The Not-So-Secret Gardens of Saginaw

On November 12, 2019, U.S. News and World Report covered the story of one local Saginaw, Michigan group’s effort to tackle urban abandonment through greening and community gardens. Here is what our own, Joseph Schilling had to say about it. Full article can be read here

The broad movement known as urban greening has accelerated in recent years, argues Joe Schilling, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, in part because cities that began declining in the mid-20th century are finally coming to terms with the difficult implications of a reduced population.

“There’s a natural inclination of, ‘Oh, we’ll be able to use that land and build on it for future businesses or future homes,'” he says. “So there was more of this reality check – that these cities are not going to be experiencing any time soon an increase in population or development in a number of neighborhoods.”

Schilling points to Cleveland, which lost nearly two-thirds of its population between 1950 and 2010, as an urban greening pioneer: In 2008, the city’s planning commission approved “Re-imagining a More Sustainable Cleveland,” a sweeping policy package, designed to both address environmental concerns and boost quality of life measures, that called for the redevelopment of the city’s 20,000 vacant lots into new farms, parks and community gardens.

Dozens of cities have since begun their own initiatives. In 2013, Detroit, which recently had more than 90,000 vacant lots – an area the size of Manhattan – unveiled a new city blueprint built largely around vacant land transformation. Buffalo, New York, has studied whether its empty space can be used as green infrastructure that helps filter stormwater, while Milwaukee has been transforming its vacant lots into “pocket parks.” Even Atlanta’s acclaimed new BeltLine, a 22-mile loop of urban trails, lies in place of an abandoned railway.

“Each city is looking through the proverbial tool kit” to determine what types of projects may be most locally suitable, says Schilling. Conservancies could represent a new strategy. “They’re a new player on the scene, which is great. I think that’s how the field is evolving.”