New roots on Lake Erie: Local food systems are urban planning tool

CLEVELAND — Foreclosed homes, vacant properties and homes that are no longer fit to live in number by the thousand in Ohio’s most populous county — Cuyahoga County.

On Dec. 2, before an audience of researchers and scientists at Ohio State University’s Ecological Landscaping Conference for sustainable cities, Cuyahoga County Treasurer Rim Rokakis said he expects the county will see about 13,000 foreclosures by year’s end.

Record foreclosures

That’s a few less than the 13,500 private mortgage foreclosures of 2006, the end of a six-year period when the county led the nation in foreclosures.

But even though it’s out of the top now, Rokakis said the situation is much worse than it seems, because thousands of property owners are delinquent, only banks have opted to delay foreclosures.

“It you look at those files this year and add the delinquencies, we’re actually about 40 percent worse than in 2006,” the treasurer concluded.

Land tool

But Rokakis is confident the county has at least one tool in its favor that could help improve houses and communities — a county-based land bank.

In December of 2008, the Ohio General Assembly approved a Senate bill to give the county authority to take ownership of foreclosed property and use it for the best interests of the county.

“If we do not come proactive and assert ourselves into this now-toxic mix, then things will not get better, and only worse,” Rokakis said.

Cleveland’s population has dropped by more than 50 percent over the last 50 years, and Rokakis said there are now about 30,000 vacant properties.

All foreclosures failing to pay property taxes will become property of the land bank, which will use its revenue to pay the delinquencies and re-market the properties. Properties that are beyond repair will be demolished, with new plans made for vacant land.

Restoring community

But where something is being “torn down,” something in its place is being built.

A host of researchers from OSU, and also Kent State University and Cleveland State University, spoke about land planning tools, including new landscaping and community gardens.

Cleveland is home to about 200 community gardens — plots of vacant land where a community grows its own produce, often with cooperation from neighbors.

OSU professor Thomas Blaine helped lead a survey of the socio-economic factors pertaining to community gardening. More than 120 gardeners responded to his 23-question survey, which helped his team of researchers determine that 58 percent of respondents were female, the average age of gardener was 55, average hours worked were 10, more than 50 percent earned less than $40,000 annually, and more than 50 percent walked to the gardens, as opposed to driving.

Conceptually, Blaine was able to conclude that community gardens bring people together from a wide range of incomes and age groups, participation promotes long-lasting life changes, and participants consume more vegetables.

Pictures shown by Blaine and other researchers showed people of various ages and ethnicity working together, improving their neighborhoods through gardening.

Next generation

“This local food system is re-emerging and it’s re-emerging through our children,” said Greg Boulos, a regional director with the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture.

Community supported food production “empowers people, it gives them hope and creativity,” he said. “It lets them express their humanness.”

The urban landscaping conference was a three-day event, held at Hilton Garden Inn along Carnegie Avenue. Many of the presenters traveled from the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, in Wooster, Ohio.

“The reason we do (the conference) here is the environmental movement that you have,” said Parwinder Grewal, chairman of OSU’s Center for Urban Environment and Development. “There is a huge potential for moving forward on some of the ideas that were discussed.”

Treasurer Rokakis said Cleveland’s troubles won’t go away fast, but predicts positive strides over the next several years.

“We have this giant canvas on which we get to paint,” he said, calling the efforts “something we really can turn into a plus for Cleveland and Northeast Ohio.”

About the Author

Chris Kick lives in Wooster, Ohio. An American FFA Degree recipient, he holds a bachelor’s in creative writing from Ashland University. He spends his free time on his grandparents’ farms in Wayne and Holmes counties. More Stories by Chris Kick

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