Urban Agriculture in Rust Belt Cities

June 5, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Farmers with Refugee Response tend to one of their market garden plots. The farmers come from Burma, Bhutan, Somalia, Liberia, Rwanda, and Burundi. Many of them have farming backgrounds which makes the work at Ohio City Farm a good introduction to life in Cleveland.

In Brief

In many Great Lakes “rust belt” cities, urban agriculture has emerged as a productive reuse of vacant land resultant from economic decline, population loss, and home foreclosures. The benefits of urban agriculture include health and well-being, neighborhood cohesion, local economic development, and improvement of environmental services. However, uncertainty exists about the long-term role of urban agriculture in this region. In this essay, we evaluate whether urban agriculture is a transitional land use strategy or an emergent trend toward a more long-term presence of farming in cities. Our assessment moves beyond a traditional cost-benefit analysis to integrate ecological, social, and cultural values. We call for a wider envisioning of what constitutes a productive environment and argue that urban agriculture based in citizen initiative and collaboration forms an integral part of a sustainable city. We offer Cleveland as a model that can inform the development of durable urban agriculture initiatives in other deindustrialized cities.

Key Concepts

  • Urban agriculture is often considered a transitional land use in cities, but closer investigation of the history of urban design and farming suggests that it is historically durable.
  • Agriculture offers a range of non-monetary benefits that can enhance quality of life and support cultural food traditions for diverse urban communities.
  • Ecological benefits include pollution removal, biodiversity enhancement, and stormwater mitigation.
  • Urban agriculture can be economically viable−especially if all the direct and indirect monetary and non-market values are considered in planning and decision making processes.
  • Policy should support both grassroots farming initiatives and institutional programs.

From backyard homesteading and community gardening to market farming, urban communities across the United States have witnessed a recent surge of agricultural activity that contributes to more dynamic cities where cohesive neighborhoods, innovative entrepreneurship, and a healthy environment can coexist. Rust belt cities like Cleveland, Detroit, Youngstown, and Milwaukee share a history of deindustrialization that led to job loss and economic decline. Additionally, freeway construction and exclusionary zoning policies attracted higher-income residents to the suburbs. Depopulation and poverty concentration in urban cores led grocery stores to close, creating zones described as “food deserts”– areas without full-service grocers that tend to be dominated by fast food restaurants, corner stores, and gas stations.1 Lack of access to fresh, affordable, culturally appropriate foods creates increased risk for obesity, diabetes, malnutrition, and heart disease — risks borne disproportionately by communities of color.2

What long-term role can urban agriculture play in the emergence of healthier and more resilient cities? Does urban agriculture offer a “holding strategy” until vacant land can be more profitably redeveloped or does it contribute value to a city beyond increased tax base? We find that agriculture provides a durable feature of urban environments by fostering diverse community collaborations, connections to cultural food traditions, employment, ecological services, and renewed civic activity. In Cleveland, urban agriculture has proven durable during both boom and bust periods, adapting to address a range of needs regardless of population size or economic output.

Social and Cultural Durability

20th century skyscrapers shape the downtown Cleveland skyline on the shore of Lake Erie. Moving west, the topography traces the history of 19th century industrial optimism as it dips to the Cuyahoga River valley, where blast furnaces from a steel mill spill particulates into the air. The Ohio City Farm (OCF), a six-acre inholding on the reviving west side, looks over this vista towards the 21st century. Independent, albeit interlocking enterprises on the farm demonstrate how urban centers can foster collaboration, leading to increasingly sophisticated forms of urban food production. The farm supports five agricultural enterprises that offer a range of benefits to the neighborhood, including employment, skill-building, high quality produce, and opportunities for community gathering. Cleveland Crops employs adults with developmental disabilities. Area residents purchase shares in the Central Roots Community Supported Agriculture program. The Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) Green Team combines gardening and nutrition education for public housing residents. The Refugee Empowerment Agricultural Program (REAP) hires recent refugees to Cleveland who walk produce deliveries to the Great Lakes Brewing Company, a restaurant and micro-brewery located one block from the farm. The brewery purchases a “business share” in the farm at the beginning of the growing season and, as a part of a zero-waste initiative, contributes spent grain from its brewery as a soil amendment.

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Photo credit: Ohio City Incorporated, 2010. Near the heart of downtown Cleveland, the Ohio City Farm provides a unique mix of green space, entrepreneurial training, and nutrition education. The farm demonstrates the diverse collaborations that can contribute to farming in the city.

The farm is managed by Ohio City Incorporated (OCI) in collaboration with the CMHA, which owns the land.3 OCI oversees the development of site infrastructure (fencing, water access, storage, and compost) and facilitates collaboration between the farm enterprises, including a roadside stand where farmers pool their produce and share management responsibilities. Once a month, the farmers work together to sell food at discounted rates at Riverview Towers, the senior public housing complex that shares the property. The farm connects with OCI’s broader effort to establish a market district in the Ohio City neighborhood that combines the farm, the West Side Market (a public market founded in 1840), and a mix of restaurants that emphasize local food purchasing.4 Overall, OCF exemplifies how creative collaboration can contribute to more inclusive urban agriculture in deindustrialized cities.

Watch a short film about the Ohio City Farm


The REAP farm fosters stronger cultural food traditions, where recent immigrants utilize knowledge and skills gained as farmers in their countries of origin. Currently, REAP farmers originate from Bhutan, Burundi, and Liberia. The farmers share experiences of escaping war and conflict, living in refugee camps, and building new lives in the U.S. With the same resilience, these farmers adapt their experiential knowledge to the unique climate of northern Ohio. As farmer Kanon Doebo explains: “Here, there is a blessing in one way. Everyone here, we all served as farmers before at home.” His country of origin, Liberia, is “very poor,” and many farm for subsistence. In Liberia, farming requires intensive human labor: “Everything by hand […] you bend down, you plant it in the ashes. Fine! The ashes will serve as fertilizer for you […] that’s how we do it in Liberia.” Kanon describes his transition to the OCF: “We are blessed […] to see the other foods like beet, spinach, and radishes, strawberry, leek, and scallions, and [. . .] swiss chard [. . .] summer squash, winter squash [. . .] the one we like best is the butternut.”5 Veronica, a farmer from Burundi, expressed similar enthusiasm for the work: “So, so much I like it, this farm.” Kanon notes how visitors are impressed by this diverse group of farmers working together “with no fussing.”

While the REAP farm has had many successes, current farm manager Maggie Fitzpatrick notes a number of challenges common to recently established urban farms, such as streamlining ordering and product reliability. In the short term, REAP plans to add additional high tunnels and a succession program where farmers provide more continuity by assuming management and training responsibilities over time. Longer-term plans being considered include an “ethnic foods” CSA and value-added products created by REAP farmers. Overall, urban farming demands a process of continuous evaluation and reinvention that can combine to inspire innovative new programs. As Fitzpatrick observes, “you have to be willing to re-invent yourself every two or three years.”6

REAP, like similar programs in many cities, offers a place for immigrant farmers to make connections to their new communities,7 supporting a neighborhood-based economy while increasing the base of local agricultural knowledge.8 Sean Belt, a past farm manager for REAP, notes a common mistake in community work when professionals “see ourselves as the superior teachers or helpers […] we don’t see ourselves as in need of information or wisdom or knowledge or in need of help” and therefore “we often miss the fact that […] [the farmers] have just as much to give us as we have to give them.”9 Sean experienced this role reversal when he asked the farmers to clear summer squash to make way for new plantings and observed the farmers arranging small leaves and stems from the plants into bundles. The farmers explained to Sean that the leaves (like the more familiar squash blossoms) are edible. The next year, the farmers offered the leaves for sale at their roadside market stand, providing a unique product valued by other members of the community, especially other immigrants. As a result, Sean notes, “we are growing more and more varieties each year.” The farmers, drawing on their agricultural and culinary knowledge, inspire crop diversification while enhancing local food offerings.

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Photo credit: Brad Masi. The six acre Ohio City Farm sits on a buff above the Cuyahoga River, overlooking downtown Cleveland. The farm includes four enterprises, including the Refugee Response market farm pictured here.

Cleveland’s rich food culture can trace its origins to waves of migration into the city. Adjacent to OCF, the West Side Market includes butchers displaying Eastern European sausages, ham hocks, and halal lamb; bakers offer cannoli, pierogi, and fresh tortillas. This culinary diversity reflects a wealth of knowledge that is essential to the ongoing health of the food system. Ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan argues for the importance of cultural food traditions for “the health of our bodies, communities, and habitats.”10 Foodways can be destabilized by migration, assimilation, and the dominance of the industrial food system.11 Urban farming programs such as REAP increase access to culturally appropriate foods, creating new markets not served by mainstream grocery stores or even farmers’ markets. These farming and food traditions hold knowledge central to the creation of self-reliant community food systems. Agrarian philosopher Wendell Berry has written about the value of local knowledge to farming.12 While local knowledge is most often associated with long-term inhabitation of more rural or ‘natural’ places, Jason Corburn has described the ways that communities in Western urban contexts produce knowledge that is essential to creating healthier and more sustainable environments.13 Rust belt cities like Cleveland are home to diverse communities, including long-established African American neighborhoods and immigrant populations;14 Robert Gottlieb and Anupama Joshi observe that immigrant gardeners and farmers are “the most rapidly growing group of food growers in the United States.”15 Making land available to communities with farming traditions broadens that knowledge base, making urban agriculture more resilient and adaptable as well as more democratic and inclusive.

Political Durability

Despite its multiple contributions to urban communities, shifting demands on land present a challenge for urban farms, mostly through threat of displacement when land is targeted for development. OCF is able to locate itself in the densely populated West Side because its land is not suitable for building,16 but other sites have faced development pressure.17 In 2006, a community garden was razed by developers to make way for a Target Store on West 117th Street, a fate affecting community gardens in cities throughout the country.18 Gottlieb and Joshi note that while urban agriculture thrives during economic downturns, gardens are “vulnerable to real estate speculation and new development scenarios.”19

Recent zoning changes in Cleveland signal a commitment to integrating agriculture into the long-term fabric of the city. The Cleveland and Cuyahoga County Food Policy Coalition (CCC-FPC) represents a network of grassroots organizations, agencies, businesses, and residents whose work helped Cleveland become one of the first major cities in America to adopt “garden zoning.”20 This ordinance enables individual parcels to be zoned for agriculture, including both community gardens and market farms. While zoning can always be changed, it does require a public process and provides greater recourse for communities to preserve these sites. This structures greater procedural democracy into decision making about land use in the city.21 Overcoming residential fears of noise and odors from urban livestock, the CCC-FPC worked with Councilman Joe Climperman to introduce legislation to allow chicken and bees on residential lots within city limits.22 The ordinance was passed in February 2009 after “intense debate”23 and was reauthorized in March 2010.24

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Photo credit: Brad Masi. Recent immigrants to Cleveland tend to the fields of the Refugee Response market garden as part of a training program. Produce is harvested and then delivered by foot a block away to the Great Lakes Brewery and Flying Fig, two locavore restaurants in Ohio City.

Other institutional or policy changes reflect the broader acceptance of urban agriculture in Cleveland. The recently formed Cuyahoga County Land Bank Authority holds foreclosed properties, providing an important new tool for accessing land.25 The ReImagining Cleveland initiative of Neighborhood Progress Inc. and the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative provided assistance and financing for over 50 neighborhood agriculture and “greening” projects, many of which utilized land-bank land.26 The Gardening for Greenbacks program of the City of Cleveland Economic Development Department provides start-up capital for residents that want to develop market gardens, facilitating both economic opportunity and improved healthy food access in the city.

These policy changes emerged through collaborations between city council members with an active grassroots network of community and market gardeners who filled council hearings to keep these topics high on the agenda. Community benefits include closer neighborhood ties, reduced crime, education, and healthy food access for lower-income residents. Individual benefits include improved diet and physical activity, cognitive and mental health benefits, and decreased stress.27 It is precisely these benefits that have drawn people to farming in Cleveland not just today, but throughout history.

Historical Durability

Planners today often consider urban agriculture a temporary solution to keep vacant land productive until redevelopment can occur.28 However, many visionaries have pushed for urban designs that directly or indirectly integrate farming. In a critique of 19th century industrial cities, Ebenezer Howard presented an alternate vision of future cities that included vegetables and fruit gardens “by individuals or by small groups of individuals having a common belief in the efficacy and value of certain dressings, methods of culture, or artificial and natural surroundings.”29 Howard’s concern that early industrial cities were not built for people or nature was echoed by other urbanists, including Lewis Mumford. A writer, not a professional architect or city planner, Mumford is arguably one of the greatest influences in 20th century city planning. He criticized the dominant urban environment as “a narrow byproduct of the machine ideology” and called for the development of “a more organic world picture which shall do justice to all the dimensions of living organisms and human personalities.”30

In the 60s and 70s, Ian McHarg and Jane Jacobs articulated a vision of an urban landscape rooted in ecological and social relationships. MacHarg’s integrated nature into city planning, while Jacobs opposed modernist redevelopment in favor of mixed-use, diversified landscapes. MacHarg described the farmer as “the country’s best landscape gardener” and emphasized the importance of protecting rich urban soils.31 Jane Jacobs argued that cities actually preceded agriculture, beginning as more dense settlements that encouraged trade and a more rapid exchange of seeds, materials, and technologies that enabled agriculture to improve and spread.32 The modern notion of urban agriculture as a transitional land use remains an artifact of the industrial, automobile-dependent American city: “urban agriculture [. . .] has actually been the norm since the dawn of farming 10,000 years ago. Celebrated as innovators, the market gardeners of today’s Milwaukee, Detroit, and Baltimore are actually restoring age-old traditions. It is the gardenless city—metropolises like Las Vegas or Phoenix that import the bulk of their food from outside their boundaries—that is novel and experimental.”33

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Photo credit: Brad Masi. A converted shipping container provides a farm stand at the entry-way to the Ohio City Farm. Three of the farms run the stand cooperatively, selling food to residents and visitors to the nearby West Side Market.

In Cleveland, a historical counter-movement to industrialization has embraced urban agriculture as a way to humanize an otherwise degrading industrial environment. In 1907, the Home Gardening Association began encouraging gardening to beautify and reduce the harshness of industrial landscapes and to improve fitness and health.34 Urban agriculture also addressed particular crises, such as the work relief gardens that provided food relief to the 25 percent of unemployed city residents during the Great Depression and the growth of victory gardens during World War II.35 Cleveland had one of the most active school gardening programs in the country from 1910 to about 1977. By the 1950s, all Cleveland public school students maintained garden plots as a way to learn natural science and responsible citizenship.36 In addition to schools, Cleveland supported a thriving commercial greenhouse industry with more than 220 acres of greenhouse production during much of the 20th century.37

The 1970s was a period of upheaval: budget deficits forced the discontinuation of school gardening programs38 and the greenhouse industry collapsed as a result of high energy costs and a flood of cheap food imports.39 However, a new wave of urban agriculture rose in the form of community gardening in the late 1970s. The City of Cleveland initiated the Summer Sprout program, which provides land, seeds, and training for residents to grow their own food and stretch limited budgets.40 According to Ohio State University, 56 combined acres of community gardens occupy about 2 percent of the vacant land area in Cuyahoga County and generate an estimated value of $2.6 – 3 million worth of food annually today.41

In 2005, OSU Extension adapted its community gardening curriculum to include business planning and marketing, supporting the growth of a new wave of urban market gardeners.42 Since 2005, 175 urban gardeners have received training and have gone on to start 57 market-garden operations.43 Since the city did not allow vacant land to be used to generate revenue, this early crop of market gardeners began leasing from private owners, obtaining access to under-used school properties, or cultivating their own properties. Beginning in 2009, urban agriculture evolved into more elaborate community partnerships that addressed vacant land issues, economic opportunity, and healthy food access. Many of these projects utilized land made available by city or county land banks, which includes market farming in its mix of economic re-use strategies.44 This recent enthusiasm for urban farming highlights values recognized throughout the city’s history: aesthetics, community, education, income, and food security.

Can cities feed themselves?

Along with the national resurgence of urban agriculture in the past decade, greater consideration is being given for the potential for food self-reliance−producing food within city limits to meet the needs of urban populations. Several recent studies have compared the potential for food self-reliance in cities like Cleveland and Detroit (which have high vacant land inventories) with Toronto, which has a much denser urban population.

Cleveland: Ohio State University researchers Sharanbir and Parwinder Grewal conducted a study to determine if Cleveland could achieve self-reliance in the provision of several key foods. In this city of ~400,000, there are more than 18,000 vacant lots, or about 3,500 acres of vacant land. The study focused on foods suited to urban production: vegetables, fruits, chickens, and honey. The study concludes that if 78 percent of available vacant land, 7.2 percent of every occupied residential parcel, and industrial or commercial rooftops were utilized, Cleveland could provide 46-100 percent of produce, 94 percent of poultry and eggs, and 100 percent of honey. This assumes preservation of produce for winter months and six chickens per city parcel as stipulated by the city’s zoning legislation. The authors also estimate that “enhanced food self-reliance would result in $29 million to $115 million being retained in Cleveland.”34

Detroit: A study by Kathryn Colasanti and Michael Hamm looks at the capacity for self-reliance in fruits and vegetables in Detroit, a city of 835, 000 residents and 44, 000 vacant properties. Their study compared actual consumption levels to the recommended daily intake of fruits and vegetables. It also considered scenarios for storage and season extension and intensity of production methods (conventional row crops versus bio-intensive). They conclude that about 76 percent of vegetables and 42 percent of fruits could be supplied year-round on ~2,000 acres of land using bio-intensive methods.35

Toronto: Unlike Cleveland or Detroit, Toronto is a densely populated city of 2.5 million residents that does not have a high inventory of vacant land. Rod MacRae and colleagues examined whether 10 percent of fresh vegetable requirements for Toronto residents could be met within the city, considering organic production without season extension or bio-intensive methods. Their study concludes that the 5,725 acres needed to meet this demand could be met through utilization of about 2,652 acres from land protected for farming or natural heritage as a part of a greenbelt north of the city and a 25 percent utilization of roof tops suitable for production.36

These studies all indicate that land and resources exist within cities to achieve varying degrees of food self-reliance. They focus mostly on fruits and vegetables with limited consideration for chickens. However, supplying staple foods (grains, beans) and meat or dairy from larger livestock will continue to require connections to a broader region with rural land for food production. Additionally, the scale of urban agriculture that can actually be durable in the long run will also depend on economic and political factors. Thus, self-reliance probably makes more sense at the regional or multi-regional scale, although cities can play an important role in increasing the availability of fresh, healthy, and culturally appropriate foods to urban residents, urban agriculture also contributes to other social and ecological benefits while contributing towards broader regional food self-reliance.

Economic and Ecological Durability

The emergence of market gardening in Cleveland has elevated its potential for job creation or economic development. On the east side of Cleveland, the Burten, Bell, and Carr Community Development Corporation has been instrumental in creating an Urban Agriculture Innovation Zone, a 28 acre patchwork of vacant properties being utilized to support urban food enterprises in an area known as The Forgotten Triangle. The zone includes the 1.5 acre Rid-All Green Partnership, founded by Damien Forshe, Keymah Durden, and Randy McShepard, who grew up in the neighborhood. Rid-All is a regional training center supported by Will Allen’s Growing Power operation in Milwaukee. The farm produces vegetables, tilapia, and compost. In addition, Ohio State University Extension received a Beginning Farmer grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish a six acre urban farming incubator in which gardeners are given plots of land to initiate small urban farming enterprises.48 Food raised in the zone serves local markets, including the Bridgeport Café, which offers healthy food and a training kitchen to encourage cooking and value-added food production. In this same neighborhood, the worker-owned Green City Growers Cooperative, a five acre hydroponic lettuce production facility, projects eventual year-round employment for 35 workers from the surrounding neighborhood.

Urban agriculture also provides indirect economic benefits, including increases in property values. A pilot study conducted by researchers at the Cleveland Botanical Garden and Oberlin College combined literature review, field study, and quantitative analysis to estimate benefits associated with urban agriculture in Cleveland. A total of 55 urban agriculture operations were randomly surveyed from a list of 241 community gardens and 31 market gardens. Economic and ecological analyses including benefit transfers from other studies were used to estimate physical and economic benefits of urban agriculture. The results indicated that converting vacant land to urban agriculture in Cleveland generates a total economic benefit of about $42,000/acre annually and four full-time-equivalent seasonal jobs.49 In addition, hedonic price approach – a method widely used for assessing economic impact of environmental amenities – was carried out through spatial analysis and multiple regressions to determine whether urban agriculture has an impact on neighborhood property values. The findings suggest that homes within 400 meters of a garden see an average 3 percent increase in property values in the Cleveland area.50

Ecologically, urban agriculture provides a range of benefits, including stormwater mitigation, reductions in air pollution and carbon emissions, and restoration of degraded ecosystems. Smart Growth strategies emphasize the importance of creating green corridors to augment biodiversity and improve ecological connectivity in cities. These spaces mitigate stormwater impacts by reducing impervious surfaces and absorbing water in organic soils. Other ecological amenities include reduced urban heat islands, preservation of heirloom varieties and locally adapted seeds, increased biodiversity, and composting of food waste. Field surveys in Cleveland revealed notable increases in birds and wildlife around gardens, indicating increased habitat for urban wildlife or migrating birds.

Urban agriculture also presents a potential climate change mitigation strategy. The distance from farm to table is minimized with many urban farms marketing directly to restaurants or farmers’ markets in their immediate neighborhood. This reduces carbon emissions resulting from food shipped in from outside of the city. Further, as food prices continue to climb globally and increased drought, flooding, and severe weather disrupt global food production, urban agriculture can provide an increasingly cost effective way to safeguard local food supplies.


In this article, we explored Cleveland as a case study to ask whether or not urban agriculture can be considered durable. That is, whether it is a short-term response to an immediate vacant land crisis, or alternatively, if it has staying power and can contribute to creating a more resilient city. We identified the following four criteria that can be used to assess the durability of urban agriculture:

• Social and Cultural Durability: Does it offer opportunities for participation by diverse communities as both producers and consumers?

• Political Durability: Is there collaboration between grassroots community initiatives and institutional policy makers to create a supportive environment for urban agriculture?

• Historical Durability: What historical forms of agriculture have taken place within a city, and what can be learned from earlier expressions of urban agriculture?

• Economic and Ecological durability: Can urban agriculture pass the test of sustained economic feasibility−providing value that can measure up against alternative land uses under different economic circumstances? What valuable ecological services (such as stormwater mitigation or climate change adaptation) does it provide?

The Cleveland case study reveals key features of urban agriculture as a durable component of a green city development strategy to address the problems of deindustrialized cities:

• vacant lands and devalued urban properties;
• decline of retail grocers and healthy food options;
• economic underdevelopment and population loss;
• and urban design that lacks green spaces, biodiversity corridors, provisions for recreational activities, venues for social interactions, and opportunities for cultural practices.

The following solutions can address these problems and create a foundation for building more durable urban communities across the Great Lakes and beyond:

• Food Democracy: A durable urban agriculture cannot be cultivated without the participation and mutual support of multiple communities and neighborhoods. In other words, a durable urban food movement is not solely a privilege of the wealthy or a social intervention for lower-income communities.

• Grassroots Entrepreneurship: In a durable and resilient system, power and authority are dispersed throughout the community, and there are a number of entry points for the practice of urban agriculture available to residents. Projects remain in the long-term control of neighborhoods.

• Supporting Government: Local government can recognize the broader benefits and facilitate the spread and continuation of urban agriculture through enabling land-use policies and transparent processes for access to necessary elements such as land, funding, and zoning.

• Beyond Just Market Values: Urban agriculture can create jobs or economic opportunity, but it also creates non-market benefits such as improved nutrition, more cohesive communities, and essential ecological services.


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Tags: building resilient food systems, food policy councils, urban agriculture