for urban agriculture and a strong urban agriculture strategy that can respond to the underserved market for healthy foods in the city.

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.

There was a great story in The New York Times last week about neighbors in Flint, Michigan who transformed vacant lots into a vegetable garden and fruit orchard. And in turn, this garden has inspired them to revive their community.

The article touches upon several themes related to a ‘Shrinking City.’

Loss of manufacturing jobs – Flint suffered the loss of 70,000 jobs at General Motors; presently the city’s unemployment rate is about 25%.

Landbanking – the Genesee County Land Bank acquires foreclosed properties in Flint and throughout the rest of the county, then coordinates the reuse of abandoned buildings and vacant lots. In 2005, the Land Bank gave permission for this garden to be planted.

Returning land to productive use – neighbors removed litter and debris, and cleared the land to make way for the garden. According to the article, “The [garden] is really 10 contiguous lots where a row of houses once stood.”

Sustainability – The garden has improved the food security of this neighborhood by providing fresh, locally grown produce. Those who tend the garden reap the harvest, and they often also give food to neighbors in need. And now, Harry Ryan – who spearheaded the garden effort – is looking to further green the neighborhood by building a power-generating windmill in the garden.

Patchwork of decline and growth – Like many shrinking cities, some areas of Flint are thriving. Downtown Flint – just five miles away – has regained its vitality with several new commercial and residential developments.

All-in-all, it’s a heart-warming story about how a garden is helping to reverse the cycle of decline this neighborhood. The garden has rekindled a sense of community pride; neighbors have since pitched in to mow unkempt lawns and unearth sidewalks, because as one resident put it, “It needs to be done.”

Read the full story here, and also check out the related slide show.