According to a new study just released by Ohio State University, “Can Cities Become Self-Reliant in Food?,” Cleveland and other major cities in the US could produce up to 100 percent of their food needs through urban agriculture. Doing this would save up to $155 million each year, boost employment, and reduce obesity. According to the study, Cleveland has more than 20,000 vacant lots which total about 3,000 acres, as well as 2,900 flat rooftops which could also be used to grow fruits and vegetables. Cleveland is very progressive in terms of urban farming, and Cleveland city planners have made an effort to promote urban gardening in the past five to 10 years.
What potential is there for feeding city residents through urban farms? The Ohio State study analyzed three scenarios for intensive use of currently unused city space for gardening, showing that much of Cleveland’s food needs could be met by reclaiming abandoned city lots and repurposing commercial buildings to grow food. For example, one scenario suggests that 80 percent of all vacant lots could be used for vegetable production, raising chickens, and beekeeping. The study reported that this scenario would meet one-fourth to one-half of the city’s produce needs and one-fourth of the city’s needs for eggs and poultry. A second scenario projected for the city of Cleveland would use all the vacant land from the first scenario, plus 10 percent of residential backyards. With just a bit more land brought under cultivation in this scenario, the study reported that Cleveland residents’ produce demands would be met up to nearly 70 percent of the time, and nearly all poultry and egg needs would be satisfied. One last scenario was explored. This would use all the area of the first and second situations (80 percent of vacant city lots and 10 percent of residential backyards), but would also use repurposed commercial and industrial buildings to grow fruits and vegetables. Here, the Ohio State study reported that at least one-half–and perhaps as much as 100 percent–of Cleveland’s produce needs would be met.
Along with providing the extensive quantities of food necessary to feed Cleveland, there are other benefits projected from expanding urban agriculture in Cleveland. About 10 percent of Cleveland residents have been diagnosed with diabetes, and more than a third are obese. But more people growing fruits and vegetables in the city could change this. Research has shown that urban gardening can improve nutrition, increase property values, and reduce crime. Also, according to Parwinder Grewal, professor of entomology, director of the Center for Urban Environment and Economic Development at Ohio State University and the author of this study, Clevelanders could retain more money in the local economy if more people start new urban gardens in the city. “Cleveland annually spends some $115 million in fresh fruits and vegetables, poultry, eggs, and honey, most of which comes from somewhere else – California, Mexico, South America, even as far away as China and Thailand,” Grewal said. “Our study indicates that the city can prevent economic leakage anywhere from $27 million to $115 million annually by increasing its production of fresh produce, poultry and honey. This could boost the city’s economy and lead to increased job creation.”
I interviewed Mitch Yaciw, co-founder of Unity Gardens, a community garden movement in South Bend, Indiana, about urban gardening and its benefits. He provided further perspective, mentioning that one of the biggest benefits urban gardens offer is a sense of community. Urban gardens “bring neighbors together to work together,” he said. Also, urban gardening helps reduce crime. It can teach young people to pay attention to where their food comes from, since many people have no idea where their food was grown or how it traveled to the stores where it was purchased.
Mitch added that an important step in developing more urban gardens is locating gardens appropriately. For example, Mitch said that Unity Gardens tests the soil for lead before starting a new garden–an important consideration, especially in urban areas. According to Mitch, “you have to add value to the neighborhood” if you’re going to build a garden in a new location, and taking the time to build support for the garden among neighbors is particularly important.
To build on the results of the Ohio State report, I also asked Mitch about some ways to promote the growth of urban farming in cities across the country. Based on his experience organizing a network of urban gardens, he remarked that a city-wide farming project involves laying a lot of groundwork, and building relationships with diverse groups of people to introduce the idea of urban gardening to them. These on-the-ground thoughts shared by Mitch reinforce the results of the Ohio State study and the idea that urban farming has great potential to contribute to the life of our cities.