Over the past ten years I have been on a bit of a mission, a crusader for reducing monoculture lawn, eliminating pesticides, decreasing landscape water usage and restoring native habitat. My focus has been directed at the typical urban and suburban “occupied” property. I work with homeowners to help them understand important ecosystem services that native plants provide such as support of the food chain, habitat, carbon sequestration, pollination, water filtration, erosion control and increased wildlife. I have happily found clients very receptive to changing previous notions about what constitutes a productive, beautiful landscape. Planting wide expanses of non-native turf lawns and alien plants are being rethought in terms of their lack of valuable ecosystem services.
All well and good for lots that are being maintained, but what about unoccupied, derelict, abandoned or foreclosed properties? This is becoming a burgeoning problem in the Rust Belt, large cities and areas like South Florida where housing values have plummeted leaving homeowners upside down on mortgages. Folks are just walking away, leaving a once maintained property to be occupied by weeds and litter.
I hadn’t really given much thought to this issue until MJ Aagerstoun called after reading my book, Urban and Suburban Meadows. MJ is a member of Northwood GREENlife, a grass-roots environmental action organization serving West Palm Beach’s North End communities. The group is currently partnering with several like-minded groups to dramatically increase the tree canopy in a forty five-block corridor that spans six neighborhoods. Trees will be planted in swales and public easements. In addition, Northwood GREENlife would like to move their city “toward a policy of encouraging planting wildflower meadows on privately owned derelict lots.”
The first hurdles for the organization to leap are changing prohibitive weed laws. MJ found a perfect resource at the Wild Ones website for a model ordinance and a model amending ordinance.
What I find so exciting about Northwood GREENlife’s efforts is the grassroots aspect, neighbors and communities coming together to bring beauty and ecosystem service benefits to blighted areas. I thought I might just visit and talk to groups in other cities to see how they are taking lemons and making lemonade.
My first visit was to Wilmington, DE where Steve Castorani, owner of North Creek Nursery, introduced me to Lenny Wilson. Lenny is the Assistant Director of Horticulture and Facilities for the Delaware Center for Horticulture. DCH has been working at the grassroots level to organize, educate and help implement community gardens on vacant lots and plant sustainable landscapes in public rights of way since 1977. Lenny explained the DCH leadership role as “knitting together the community by partnering with as many supporters as possible to make a successful project.”
In addition to helping to convert at least 50 vacant lots to vegetable gardens, the center works in neighborhoods developing demonstration projects to manage storm water with rain gardens and planting median strips and pocket parks with native plants. One DCH successful partnership was a reclamation project along the CSX rail line corridor and overpasses that run through Wilmington. Partnering with corporations, residents, fire and police companies, invasive plants were removed and the area was revived with native plants and is maintained using sustainable practices.
Next stop, Cleveland, Ohio where 20,000+ vacant lots have been added to Cleveland’s land bank. Abandoned lots need to be cleaned up and mowed. The cost of this maintenance to the city has a price tag in the millions. The city welcomes positive solutions. One of several non-profit organizations working on solutions and taking advantage of these lemons-to-lemonade opportunities is The Naturehood Project. Naturehood is working in depressed areas on native plant education, helping on site preparation, design and installation of native wildlife gardens. As part of the Cleveland land bank, lots improved through city efforts and by groups such as Naturehood can be sold to developers. In many affected cities, this is the goal, improve lots and attract developers. However, this is a slow process and in the meantime these gardens are providing important wildlife corridors and neighborhood enhancement.
Cleveland urban garden organizers pointed me to the extensive work on lot reclamation in Youngstown, Ohio. Loss of an industrial base and, in turn, high unemployment has exploded the abandoned, derelict lot crisis. The Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation is a multifaceted neighborhood development organization partnering with the city of Youngstown to bring about targeted neighborhood revitalization. Liberty Merrill, program coordinator explains, “The key to YNDC’s approach is that it is comprehensive. We were able to work with the city to target demolitions and get permission to begin greening work on tax delinquent land, work with another organization to clear title to the properties, and work with Mill Creek Metroparks to ensure that the land would be owned and managed into the future – in this way we know our investment in the neighborhood will have as much impact as possible.” YNDC developed the Lots of Green Program that “provides a new way of viewing vacant land as an opportunity to create productive and maintained spaces and economic opportunities for residents.” Funded by block grants, in 2010 alone, 115 parcels were returned to productive use, which included community gardens, pocket parks, storm water mitigation sites, expansion of park land, a soil research site and wildlife gardens.
In Wisconsin, Green Bay alderman and alternative education teacher Ned Dorff and his students, have installed the largest prairie garden in the city limits at Franklin Middle School. Now, with a small group of volunteers, he is tackling converting a privately owned abandoned lot in downtown Green Bay to a prairie garden.
Waukegan, IL, located on the shores of Lake Michigan, is fortunate to have GreenTOWN Waukegan, Inc, whose mission is to reclaim the town’s historic green heritage. Project coordinator Nada Finn says, “The city of Waukegan has about 200 vacant lots which they are willing to let us use until they are sold or our economy turns around.” GreenTOWN Waukegan and residents converted four adjacent, downtown lots, about half an acre, to a demonstration garden. The area is planted in vegetable and native prairie gardens. The organization’s “current goal is to partner with schools, churches, social groups, civic organizations, and city government to create a network of neighborhood gardens, providing sacred spaces for communing with nature and plots for growing fruits and vegetables.”
Lessons are being learned. Whereas funds are available through city block grants and private donations to establish community or sustainable wildlife gardens, the follow-up maintenance is often unfunded. The task falls to neighborhood residents and volunteers. Youngstown has partnered with the county Mill Creek Metroparks to keep up reclaimed land not being preserved by residents or neighborhood groups. Program organizers are also finding wildlife gardens gain broader acceptance when grasses and wildflowers are under four feet tall and the area is encircled by fencing, split rail seems to be commonly used, or set off by a border, such as mowed grass.
All these efforts, large and small, are making an exciting difference and positively impacting urban blight. Productive, beautiful spaces are being created and, in the process, strong, sustainable neighborhoods are on the rise.
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