CNU CITY SPOTLIGHT: Cleveland’s Agricultural Form

This post is part of a new series on the CNU Salons, CITY SPOTLIGHT. City Spotlight shines a light on the latest news, developments and initiatives occurring in cities and towns where CNU members live and work.

The below post is a City Spotlight on the nascent urban agriculture movement afoot in Cleveland, OH, and comes courtesy via CNU mainstay Bruce Donnelly.

Cleveland is enthusiastically developing prominent urban farms. Perhaps it is time to decide how prominent they should be.

Under Cleveland’s three-year-old Sustainable Cleveland 2019 project, Cleveland needs the public’s help to meet sustainable food goals, including a 100-mile farm-to-fork goal of 25% by 2030. In order to reach its goals, the City has to popularize food production. The more recently developed projects, then, use urban design to catch the eye.

Developing enthusiasm is part of Cleveland’s funding process. The City of Cleveland and the major nonprofit funders (the Gund Foundation and the Cleveland Foundation) want to make sure that the incentives and money they give will catalyze self-supporting projects, so they need to enlist the strong infrastructure of local community development corporations, or CDCs. For example, two years ago, the USDA, the Ohio Department of Agriculture, the City of Cleveland, and Ohio State University partnered on an Urban Agriculture Incubator Pilot Project(pdf) which is designed to demonstrate a path to urban agriculture. The project is a model for making urban agriculture a way of life, so it isn’t just a practical project on a piece of land. It has to help people reimagine Cleveland as a community of gardens. It has to be visible.

A small example is “The Vineyards at Chateau Hough.” It grows 300 vines at the intersection of East 66th and Hough Avenue. Hough Avenue is the beloved flashpoint of the 1966 Hough Riots. East 66th Street is an access route to the soon-to-be restored and redeveloped League Park, which was the home of the Negro American League’s Cleveland Buckeyes. There may be no more strategically located corner to remind residents that they have the power to rebuild their city. Yet, the street remains undefined spatially.

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Green City Growers' $17 million, 3½-acre greenhouse, is rotated to the street grid, possibly in an attempt at jauntiness. It is at the intersection of a major radial (Kinsman Road), a major north-south street, and a shortcut to an expressway. It is also very close to the planned Opportunity Corridor to University Circle. It is so prominent that the site’s enormous cost of its brownfield site may be justified by advertising alone.

Farther out on Kinsman, the Urban Agriculture Innovation Zone is a 26-acre Urban incubator Pilot Project by Burten, Bell, Carr Development Inc., with the African-American-owned Rid-All Green Partnership.(pdf) It will be an integrated agricultural complex—with small leased farms, greenhouses, and tilapia—located on an important, populated corridor. The zone is in a neighborhood that is almost completely rebuilding its housing and institutions. It locates a nodule of hope exactly where it is needed most. On the other hand, it is located just south of railroad tracks that isolate a truly forgotten section of Cleveland fabric. If the idea had been to reuse land that had no other realistic use, then the area to the north would have been more appropriate. It is a showcase, though. It will include both a farmer’s market along Kinsman and a training center, patterned after Will Allen’s Growing Power, Inc.

On the other side of the city, the Ohio City Farm is located further from a main route, but perhaps nearly so, since its farm stand faces a parking lot for the West Side Market and West 25th Street shops. The small farm occupies the site of a 2002 Charter Awards winner, the Riverview HOPE VI Housing project. The farm probably represents the highest use of the land, since anything heavy on the unstable land would slide into the Cuyahoga River.

Ohio City Farm

Ohio City Farm

Another greenhouse project, Community Greenhouse Partners’ on Superior Avenue, is well defined by tall trees on the Superior side. Unfortunately, it edges into the neighborhood fabric at East 67th Street and Edna Avenue, in front of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club. That corner is thoroughly undefined physically. Moreover, it is immediately adjacent to Superior Avenue, which is a very important, transit-served route.

There are urban agriculture projects that are more retiring. One illustrates the need to make gardens somewhat prominent. The 93-year-old Ben Franklin Garden is fully integrated into its neighborhood. Unlike the Urban Agriculture Innovation Zone, it is located 1/8th of a mile from the nearest major street, so it doesn’t eat into its pedestrian shed dramatically. It bounded by a school, the backs of houses, and on only one side by street trees. The garden has been quietly successful for nearly a century—to the point of obscurity. Few people on the street two blocks seem to know what it is.

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There are also functional initiatives that can work either for or against coherent urbanism. There are 25 new community supported agriculture (“CSA”) programs.1 The “Gardening for Greenbacks” program provides grants as incentives to grow and use local produce. Cleveland also amended the zoning for agriculture. The City’s “Chickens and bees” ordinance predated Sustainable Cleveland 2019 by a year. Two separate amendments also allow agriculture as a principal use in residential areas(pdf) and create an “Urban Garden” zoning district.(pdf) The residential zoning provides important protections for urban agriculture (including the right to sell food from stands). The new district allows community gardens to be permanent, rather than just an interim use until the land is redeveloped for its “highest and best use.” It has significant tax consequences. The city has a dozen farmers’ markets, and it has had farmers’ markets and public markets for its entire existence. These do not necessarily require a permanent location, and can be easily integrated into neighborhood settings.

If the city and the funders insist they follow the principles of good urbanism, these tools can be used to support neighborhoods. Fortunately, the City Planning Commission is aware of the problem. The 2020 Citywide Plan takes these issues of connectivity and land use into account. Yet, its eight ideas for vacant land reuse (pdf) sends a mixed message. On one hand, it prioritizes certain livable nodes for "stabilization"* (pg 7) rather than demolition, but on the other, one of its criteria for selecting locations for urban agriculture is land "Within 1/4 mile of transit lines."**(pg 12) As Christopher Weber has observed in Grist, urban farms get so big, both in size and in aggregate that they can dilute the communities they are meant to serve. As New Urbanists, we know of course that things change, and it's entirely possible that land near transit could be re-zoned back to higher-density use.

On one hand, simple principles may support good urban form: “don’t eat into pedestrian sheds,” “shape the street space,” and so on. On the other hand, we need to let urban agriculture advertise itself. Even when it takes hold, it requires either farmers’ markets or visibility to attract CSA subscriptions. And there are other models to use. Some of these are found in New Urbanist publications,2 and some are commonsense. Cleveland is fertile ground for both.

1CSAs are a new way to fund agriculture, using methods such as subscriptions to support it rather than ordinary market sales.
2e.g., Duany, A., & Company, D. P.-Z. &. (2011). Garden Cities: Theory & Practice of Agrarian Urbanism. The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment.


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