Category Archives: Urban Farming

Repurposing “streets with no name”


In a number of cities, there are certain derelict streets that are nearly denuded of dwellings or businesses. Desolate and forlorn, these streets resemble something out of a post war apocalypse. Detroit may be the poster child du jour of such stark and sad emptiness, but there are many other examples across the Rust Belt and elsewhere. What to do with neglected streets has long been a source of planning discussion and conjecture. In some instances entire abandoned neighborhoods have or are being converted to urban agriculture or community gardens. However, this avid bicycle commuter has another suggestion for a few of these lowly streets without names – repurpose them to active transportation byways.

Quite often bicycle routes consist of abandoned railroad corridors, canal towpaths, or shared lanes in a sea of motor vehicles. I, like many other cyclists, am not necessarily enamored with having to pedal cheek-to-cheek with four-wheeled motorized metal missiles. Seems no matter the efforts to stave off accidents and injury, the metal missiles will always win the contest. The other problem is that there are a finite number of old railroad or canal corridors to choose from, so many populations go un or underserved.

Hence, if a street is already underutilized and virtually desolate, then why not just finish the job? Why not consider purchasing or re-accessing those land uses that have currently sole access to the particular street and then repurpose the entire street into an active transportation byway serving bicyclists, pedestrians, joggers, roller-bladers, Segway users, and others?

In certain instances, “streets with no name” could be converted to mass transit corridors akin to busways. Needless to say, not every desolate street or remnant neighborhood would be appropriate for such a transformation, but I would be willing to bet that in certain cities and in certain locations, there are some excellent opportunities just waiting for foresighted leaders to actively pursue this idea.


Converting an existing street would also seem to be an easier/effective/efficient/economical way to expand a city’s active transportation infrastructure rather than wholly design, acquire, and build a completely new route. Given the extent of economic decline that would precipitate a “street with no name,” it would be hard to imagine any land acquisition costs being a significant impediment. Lastly, necessary public utilities along the byway along the could remain accessible for care, maintenance, and serve the revitalized


The short-term goals of establishing active transportation byways are to:

· enhance the city’s and region’s active transportation resources;

· reduce the city’s and region’s carbon footprint;

· improve overall community health and fitness;

· reinvigorate the sense of place;

· to rebuild community pride; and

· infuse economic energy and cultural vibe.


In the longer-term, the goal of such a repurposing enterprise would be to effectively stymy and then to reverse the decline found along these desolated streets and their adjoining neighborhoods by utilizing active transportation corridors as the conduit.

Am I missing or overlooking something here? Any thoughts or feedback on these ideas would be appreciated.

– Rick Brown

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Filed under architecture, Art, Economic Development, Featured, Good Ideas, Public Transportation, Real Estate, the environment, Urban Farming, Urban Planning

Checking in on the People Populating Lansing Michigan’s Growing Bread Line

It was 4:15 p.m. yesterday afternoon. Snowflakes were drifting down and there was already a line of 50 people waiting outside the North Lansing Police Precinct gymnasium in the February cold for food. Some of them had already been there more than an hour and the distribution was not set to start for another 90 minutes or so.  On this Friday night, we were not celebrating the bright lights of the gridiron, but instead trying to fulfill the basic needs of the less fortunate.

I had the distinct honor of unloading and distributing food items from the Greater Lansing Food Bank (link to annual report) to some of our neediest fellow citizens through their Food Movers program. For four hours, nine of us from my Unitarian Universalist Church covenant group unloaded trucks, set up tables, distributed food, and helped carry the selected items to the customer’s cars. We were among 25+/- volunteers, of all ages, assisting with a number of tasks from registration, to sorting, to distribution. The experience was both uplifting and quite sobering.

Last month, 73 recipients lined up for food on the third Friday evening of January amidst a snowstorm. Last night, more than 120 were lining the walls of the gymnasium to obtain their permitted allotment of food for the month.  At least 120 kind, hardy, and proud souls, each with their own story of why they were there. Foodstuffs were plentiful, but it would not be enough to supply everyone equally. Sorely lacking, were fresh fruits and vegetables. Meanwhile there was enough bread to open a chain of bakeries and more sweets and soft drinks than a nutritionist would likely recommend.

The first recipients whom I assisted were two neighbors who had arrived outside in line at 3:30 p.m. (distributions began at 6:00 pm). They were about fifth in line. A very sweet pair who enjoyed each other’s friendship and company. They were an absolute delight.

The third person I assisted stood in line for over two hours only to be told at the registration station that she did not qualify for receiving food because she had not registered at least 24 hours in advance. Needless to say, she was unhappy but resigned to the fact that she would have to wait until the March distribution.

If I were to have just one suggestion for improving this program, it would be to never, ever let someone leave empty-handed. Have individual bags of basic necessities held off to the side for such situations. Even though it was not my decision, I still felt heartsick, particularly since she had recently lost her home and had been living in a homeless shelter.

The fourth person I assisted was a very kind and proud older man with a big Russian-style winter hat on his head. He reminded me of the quintessential Norman Rockwell image of a caring and loving grandfather. Quiet, reserved, and resolute, he carefully chose each item for placement in his bags and baskets. He too had a arrived with a neighbor – a young man with special needs.

Next was an older woman and  her daughter. As I carried her basket she daintily gathered up the specific items she wanted. While you had the choice of numerous breads, she only took as many as she needed, leaving the balance of her allowed allotment for others with large families, who might need it more.

Lastly, I assisted a tall gentleman who had brought a plastic laundry basket to carry his food items. As he gathered up his goods, particularly canned vegetables and soups, the basket became so heavy that it took both of us to carry it out to his car in the parking lot.

All the people I assisted throughout the evening were grateful for the food, were extremely pleasant and enjoyable to talk with, and were thankful for our assistance and for the bounty of food that had been donated. Those of us who weekly cruise in and out of out neighborhood grocery store with carts full of goodies would do well to be more thankful for and cognizant of our bountiful blessings too.

I would highly recommend anyone with the time to consider volunteering to help distribute food for your local food bank. You will never take grocery shopping, and the bounty that is available to you, for granted ever again.

Rick Brown

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Filed under Uncategorized, Urban Farming, Urban Poverty

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

Chicks in the ‘Hood: Touring Pittsburgh’s Urban Chicken Coops

On Sunday I had the pleasure of touring several of Pittsburgh’s urban chicken coops.

The self-guided tour was the first of its kind in the city. Read more about the tour and its organizers here.

Check out these chicks…

This was from a backyard farm in the Highland Park neighborhood.


The city’s zoning code allows for three chickens per 2,000 square feet, plus one additional chicken for each additional 1,000 square feet, according to event organizers. Roosters are not permitted. Chicken farmers must also apply for a zoning ordinance.

Here’s some of the bounty, from a coop also in the Highland Park neighborhood:

There are other urban chicken farmers in the Squirrel Hill, Spring Hill, Fineview and Mexican War Streets neighborhoods.

Want to know more about raising chickens in your yard? Try,, or


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Filed under Featured, Good Ideas, the environment, Urban Farming

Urban Farms: Bad Idea?

Urban farming in places like Detroit (and elsewhere) has gotten a lot of good press, this blog included.

But the author of this piece, Richard Longworth says we shouldn’t necessarily be praising urban farming, but instead seeing it as a symptom of how far some cities have fallen. (We’ve written about Longworth, and his work at the Chicago Council’s Global Midwest Initiative before.) His suggestion? Better grocery options for central-city neighborhoods, including big box retailers like Wal-Mart.

Reading Longworth’s post reminded me of a speech I heard at last year’s GLUE (Great Lakes Urban Exchange) conference in Cleveland. The speaker, from the Genesee County (Flint) Landbank, said some in the urban planning community mistakenly might assume inner city residents are always enthusiastic about having an urban farm in their neighborhood. This isn’t necessarily true though, she pointed out. Some residents who migrated to Flint (or Detroit or Cleveland or wherever) came from a background of being rural sharecroppers in the South. A sizeable number of folks in the Flint community she dealt with were not enthused about farming in their neighborhoods, they wanted where they lived to feel like a city. 

What do you think?



Filed under Featured, Green Jobs, Real Estate, sprawl, the environment, Urban Farming, Urban Planning

Las Vegas Keeps Building


Above: The party’s not over in Vegas.

Some urban thinkers thought one silver lining of the economic crisis could be a slowdown in unsustainable sprawl, particularly in overbuilt areas of the southwest, like Las Vegas.

But that appears not to be the case at all, according to this New York Times story.

Despite home prices having declined 60 percent in four years, and despite the fact that there are nearly 10,000 empty homes with 5,600 more expected on the market soon, the Times reports, “builders here are putting up 1,100 homes, and they are frantically buying lots for even more.”

The story goes on say, “Some of the boom-era homes, meanwhile, are in developments that feel like ghost towns. And many Americans will always believe the latest model of something is their only option, an attitude builders are doing their utmost to reinforce…’We’re building them because we’re selling them,” a marketing executive with one builder told the paper. ‘Our customers wouldn’t care if there were 50 homes in an established neighborhood of 1980 or 1990 vintage, all foreclosed, empty and for sale at $10,000 less. They want new. And what are we going to do, let someone else build it?’ ”

How much longer can this go on?

Meanwhile, from last week’s Wall Street Journal, Detroit is preparing to tear down 10,000 homes, including Mitt Romney’s childhood home.


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Filed under Economic Development, Featured, regionalism, sprawl, The Housing Crisis, The Media, Urban Farming

Cleveland’s Land Use Metamorphosis

Next American City is carrying a very interesting story about Cleveland’s battle to return vacant land to productive use.

A collection of foundations, government agencies, nonprofit organizations and private citizens are collaborating to return agriculture to the city. What’s unique about Cleveland’s efforts, however, is the level or coordination and the overarching vision for a greener, more cohesive neighborhoods, according to the article.

The process has been dubbed, Reimagining a More Sustainable Cleveland and it has the support of the mayor, the state government and a handfull of well endowed foundations.

“We’re talking about pushing people together into dense urban nodes,” said Terry Schwarz, interim director of the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative. “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.”

Cleveland Urban Farmer Maurice Small owns a small farm in Tremont. Photo via Plain Dealer,

Cleveland Urban Farmer Maurice Small owns a small farm in Tremont. Photo via Plain Dealer,



Filed under Good Ideas, Green Jobs, Headline, Real Estate, The Big Urban Photography Project, Urban Farming, Urban Planning