Urban Ag as a Change Agent in Cleveland: A Photo Essay

Urban gardening in the Rust Belt needs to be scaled up, as the era of cheap food is not: supply costs, health care costs, subsidy costs, etc. Moreover, the new economy is again becoming a localized, “handshake” economy, with ingenuity and partnerships within the sphere of a city creating for a web of social capital that can itself be consumed before being churned out. To that end, the old model has been one based on consumption and exhaust. This waste has led to our post-industrial ruin. Our future must be consuming to regenerate, as social capital begets social capital, and local growth begets local growth.

Imagine then: a city needing to eat. A city growing food to feed itself. A mom employed by a local food industry who comes home to cook fresh food for her child. A mentally/physically healthy child, then, adding to the quality of a society by being, well, healthy. It sounds so easy, so rational, so hopeful, and so possible (as you will see from the pictures below)…

And—at least in theory—quite economically promising. Specifically, Ohio State University just completed an economic feasibility study for Cleveland’s local food movement. They found that increased urban food production on Cleveland’s 3,000 vacant parcels would add $29 to $115 million to the local economy via preventing leakage (the large variance occurs due to three scenarios posed). As well, if Clevelanders can move from their 1.8% local food consumption up to 25% then the creation of local jobs would be massive, estimated at 28,000.

Now the rub, as the above scenario concentrates the paradox that is Rust Belt vacancy, since abandonment not only affords opportunity but represents a physical legacy that has held us back. Elaborating, there is doubt that urban gardening can be scaled up. These doubts are real, but they also arise out of a Rust Belt society that has gotten used to doubting itself. What’s more, it is a pessimism tied to the landscape we live with—empty factories and homes, plots of weeds and dirt. But this works both ways, which means a slow but real reworking of our landscape from a so-called death to a literal life can begin to foster the faith that is needed in any societal transformation.

Below are images that have already helped begin the changing. They are from Cleveland’s Botanical Garden Green Corps program: a job readiness program for youth that utilizes the local food movement as the lesson. These are some serious urban farms with full-time employees, acres plotted. It represents a smattering of what Cleveland is becoming: a leader in America’s local food movement.

And yes, this is all in the inner city. This is the future if we are careful to grow from the past.

–By Richey Piiparinen

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Filed under Featured, Urban Farming

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