Councilman introduces first zoning designation for community gardens
by Dustin Brady

(Plain Press, September 2007) Last year, developers removed a thriving community garden on West 117th Street to make room for a new Target store. Since gardeners there did not actually own the land, they had no recourse to protect their garden. Five other community gardens just like the one on West 117th Street have been lost within the last five years alone.

Earlier this year, Ward 13 Councilman Joe Cimperman introduced legislation to give these gardens a layer of protection. On March 5, Cleveland City Council created the nation’s first ever zoning designation for community gardens.

The new Urban Garden District zoning ordinance makes it possible for a parcel of land to be designated as a community garden. Rezoning a garden, however, does not guarantee that it can never be lost. It simply makes replacing a garden a public process, giving neighbors a voice to protect it.

A community garden, as defined in the ordinance, is “an area of land managed and maintained by a group of individuals to grow and harvest food crops and/or non-food, ornamental crops, such as flowers, for personal or group use, consumption, or donation.” The legislation also protects local market gardens where crops are sold for profit. Over 175 community and market gardens exist in Greater Cleveland.

“A city’s most powerful tool is zoning,” said Cimperman. “By zoning these gardens we are preserving them for generations. We’ve already seen a great response because people are realizing that they can plant without having their gardens taken away from them.”

The first four rezoned gardens are all in Ward 13. They are St. Paul’s Patch at West 45th Street and Wales Court, the Garden at Goodrich-Gannnett on Marquette Street south of St. Clair Avenue, Tremont Urban Food System on West 14th Street, and Kentucky Gardens at West 38th Street and Franklin Boulevard.

“I think rezoning the garden is very important,” said Kevin Maguire, garden coordinator at Kentucky Gardens. “I don’t want to wake up someday to find that something has been built on it.” Maguire says that within the last several years, attempts have been made to turn the property into a school bus parking lot and a fire station even though the garden has been standing for over forty years.

Even before Kentucky Gardens was created, efforts to preserve community gardens have been underway. An article written in the Ohio Journal in 1917 says, “Other cities are paying the greatest attention to the matter of vacant lot gardening. So should Columbus. While this subject is up, we should drop down two or three dozen other things and concentrate our attention on vacant lot gardening…If there would be more gardening, there would be more happiness, truer citizenship, less poverty, and less crime.”

The Urban Garden District ordinance is the result of more recent preservation efforts led by three individuals: Julia Barton with the Ohio State University Extension, Kristen Ciofani from the Cleveland Botanical Garden, and Marge Misak with the Cuyahoga Community Land Trust. Cimperman gives these women credit for planning, drafting, and proposing the zoning ordinance.

The first fruit of their labor was the Open Space/Recreation District zoning ordinance passed in 2006. That ordinance, also promoted by Cimperman, made it possible for community gardens to be classified as “open space.”

They did not feel that the ordinance was adequate, however, because it allowed for other things to be built over the garden. “People could build an ice skating rink, a soccer field, even a hot dog stand on the land if they wanted to,” said Julia Barton, program assistant at OSU Extension.

Barton says that the new Community Garden District ordinance is a small step in an important garden preservation process. She feels that preserving community gardens protects neighborhoods. “A majority of our gardeners make under $19,000 a year,” she said. “The gardens give them food security.” Gardeners produce an average of $500 – $1,000 in fruits and vegetables per year.

Barton also cites a study performed by New York University that says community gardens increase the value of property 1000 feet around them. Another recent study suggests that community gardens reduce crime in neighborhoods by 48 percent, and violent crime by 56 percent.

The benefit that most gardeners point out, however, is that community gardens help to bring neighbors together. “Suddenly, a lot of different people have one thing in common,” says Beth Mancuso, garden leader at St. Paul’s Patch. “It’s a positive thing to bring neighbors together instead of something negative like crime.”

(see related photos here)


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