June 16, 2009

A Powerful Way to Re-Imagine Cleveland

I love this! I wouldn't call it making lemonade when life gives you lemons. I would call it just plain smart.

I'm referring to the Re-Imagining a More Sustainable Cleveland grant program, a strategic use of scale-appropriate grants to tap into community ingenuity and creativity to move an idea into action. The Re-Imagining grant program is one way that a group of creative thinkers in Cleveland is using to make sure that a strategic plan doesn't sit on a shelf.

An article on the EcoWatch Ohio website does a good job of giving some background.
Cleveland has the same footprint as it did when it supported a population of 950,000 residents in 1950. Cleveland’s population is now half that size, which has resulted in approximately 3,300 acres of vacant land—with an additional 120 acres of vacant land created each year from demolitions of condemned houses.

With intentions of writing a new future for Cleveland, Neighborhood Progress, Kent State University’s Urban Design Center, key city departments, and many other collaborators undertook a year-long planning initiative to find progressive strategies for sustainable reuses of vacant land to benefit residents, neighborhoods and the environment. The study and its recommendations—Reimagining a More Sustainable Cleveland—were recently adopted by the Cleveland City Planning Commission. A demonstration phase to test the ideas and measure their impacts is being developed with funding provided by the city and local foundations. Pilot projects will include urban agriculture, planting of native species, phyto-remediation for soil restoration and lead containment, rain gardens, off-street parking with permeable paving, bioswales and more. The plan and a pattern book with resource information is available to community groups and individuals interested in developing projects on vacant land.
Bottom line is that City of Cleveland residents, community organizations, non-profits and small businesses are being invited to bring their ideas, passion, resourcefulness, connections, know-how, and "love of place" to the table as to transform what would be seen as a liability (vacant lots, shrinking population) into a community asset. Grants of $10,000 - $20,000 will be available, matched on a 50% basis with in-kind contributions, cash or labor. The Re-Imagining Cleveland pattern book will provide guidance and inspiration to potential applicants.

What a great idea! I hear so often of well-conceived and executed community engagement efforts that make it to the development of a plan and then run out of gas. This could have easily been one of those. Instead, city government and local foundations, using the dual bottom-line - product AND process - that is so central to grassroots grantmaking, are inviting the community into the process as co-creators and implementers. What a powerful statement. Instead of just asking you what you think, we are now investing in you to make this happen!

And it gets better. When I look at the process that is outlined, I see so many of the core ingredients of good grassroots grantmaking processes:
  • A clear, straight-forward, reasonable-to-complete application
  • A clear statement about what is expected, when and how funding will be available, and how decisions will be made.
  • Careful attention to the pre-application period, with 6 pre-application workshops
  • Availability of technical assistance that is designed to help the project team succeed rather than whipping them into shape
  • An open invitation to "other than 501(c)(3)'s" to apply.
I can't wait to see what projects come forth. As my good friend and colleague Mike Green says, "when you ask residents to brainstorm about how to promote reading in their community, they are more likely to come up with something that ISN'T a literacy program." My hunch is that the same thing will happen here. There may be one of every type of project that is included in the pattern book or in the examples of possible projects that the application lists, but I bet there will be at least one "who would have thought of that" type of wonderful project that exceeds every one's expectations.

Great job, Cleveland. You're not only Re-Imagining the vacant spaces in Cleveland, with this process, you're Re-Imagining the role of citizens. Love it!


  1. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



  2. Interesting blog. Cleveland has a great opportunity to use it's vacant space wisely. Demolition work on vacant houses will need to use lead containment practices to safely avoid lead contamination. Walkways and pedestrian paths and bike paths should be planned to get people out of their cars too. http://buildsitepro.com/home.asp