Will Urban Gardens Wilt Post-Recession?

Foreclosed-home-turned-garden is a familiar trope in depressed cities across the U.S. Will the trend last when the economy recovers?

Forget white picket fences and tree-lined streets. Bulldozers are the new neighborhood staple in Cleveland, Ohio.

Thanks to the mortgage crisis and the recession, Cuyahoga County overflows with abandoned homes. Not only do these vacant houses cause nearby property values to plummet, they attract thieves in search of vinyl siding, copper pipes, furnaces—whatever innards can be ripped, yanked, or pried loose to be sold for a quick buck.

So county officials developed a creative plan for the homes: destroy them. Cleveland has bulldozed 6,400 homes since 2005, and another 20,000 throughout Cuyahoga County are slated for demolition. But amid the bleak landscape, something more hopeful has been growing: urban gardens.

Cleveland has deployed Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds to replace these bulldozed homes with parks, expanded yards, and, most notably, community and market gardens. These urban farms produce food for local residents and establish a sense of stability during troubled times. While Cleveland always had a land bank to use for community improvement projects, "the accelerated demolition caused us to be more aggressive in looking at innovative ways to use the vacant land,” says Daryl Rush, director of Cleveland’s Department of Community Development.

Foreclosed-home-turned-garden is now a familiar trope in depressed cities across the U.S. After Detroit's auto industry crumbled, the Motor City became America’s poster child for urban decay. Detroit now holds more than 40 square miles of vacant property, an area the size of San Francisco. So the city has grown into a gardening hub, with residents transforming the city’s 33,000 vacant lots into green spaces that produce food and jobs.

Ashley Aatkinson, director of urban agriculture and open space for The Greening of Detroit—an organization that provides resources for city farmers—says her group has seen the number of Detroit urban growers increase dramatically in recent years. “We started to support gardeners in 2003 with 80 gardeners,” Aatkinson says. By 2011, they numbered 1,350.

City gardening is often heralded as a modern solution adopted by crafty urban developers and foodies. But urban gardening during times of economic and political turmoil is as deep-rooted in the American tradition as apple pie. Take the Panic of 1893: The U.S. was caught in a serious economic recession (sound familiar?), unemployed factory workers filled the streets, scant social assistance programs existed, and cities were in full-blown panic mode. Enter “Potato Patch Farms,” an urban gardening initiative that also began in Detroit. Mayor Hazen Pingree’s program connected unemployed families with unused city land and provided them with farming materials and education. More than 1,700 families took advantage of Pingree’s program, and the idea spread to 18 other cities, including Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Seattle—some of the leaders of today’s urban farming boom.

The trend also popped up during the Great Depression, with FDR’s “relief garden” program, a nationwide system of food-producing plots that provided employment and fresh produce to cash-strapped Americans. And urban farming got hip again during World Wars I and II with the rise of “victory gardens.” The National War Garden Commission deployed propaganda and instructional materials urging folks to farm in their yards and vacant plots to fight the enemy with “bread bullets.” During WWII, about 20 million Americans pitched in.

There’s a reason we still view urban gardening as a modern initiative despite its long history: All of these programs ended when economic and political times improved. Like most trends, gardening got old. So when industry returns to Detroit, suburbanites move back to Cleveland, and America fully revives from the recession and mortgage crisis sucker-punch, will the sun set on our city gardens, too?

Perhaps I’m blinded by the glow of fresh kale in such close proximity to my local subway station, but I believe that this time, the urban gardening trend isn’t a trend at all. Gardens finally are becoming ingrained in city culture, just like cabs and skyscrapers and cheap hot dog carts did before them.

This time around, urban gardens aren’t just creating jobs—they’re inspiring them. Some workers are tasked with making sure that urban farming becomes less hobo-chic and more here-to-stay. By distributing educational resources, sharing more than 70 crop varieties, and promoting urban farming’s economic and community-building potential, The Greening of Detroit works to ensure that city gardening isn’t trendy, but timeless. “We’re promoting major, major information and skill-sharing, to the point where Detroiters will be more well-versed in producing food than most of our rural communities in the country,” Aatkinson says.

While Rush admits Cleveland will likely eventually redevelop some gardens and green spaces, he says the city will incorporate long-term farming projects, too. The city is currently establishing a 26-acre urban farming zone and gardening training center. In 2009, it passed legislation that encourages farming within city limits. Urban agriculture is “not just a way to utilize vacant land,” Rush says. “It’s a way to support and augment the food supply to Cleveland residents, which is a part of our sustainability and healthy neighborhood strategy.”

Cities are also pitching in by making street farming street legal. In Detroit, advocates are working to pass a code passed that legalizes urban farming under city zoning laws. San Francisco adopted an urban agriculture ordinance last April, and Chicago just enacted its own legislation in September to support growing in the city. Across the country, large cities and small towns are embracing policies that promote urban gardening, backyard chicken-raising, beekeeping, community and market farms, and other sustainable agriculture initiatives. It’s an exciting time for gardening—and eating.

Unlike urban leaders of yore, city and state officials today aren’t just using urban gardens as a kind of emergency welfare or a distraction from troubled political and economic times. Gardens are evolving into a valued urban resource for everyone from public planners to impoverished urbanites to crafty yuppies. Folks across all socioeconomic classes are recognizing gardening as a way to increase property values, beautify the area, eliminate food deserts, and boost healthy eating. Ten years from now, city gardens may even be more ubiquitous—and appetizing—than the hot dog cart.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user jessicareeder

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