Gardens and Playgrounds and Dog Parks—Oh My!: Expanding How We Define “Good Use”

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About a month ago I helped distribute fliers to residents around the vacant lots in the Caledonia area to inform them of a Committee of the Whole meeting. At that meeting, the three development teams who responded to the city’s RFP/RFQ presented their proposals for Phase 1 of the Neighborhood Redevelopment Program, followed by questions from members of Council.

As I walked these neighborhoods, I saw lots of porches with toys and heard children’s voices in many of the homes I passed by. I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be nice if just one of these lots, instead of a new home, had a playground on it instead?” And I saw homes with beautifully tended gardens in front and thought, “I bet there are people here who would love to have more space to garden.” 

As I passed by the empty lots the city is making available to developers to build new homes, I wondered, “What would happen if, on each of the streets with empty lots, we offered ONE to each neighborhood?”

The Logistics of Community Ownership of Vacant Lots

Of course, the surrounding neighborhood(s) would need a way to take possession of the lot, such as a neighborhood organization that would have its own legal entity. But the city or a local nonprofit could help them create that. Or it could be given to a Community Improvement Corporation with the express direction that it become a space for neighborhood place-making and community empowerment. Or these neighborhood community lots could be put in a community land trust. There are lots of options for how to do this. We would just need to find what works best for each neighborhood.

Moreover, it’s true that there would be costs for the neighborhood to make it into something they want—depending on what they collectively decide, such as a playground, park benches and tables, a veranda, a community garden, an art installation, a dog park, and so on. However, any and all of these kinds of improvements would cost less than building a new home. Some neighborhoods may be able to raise funds themselves, some might need to apply for grants (again, the city or a local nonprofit could help with that), or some might need a combination of the two. All of this is doable.

And, finally, the neighborhood would need to do some self-organizing to collectively figure out what they would want to do with the space, how they would want to make it happen, and how they plan to manage it in the long term. A good way to begin this process is to identify the neighborhoods’ natural leaders (e.g., the people everyone knows, the ones who look out for everyone) and reach out to them to start the conversation. If we had a Neighborhood Council in place, this could help facilitate and streamline this process.

The most important part is that IF and HOW a vacant lot is given to a neighborhood to create a community space, the process must be led and driven by the people in the neighborhood itself. Community empowerment must be one of the primary goals of this project.

Redefining “Good Use”

For too long, we have succumbed to the narrow view that, in urban and suburban spaces, vacant land is not being put to “good use.” Our government officials and developers tell us that we need to build, build, build on it, lest it be, well, useless. 

But if we actually take a look at our goals for our city, and then we look at what the data tells us about creating and maintaining green spaces that are improved, maintained, and beautified by our local communities—a different story emerges.

We want higher property values.  We want to grow our local businesses. We want less crime and to feel safe. We want to lower poverty and increase economic opportunity in low- and moderate-income areas. We want more community engagement. We want better physical and mental health. We want to ease the storm runoff burden from our inadequate sewer system. 

Green community spaces are a low-cost way to work toward all of these goals. That’s a good use of these spaces.

While some may argue that it’s better to build new homes in every vacant lot so we can increase our tax revenue, one study demonstrated that the presence of a community garden raises surrounding property values on average about 10% within the first five years, that the increases continue over time, and that the positive  impacts are even greater in lower-income neighborhoods. They go on to state that:

“a simple cost-benefit analysis suggests that the gain in tax revenue generated by community gardens in the 1,000-foot ring may be substantial.”

Even better, one such project in Philadelphia saw surrounding property values jump up 20%!

Creating the City Our Residents—and Potential Residents—Want

In a recent NextDoor post, a Cleveland Heights resident floated the idea of a dog park here, and wow, it got a lot of supportive responses. This is no surprise, as I see people walking their dogs all over the city—we have A LOT of dogs here. I spoke with the person who made the post, and we briefly discussed options for how it could happen. Personally, as a dog owner, I would LOVE to have a nearby, high-quality dog park.

Creating a dog park—finding the right location, getting the funding and community support to create and maintain it—is definitely possible. There are dog parks all over the country, so of course it can be done here too. 

The major obstacle, as I see it, is a city government resistant to making sites available for these kinds of community uses. 

So, on the one hand, we have:

  • community members begging for more community green spaces
  • engaged citizens wanting our city to protect, maintain, and expand our green spaces
  • studies showing the myriad benefits of community-led green spaces, including lowering crime; raising property values and, thus, public revenues; lowering poverty and increasing local economic growth; increasing mental and physical health; and more

On the other hand, we have:

  • a slowly declining population, as more and more people don’t see our city as a place they want to live in
  • an economic development department that seems stuck in a build-build-build mindset, regardless of wider community goals and residents’ quality of life
  • a goal of increasing home ownership for our residents, while our current docket of new building developments will create more rental properties than homes for sale

Essentially, this all comes back to inclusion. Our residents are not included in our city’s decision-making processes—not the original concepting, not the design, sometimes not even the final details. We are informed of plans at the end stages of development, after most of the major decisions have been made, at which time we raise our voices and beg for something else. And then we are treated like we are being nit-picky, like we are short-sighted obstacles to progress, like we don’t understand what’s best for us.

Cleveland Heights residents want a city government that represents us. Without inclusion—without listening to, empowering, and trusting our residents—our local government will continue to make decisions that don’t align with what our local community wants. And as long as that is happening, our population (and tax base) will continue to decline.

I want our local government to change its processes for decision making so that community voices are meaningfully included early and often. I want to redefine “good use” and expand how we think about what makes our city strong. And I want our city to be a place where we can all really LIVE, not just reside.