October 20, 2009 | General

Vacant Lots Sprout Urban Farms

BioCycle October 2009, Vol. 50, No. 10, p. 24
Hunger, obesity, lack of access to fresh produce, unemployment and vacant lots – many contaminated and void of organic matter – are driving an exciting urban agriculture movement.
Nora Goldstein

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CLEVELAND, Ohio has approximately 3,300 acres of vacant land within its city limits, and an estimated 15,000 vacant buildings. This includes sites designated as brownfields by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The population of Cleveland has declined from about 506,000 in 1990 to 438,000 in 2007. By 2016, the city’s population is projected to drop to about 387,000 people.
Instead of being overwhelmed by this dismal landscape, there is a visible spirit of determination to revitalize Cleveland, lot by lot, acre by acre. In 2008, Neighborhood Progress, Inc. (NPI), in collaboration with the City of Cleveland and Kent State University’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, convened a 30-member working group to explore strategies for reuse of vacant land with the goal of making Cleveland a cleaner, healthier and economically sound city. The working group’s report, Re-Imagining A More Sustainable Cleveland, was adopted by the Cleveland City Planning Commission in December 2008 (available at
“We focused on parts of the city outside of the Core Development Area to identify ways to derive measurable benefits from vacant properties in these areas,” explains Bobbi Reichtell, Senior Vice-President for Programs at NPI. “The lack of strong market demand and an abundance of vacant land create unprecedented opportunities to improve the city’s green space network and natural systems. Agriculture, green infrastructure and other nontraditional land uses will benefit existing residents and help to attract new residents and development.”
Many strategies reviewed in Re-Imagining A More Sustainable Cleveland relate to restoring soils to support vegetation and assist with storm water management. But the section most relevant to this article discusses how vacant land can yield an economic return via productive landscapes, including agriculture and energy generation. The report includes a map of “food deserts,” places where “fast food restaurants are prevalent and grocery stores are few.” Community gardens, market gardens and urban farms are emerging throughout the city, encouraged by organizations such as City Fresh and the Cleveland Botanic Garden.
As a follow-up to the report, and to solicit proposals for pilot projects to implement strategies identified, NPI held seven public workshops around Cleveland. Over 100 applications for projects related to urban agriculture, storm water management, vacant lot remediation and more, were received. “We are going to fund 52 of them,” says Reichtell, “and are just waiting for the city’s final approval before we can announce them.”
Without a doubt, compost will be one of the running themes throughout most of the initiatives implemented as part of building a more sustainable Cleveland. For example, the Cleveland Botanical Garden has been evaluating seed mixes that can be used to vegetate vacant lots contaminated with lead. “A few years ago, we planted a no-mow commercial seed mix on vacant lots,” says Sandra Albro, Research Manager at the Botanical Garden. “The seed was just thrown right on top of the lots. It was right after houses had been demolished. Three years later, those plots have only about 40 to 60 percent grass coverage and a lot of weeds, including invasive weeds. The recommendation from the grass experts is that the soil needed more organic matter such as compost.”
Compost is also integral to Cleveland’s urban farm and community garden programs. “There is nothing more valuable to farmers, whether they are in the country or the city, than compost,” says Maurice Small of City Fresh, which runs programs to build a more sustainable food system in Northeast Ohio. “This is especially true in the city, where soils are very poorly supported by organic life.”


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines a brownfield as follows: “Brownfields are real property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.” EPA estimates that there are more than 450,000 brownfields in the U.S. Its Brownfield Program, started in 1995, provides grants to support revitalization by funding environmental assessment, cleanup and job training activities. Extensive information about the grants program, case studies, resources and more are on the agency’s website ( brownfields).
Grant proposal guidelines for next year have been posted. “Governmental entities are eligible to apply for all these types of grant funds so we encourage community organizations to work with their local, county, tribal or state government to apply for grants,” says Ann Carroll of EPA’s Office of Brownfields & Land Revitalization in Washington, D.C. Nonprofit, 501(c)(3) community based organizations can apply for cleanup grants on sites they already own but a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment has to be conducted before they acquire the property in order to be eligible. “Right now the conversion of brownfields to community gardens and urban farms is really taking off, especially in the Midwest,” she adds.
A number of cities in Midwest states are indeed launching brownfield redevelopment programs that involve urban farms and community gardens. These “rustbelt” states have experienced significant loss of manufacturing industries, most recently related to the automotive sector. Concurrent with factory closures is job loss, migration of population (leaving deteriorating housing stock) and overall blight. Last February, U.S. Representative Marcy Kaptur from Toledo, Ohio held a summit, “City in a Garden,” to highlight the potential of the Toledo community to address their struggle to feed the increasing number of hungry citizens with growing local food.
“Congresswoman Kaptur pointed out that only two percent of the food consumed by Ohio families is actually grown here,” says Katherine Bibish, a staff assistant in the Toledo office. “New statistics show Toledo as being the eighth poorest city in the U.S. in 2008, with about one-quarter of the population living below the poverty line. There has been a 54 percent increase in demand at food pantries in the last year. From Congresswoman Kaptur’s perspective, the questions are not only how we combat emergency hunger in our community, but how do we capture food power economically. Our potential solution is people growing their own food. In an urban area, we are a cement jungle, so we want to employ more systems and technologies that allow people in urban areas to grow fresh produce and get quality food, and create jobs with these technologies.”
While Toledo is ripe with brownfields, there has not been one overarching plan to coordinate conversion of some of this land to productive use. “There are over 80 community gardens in Toledo,” adds Bibish. “We also have the Center for Innovative Food Technology, which is helping to establish hoop houses to extend the growing season and vertical hydroponic gardens that can be set up on rooftops or parking lots to grow produce. There are all these great little pieces, but not an overarching broad project or vision.”
She notes that the potential surrounding urban agriculture is “transformative” for a city like Toledo. “Five years ago, there would not be this much excitement. Now there is a real potential to make progress to combat hunger, create jobs, have local sources of healthy foods and revitalize the city.”

The Food Project (TFP), based in Lincoln, Massachusetts, has a long history of remediating vacant lots with contaminated soils into urban farms and gardens. The complete story is included in TFP’s Urban Agriculture Manual, which can be downloaded from the organization’s website at no charge ( Briefly, Ward Cheney, TFP’s founder, “was committed to introducing young people and volunteers from the city and suburbs to healthy organic vegetable production … He saw urban agriculture as a way to redeem neglected land in the city, bridge generations and build community, and create a potential source of income for skilled growers.”
Cheney zeroed in on Boston’s Dudley neighborhood, a diverse community with a history of activism and a large base of experienced farmers from the American South, the Caribbean, and Cape Verde, Africa. The neighborhood was designated a brownfields area in the 1980s due to severe lead contamination. Cheney also saw a lack of access to food, i.e., no grocery store within walking distance, and unreliable and indirect public transportation, as well as high use of food stamps, soup kitchens and food pantries. In addition, widespread destruction of houses had followed the redlining of the neighborhood by banks and real estate companies in the 1960s and 1970s, leaving over 1,000 vacant lots.
The Food Project collaborated with the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) to develop an urban farming program. DSNI, a community organization, was founded in the mid 1980s by residents to combat illegal dumping of slaughterhouse refuse and other waste products in their neighborhood. It had the right of eminent domain over all the land within an area designated as the Dudley Triangle. The first farm was located on a half-acre parcel that had been cleaned of debris and weeds. Notes the manual: “During the summer of 1995, Food Project youth and the newly hired grower, Martha Boyd, spent a week in the city spreading 10 truckloads of compost – more than 300 cubic yards – on top of the contaminated land beneath and writing about the potential for creating a farm in the city. By the summer of 1996, lead tests showed that the land was clean enough to grow on.”
Two urban farms were established. Once those had been operating for a couple years, TFP wanted to start working to establish gardens within the community. “The Cape Verdians living in the Dudley Street neighborhood already had gardens, as that is part of their culture,” says Kathleen Banfield, TFP’s Urban Education & Outreach Coordinator. “They grow on whatever land they have. We knew that the soils had a lot of lead based on old housing stock and lead paint, and we wanted to start working with them on how to improve them.”
Experiments were done with phytoremediation on nine home gardens planting mustards and sunflowers. Soil and plant tissue were tested. “We did that for three years, and found that it would take a really long time to get lead out of soils,” says Banfield. “We also tried excavating contaminated soil and replacing it, which was a mixed success.” Adding compost and tilling it in is another option. TFP gives compost away each year to home gardeners at the City of Boston’s Farm Fest, and recommends applying and tilling in 6-inches.
In 2007, TFP launched the raised bed “Build A Garden” program. “We had been doing raised beds for years as an alternative to direct soil planting on contaminated land,” she adds. “For some people, raised beds aren’t good enough because they can’t plant in all the available land. But for many others, raised beds provide people a way to grow their own food.” People pay what they can for a Build A Garden, which is a 4-foot by 8-foot raised bed. Landscape fabric is laid down on the soil. Yard trimmings compost from the city of Boston’s site is added. Gardeners can plant directly in the compost.
Today, TFP farms a total of roughly 2.5 acres in the city of Boston. It is able to harvest over 20,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables each year.


A recently introduced alternative to a traditional raised bed are 2-foot lengths of compost-filled socks that can be laid down directly on cement, asphalt or contaminated soil in vacant lots. The urban agriculture growing system from Filtrexx International uses the same compost sock technology introduced for erosion and sediment control for storm water management. “The socks are filled with half-inch minus yard waste compost,” says Rod Tyler, CEO of Filtrexx, based in Grafton, Ohio. “Gardeners and farms plant right into the sock.”
A pilot urban garden was installed in Cleveland several years ago using 100-foot long compost filled socks. Working with City Fresh, a layer of cardboard was placed over grass that had been planted on a vacant lot. A layer of topsoil was spread on top of the flattened boxes; the socks were laid down on top of the soil and planted. Straw bales were used to frame the garden. “The garden is at a rehab center and we were asked to create a curved shape versus doing only a square,” says Alex Marks of Filtrexx. “We had some extra sock so we laid down a semicircle at the top.”
Working with the 100-foot long sections was “a pain in the neck,” adds Tyler. “We were searching for an answer that anyone could use, and that is when we came up with the idea of a 2-foot length sock. The roots of the plants don’t need more than 8 inches, so we use an 8-inch sock. And the beauty of the system is that if the lot is developed, the socks can be sliced open and the compost spread on the soil, which will assist with remediation.”
City Fresh, The Food Project and other organizations contacted for this article (and to be featured in an upcoming issue) all are working models of how to address social, economic and environmental challenges with farms and community gardens. Each program we interviewed has initiatives related to youth employment, job training, growing and cooking healthy food and enterprise development via market gardens. “We have six urban gardens that youth have started exclusively to sell produce to local restaurants,” says Maurice Small of City Fresh in Ohio.
Around the country, concerted efforts are being made to at least vegetate vacant lots to minimize airborne dust particles potentially containing lead. While planting grass is an option, neighborhood gardens sprouting fruit and vegetables also sprout community pride. “You can get more volunteers to take care of gardens versus grass,” says Tyler.

Editor’s Note: This October issue of BioCycle will be distributed at EPA’s annual Brownfields Conference, to be held November 15-18, 2009 in New Orleans. This special BioCycle report complements a session on Tuesday, November 17th titled, “Brownfields To Urban Gardens: Growing Food, Jobs and Communities.”

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