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Cleveland tests new ways to revitalize empty lots
Rain gardens could provide a natural and beautiful solution to drainage issues

Rain gardens, such as this one at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee campus, could provide a visually-pleasing solution to rain water problems in Cleveland.
Courtesy of Aaron Volkening
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Vacant lots are a big problem for cities like Cleveland that have lost a lot of their population. That has got people tinkering with ways to do something meaningful with the space, such as plant an urban farm or create a neighborhood park. But those options take money, time and maintenance.

Now researchers in Cleveland are testing a way to help revitalize an area and improve storm-water management without breaking the bank.


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The city of Cleveland has 20,000 vacant lots. One used to be an abandoned building, flanked by houses in the city’s Slavic Village neighborhood. In its place, Sandra Albro, a researcher with the Cleveland Botanical Garden, and her team are installing a rain garden amid rumbling Bobcats, bags of mulch and plenty of mud. Galoshes are in short supply.

Situated on a slope, at the base of the site is a big, bean-shaped indentation in the soil that will soon be planted with thirsty, native grasses.

“What we’re hoping to accomplish with these beans, our little rain gardens, is to just slow the water down and capture it long enough to let it infiltrate into the soil,” Albro says.

Green and cheap
These “beans” are part of an EPA-funded research study looking at lower-cost, lower-maintenance ways to transform vacant land while benefiting communities and the environment. In the environmental engineering community, this kind of project is often called green infrastructure.

Albro has set up nine “beans” in this neighborhood and will be comparing their ability to capture storm water runoff to control sites they are also monitoring. Regardless of what the data shows, Albro says “greening” projects like this tend to benefit communities in many ways.

“There’s been a lot of evidence showing that intensive green in neighborhoods improves property values by about 30 percent,” Albro says. “It reduces violent crime and improves human health indicators. And ... we do know that green infrastructure can absorb millions of gallons of storm water every year, so we’re hoping to achieve a mixture of those two things.”

Storm water is a big issue in cities like Cleveland. Heavy rains overwhelm the sewer system here, forcing raw sewage to discharge into Lake Erie.

Albro hopes data from this study, and others like it, will help cities make smart land-use decisions.

“We’re definitely not promising this is the be-all-end-all of vacant land reuse and green infrastructure, but in two years we will be able to tell you exactly how it works and what the pros and cons are,” Albro says.

Revitalizing a neighborhood
Marlane Weslian is a longtime resident and works for the area development group. She says she joined the project because she cares about storm-water issues, but mostly to help her neighborhood get back on its feet.

“I’ve actually been living in the neighborhood since 1972," Weslian says. "I raised my kids here and I’m living here now with my partner and I’m not gonna leave. It’s a great neighborhood. We’ll weather all the ups and downs. We always have.”

The project’s plan is to tap into this sense of neighborhood pride and recruit local volunteers to tend the rain gardens. Urban planners, including Terry Schwarz with the Kent State Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, say this kind of dual-purpose green infrastructure project could go a long way in helping Cleveland dust off and rebuild.

“If you take a neighborhood that’s on the ... brink — that has demolition and some vacant land but also has residents living there who would really like to see their neighborhood turn around -- these individual vacant parcels become really important,” Albro says.

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