A community farm in Detroit, which has been a leader in green urban renewal.
Gary, Indiana is joining Detroit and other fading U.S. industrial centers in an effort to turn abandoned neighborhoods and factory sites into gardens, parks, and forests. In addition to the environmental benefits, these greening initiatives may help catalyze an economic recovery.
By Winifred Bird
Beaver County Blue via Environment 360 Yale.edu
May 31, 2016 – Depending on how you look at it, Gary, Indiana is facing either the greatest crisis in its 110-year history, or the greatest opportunity. The once-prosperous center of steel production has lost more than half its residents in the past 50 years. Just blocks from city hall, streets are so full of crumbling, burned-out houses and lush weeds that they more closely resemble the nuclear ghost town of Pripyat, near Chernobyl, than Chicago’s glitzy downtown an hour to the northwest. Air, water, and soil pollution are severe.
Yet in the midst of this, Gary has quantities of open space that more prosperous cities can only dream of, and sits on a stretch of lakeshore where plant biodiversity rivals Yellowstone National Park. Now, the big question for Gary, and for dozens of other shrinking cities across the United States’ Rust Belt — which collectively have lost more than a third of their population since the middle of the 20th century — is how to turn this situation to their advantage.
The answer that is beginning to emerge in Gary and other cities of the Rust Belt — which stretches across the upper Northeast through to the Great Lakes and industrial Midwest — is urban greening on a large scale. The idea is to turn scrubby, trash-strewn vacant lots into vegetable gardens, tree farms, stormwater management parks, and pocket prairies that make neighborhoods both more livable and more sustainable.
These types of initiatives have been evolving at the grassroots level for decades in places like Detroit and Buffalo; now, they are starting to attract significant funding from private investors, non-profits, and government agencies, says Eve Pytel, who is director of strategic priorities at the Delta Institute, a Chicago environmental organization active in Gary and several other Rust Belt cities. “There’s a tremendous interest because some of these things are lower cost than traditional development, but at the same time their implementation will actually make the other land more developable," she said.
Or, as Joseph van Dyk, Gary’s director of planning and redevelopment, put it, “If you lived next to a vacant house and now all of a sudden you live next to a forest, you’re in better shape.”
Van Dyk noted that city planning in the U.S. had long been predicated on growth. But, he added, “That’s been turned on its head since the Seventies — Detroit, Cleveland, Youngstown, Flint, Gary have this relatively new problem of, how do you adjust for disinvestment? How do you reallocate your resources and re-plan your cities?”
Detroit, which has at least 20 square miles of abandoned land, has been a leader in envisioning alternative uses for sites that once would have been targeted for conventional redevelopment. The city has 1,400 or more urban farms and community gardens, a tree-planting plan so ambitious the local press says it “could serve as a model for postindustrial cities worldwide,” and $8.9 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to implement green infrastructure projects and install solar panels on other vacant lots.
But while demolition itself has added an estimated
$209 million to the equity of remaining homes in Detroit, Danielle Lewinski, vice president and director of Michigan Initiatives for the Flint-based Center for Community Progress, said hard data on the value of greening projects is more difficult to come by.
“There’s opportunity in Detroit to see an impact in surrounding property values, and therefore people’s interest in that area,” said Lewinski, who has been involved in land-use planning there. “The key, though, is that it needs to be done in a way that is strategic and links to other attributes that would attract a person to move into a neighborhood. My concern is that green reuse, absent a connection to a broader vision, may not be nearly as successful from an economic value standpoint.”
In Gary, the broader vision is to concentrate economic development in a number of “nodes,” each of which would be surrounded by leafy corridors of “re-greened” land. The corridors would separate the nodes, helping to give each neighborhood a more distinct identity, as well as bring residents the benefits of open space and serve as pathways for wildlife moving between existing natural areas. A land-use
plan for preserving Gary’s core green space is already in place, and officials are currently revising the city’s Byzantine zoning regulations to make redevelopment of the nodes easier. Continue reading Hard-Pressed Rust Belt Cities Go Green to Aid Urban Revival