Trees ready to be planted in the Slavic Village neighborhood. Courtesy Terry Schwarz

In the Rust Belt, vacant urban land could be reused to help shield residents from the effects of a warming world.

Think of places that will be affected by global warming, and coastal cities threatened by rising sea levels and powerful hurricanes (Miami, New Orleans) may first pop to mind. Great Lakes cities, on the other hand, are often projected to be climate change “winners.” Experts predict that within 50 years, people will move inland and north seeking less extreme weather.

But the Great Lakes will still be affected by climate change, just differently. In Cleveland, for instance, temperatures are rising three times faster than the national average—they ticked up 2.4 degrees Fahrenheit from 1956 to 2012, scientists have found. Researchers believe that paved surfaces and a shrinking tree canopy in the former “Forest City” are contributing to the increase.

Rust Belt cities like Cleveland have one feature that newer cities don’t, though: Plenty of urban vacant land. A pilot project, the Cleveland Climate Resilience & Urban Opportunity Plan, is using that space to increase the climate resilience of the city’s neighborhoods. A portion of the multi-pronged project is testing the use of up to 200 empty lots for rain gardens, food gardens, community gathering places, native plants, and wetlands restoration. Other project components include helping residents reduce energy use, and working to strengthen neighborhood social connections.

The project represents a "midrange action at the site, block, neighborhood scale—somewhere between turning off the light switch and saving the polar bears," says Terry Schwarz, director of the Cleveland Urban Design Collective at Kent State University.

The collective is teaming up on the initiative with lead organization Cleveland Neighborhood Progress and three other partners: the City of Cleveland Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, Kent State, and the State University of New York at Buffalo. Schwarz introduced the effort recently at the university’s “From Sandy to Snowvember Symposium,” which focused on practical ways for places as varied as the Rust Belt and New York City to brace for climate change.

An urgent moment

The Cleveland project launched in late 2015, and was granted a total of $760,000 in funding over four years from the Kresge Foundation. After the U.S. presidential election, it’s taken on new urgency, Schwarz says. Most of the new administration’s picks for high-level government posts have expressed doubts about climate change, making the federal government less likely to act in order to mitigate the effects. If the feds step back from their environmental protection goals, it will be up to cities like Cleveland to take action for themselves. “At the neighborhood scale we can feel the impacts and take action in a time span families can understand,” Schwarz says.

The Detroit-based, urban-focused Kresge Foundation awarded funding to projects in 17 American cities as part of its larger Climate Resilience and Urban Opportunity Initiative. The majority of grantees, from L.A. to Seattle to Miami, sit along coasts. But the foundation saw the importance of funding key projects in the middle of the country as well, says Shamar Bibbins, who manages the Kresge program.

“Tackling rising seas on the coasts is critical, but so is addressing extreme heat, intense flooding, and increasingly more frequent and severe storms in the Midwest,” Bibbins says. “When we consider the effects of too much heat and too much water on low-income communities and other vulnerable populations—increased asthma due to bad air quality, increased heat-related deaths, increased economic strains with systemic flooding and stormwater overflows…it’s important that we support work beyond the coasts.”

Those who think flooding or heat-wave worries sound quaint compared to a hurricane should consider Eric Klinenberg’s study, outlined in the book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago. Klinenberg examined a dangerous stretch of July 1995 days when temperatures reached 106 degrees Fahrenheit (and felt like more than 120 degrees with extreme humidity figured in). Two young children suffocated inside a locked vehicle where temperatures reached 190 degrees. Across the city, death rates far exceeded average rates. The city morgue was so overwhelmed that it had to borrow nine refrigerated trucks from a meat-packing company.

Two Chicago neighborhoods, North Lawndale and South Lawndale, faced similar economic situations and identical heat, but North Lawndale’s death rate was 10 times higher. The neighborhood environments—safety levels, resident connections, commercial offerings, and the number of vacant lots—made the difference between the two, Klinenberg concluded. His study made clear that as cities continue to get warmer, landlocked urban enclaves will need to get creative about bracing themselves in order to protect their citizens.

A family in the Slavic Village neighborhood poses with their new tree. (Courtesy Terry Schwarz)

Cleveland’s approach

The Cleveland project designers took Klinenberg’s findings to heart, and they’re testing strategies and sites in four neighborhoods that represent different challenges. Detroit Shoreway is an economically diverse area where gentrification is starting to be mentioned, and Glenville as a center of strong social collaboration. Central-Kinsman is among the city’s most distressed neighborhoods, and Slavic Village was an epicenter of the foreclosure crisis.

In Detroit Shoreway, project leaders are now working to convert an existing green space and collection of vacant lots at the Dudley Triangle into a community gathering place. They’ve drawn out a vision for tree planting, a pocket park, fresh intersection painting, a green alleyway, and outdoor movie space in the area.

In the Slavic Village, projects already include planting evergreen trees at a new highway interchange, and increased vegetation in the neighborhood’s Hyacinth area.

So far 200 or fewer sites out of the city's 30,000 vacant lots are being used as climate buffers. Almost half of those disused properties have been “land-banked” and are now controlled by the city or county.

Schwarz knows that in any cases where a developer wanted to build on a site, city leaders would be likely to choose building; the city has had a goal of building 1,500 new housing units per year, and offers big tax incentives for new construction. But for the moment, losing out on space is not a pressing concern. “The power of new housing development would [almost] always overrule,” she says, “but right now the market’s really weak [in some neighborhoods], so we have room to work.”

The Kresge Foundation hopes the project will inspire others in Cleveland and beyond. “I hope that key decision-makers will take note and incorporate some of the promising practices that emerge from these projects into long-term planning and investments in the region,” Bibbins says.

Smaller-scale efforts are also underway in fellow Rust Belt cities like Detroit and Buffalo. PUSH Buffalo established a Green Development Zone that features community gardens on its immigrant-heavy West Side. The Detroit Climate Action Collaborative has put together a Climate Action Plan that includes reducing stormwater runoff and building cooling centers, arguing that both will reduce the costs of flooding and create jobs. The Cleveland initiative sponsors visited Buffalo and plan to visit Detroit this year to trade ideas.

To scale up the Cleveland Climate Resilience & Urban Opportunity Plan and its use of vacant lots, Schwarz believes in measuring outcomes. For instance, if project leaders measure the volume of stormwater infiltration that one rain garden allows for, they can calculate the volume 1,000 such gardens could handle—and publicly share those high-impact numbers. “If we can get to understand which efforts make real, tangible differences, we can move together toward a real, sustainable future,” she says. “It’s the only way.”

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