When the foreclosure crisis hit Milwaukee, the city was already reeling from the loss of 70,000 manufacturing jobs and a poverty rate that pushed 30 percent. Yet an opportunity emerged when the financial crisis met the local food movement.
As head of the Home Gr/own initiative, Tim McCollow, a city government program manager, is turning Milwaukee's thousands of vacant lots and idled citizens into a source of food and jobs.
"We're trying to do a paradigm shift with how cities deal with their real estate," says McCollow. Through the program, some of Milwaukee's 2,700 vacant lots and 1,300 foreclosed homes are now being repurposed for local food production, processing, and distribution, rather than mothballed and sold during the next boom. "We want to put local food economy on steroids and connect all the dots," he says.
Home Gr/own is pulling together 10 to 20 disparate food and farming related programs in the city such as Growing Power, Walnut Way, and Central Greens. The city-led effort is aimed at transforming multiple problems—unemployment, foreclosures, urban decay—into fertile ground for a new food economy. The city will supply new grower training, small stipends, business development assistance, tools, and water access, and encourage local food producers to sell their harvest directly through farm stands, restaurants, and stores. Foreclosed properties will serve as the new home for some of these endeavors. "We want to give the land back to the people and stimulate a local food economy," says McCollow.
Although many cities are now retooling for urban agriculture, making room for rooftop farming, multi-story farms, and indoor aquaponics is not easy. For example, Detroit, once a promising upstart, has fallen behind its goals amid land right battles, organizational quarrels, and bureaucratic delays, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Milwaukee plans to build out its urban agricultural economy in some of its poorest areas as part of its 10-year urban sustainability plan. It has early proof that it can raise property values and start solving its financial and health challenges by getting foreclosed homes off the city's books and turning them into food growing and distribution centers.
"We're finding, even in the toughest neighborhoods, people really care about their block and their neighborhoods," says McCollow. So far, this year, the city has helped incubate five projects, and more are planned for 2014.
"It's alive and real," he says. "It's people getting dirty."