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Study Finds Urban Agriculture in Rust Belt Cities Could Boost Economies

September 6, 2011 |

Cleveland and other ‘post-industrial’ North American cities have the potential to produce all of the fresh produce and other food items they need, and taking steps to realize that goal would bring numerous and substantial benefits, according to research conducted by Ohio State University’s Center for Urban Environment and Economic Development¬†(CUEED).

Aiming to determine just how much food could be produced in Cleveland, Wooster professor of entomology and the director of the CUEED, Parwinder Grewal, worked with the Cleveland City Planning Commission to obtain information on the amount of vacant land and the total rooftop surface area of industrial and commercial buildings. He also searched for published data on the productivity of fruits and vegetables in urban settings.

Like other ‘Rust Belt’ cities, Grewal found that Cleveland has a lot of vacant lots – more than 3,000 acres worth – as well as around 2,900 acres of flat rooftops where greenhouses or hydroponic systems could be installed.

Cleveland already has a progressive attitude, and policies, that support urban agriculture, and the city should further leverage and capitalize on this, Grewal said. “Cleveland is very progressive in urban agriculture, with more than 200 community gardens (about 50 acres) in existence and legislation that allows for beekeeping and the production of small livestock within the city,” he explained.

“While not trivial, current local food production only accounts for 1.7 percent ($1.5 million) of the $89 million Cleveland spends annually on fresh produce, and 0.1 percent of the city’s total food and beverage expenditures. However, the potential for food self-reliance is significantly higher considering available space in the city.”

Grewal proposes three scenarios that would enable Cleveland, as well as other similar cities, to move towards food self-sufficiency.

Scenario 1 would entail using 80% of every vacant lot for growing produce and raising chickens. Beehives would be kept on 15% of the vacant lots. This would result in Clevelanders, of which there are nearly 400,000, producing between 22% and 48% of their fresh produce needs, 25% of poultry and shell egg needs and 100% of their honey.

In Scenario 2, fruit and vegetables would be grown and chickens raised on 9% of the land in vacant lots. The remaining unoccupied lots would be used as described in Scenario 1. Cleveland’s food self-sufficiency would increase to between 31% and 68% in fresh produce, 94% in poultry and eggs, and again meet 100% of the need for honey.

In addition to the land use proposed in the first two scenarios, Scenario 3 would include building greenhouses or hydroponic systems on the city’s industrial and commercial buildings. Cleveland would produce between 46% and 100% of its fresh produce, 94% of poultry and shell eggs, and 100% of honey.

Taking steps down these pathways would also yield other significant benefits, according to Grewal, including boosting the local economy, stimulating job creation, improving eating habits and health, significantly reducing emissions associated with food transportation, sequestering more carbon in soils, reducing utility bills, reducing crime by enhancing the living environment and strengthening communities, and raising property values.

“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. 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,” Grewal said.

“Just like the organic food movement, where it was about five to six years ago, the local food movement is gaining a similar type of momentum right now, and every city has the potential to at least increase its local self-sufficiency and resilience by producing its own food,” Grewal pointed out. “This is something we must move forward to, and the city of Cleveland is positively moving in that direction.”

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