Hard-Pressed Rust Belt Cities Go Green to Aid Urban Revival

Gary, Indiana is joining Detroit and other fading U.S. industrial centers in an effort to turn abandoned neighborhoods and factory sites into gardens, parks, and forests. In addition to the environmental benefits, these greening initiatives may help catalyze an economic recovery.

Depending on how you look at it, Gary, Indiana is facing either the greatest crisis in its 110-year history, or the greatest opportunity. The once-prosperous center of steel production has lost more than half its residents in the past 50 years. Just blocks from city hall, streets are so full of crumbling, burned-out houses and lush weeds that they more closely resemble the nuclear ghost town of Pripyat, near Chernobyl, than Chicago’s glitzy downtown an hour to the northwest. Air, water, and soil pollution are severe.

A community farm in Detroit, which has been a leader in green urban renewal. MICHIGAN MUNICIPAL LEAGUE/FLICKR

Yet in the midst of this, Gary has quantities of open space that more prosperous cities can only dream of, and sits on a stretch of lakeshore where plant biodiversity rivals Yellowstone National Park. Now, the big question for Gary, and for dozens of other shrinking cities across the United States’ Rust Belt — which collectively have lost more than a third of their population since the middle of the 20th century — is how to turn this situation to their advantage.

The answer that is beginning to emerge in Gary and other cities of the Rust Belt — which stretches across the upper Northeast through to the Great Lakes and industrial Midwest — is urban greening on a large scale. The idea is to turn scrubby, trash-strewn vacant lots into vegetable gardens, tree farms, stormwater management parks, and pocket prairies that make neighborhoods both more livable and more sustainable.

These types of initiatives have been evolving at the grassroots level for decades in places like Detroit and Buffalo; now, they are starting to attract significant funding from private investors, non-profits, and government agencies, says Eve Pytel, who is director of strategic priorities at the Delta Institute, a Chicago environmental organization active in Gary and several other Rust Belt cities. “There’s a tremendous interest because some of these things are lower cost than traditional development, but at the same time their implementation will actually make the other land more developable,” she said.

Or, as Joseph van Dyk, Gary’s director of planning and redevelopment, put it, “If you lived next to a vacant house and now all of a sudden you live next to a forest, you’re in better shape.”

Van Dyk noted that city planning in the U.S. had long been predicated on growth. But, he added, “That’s been turned on its head since the Seventies — Detroit, Cleveland, Youngstown, Flint, Gary have this relatively new problem of, how do you adjust for disinvestment? How do you reallocate your resources and re-plan your cities?”

This should be done in a way that links to other attributes that would attract a person to move to a neighborhood,’ says one official.

Detroit, which has at least 20 square miles of abandoned land, has been a leader in envisioning alternative uses for sites that once would have been targeted for conventional redevelopment. The city has 1,400 or more urban farms and community gardens, a tree-planting plan so ambitious the local press says it “could serve as a model for postindustrial cities worldwide,” and $8.9 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to implement green infrastructure projects and install solar panels on other vacant lots.

But while demolition itself has added an estimated $209 million to the equity of remaining homes in Detroit, Danielle Lewinski, vice president and director of Michigan Initiatives for the Flint-based Center for Community Progress, said hard data on the value of greening projects is more difficult to come by.

“There’s opportunity in Detroit to see an impact in surrounding property values, and therefore people’s interest in that area,” said Lewinski, who has been involved in land-use planning there. “The key, though, is that it needs to be done in a way that is strategic and links to other attributes that would attract a person to move into a neighborhood. My concern is that green reuse, absent a connection to a broader vision, may not be nearly as successful from an economic value standpoint.”

In Gary, the broader vision is to concentrate economic development in a number of “nodes,” each of which would be surrounded by leafy corridors of “re-greened” land. The corridors would separate the nodes, helping to give each neighborhood a more distinct identity, as well as bring residents the benefits of open space and serve as pathways for wildlife moving between existing natural areas. A land-use plan for preserving Gary’s core green space is already in place, and officials are currently revising the city’s Byzantine zoning regulations to make redevelopment of the nodes easier.

Projects in Gary are at an even earlier stage than in Detroit, however, and walking the city’s cracked sidewalks, it can be hard to envision a turnaround. Decades of layoffs at the steel mills, compounded by white flight, have left behind a population that is 28 percent poor, 19 percent unemployed, and 85 percent black, living in a landscape where more than a fifth of the buildings are, more than a third are blighted, and almost half of the lots are empty.

Planning director Joseph van Dyk discusses Gary’s green development strategy. WINIFRED BIRD

But van Dyk and many of his colleagues, including Gary’s dynamic mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, have high hopes for a green renaissance. Standing in his office on the second floor of a repurposed bank, van Dyk unfurled a map of the city to illustrate what the future might hold. Around 12,500 tiny blue rectangles dotted the map, representing orphaned parcels whose property taxes haven’t been paid in more than a decade.

“There’s a lot of flooding over here,” he said, pointing a pink highlighter at the Midtown district. “The infrastructure’s decrepit. There’s really low population, and really high ecological value.” Wielding the highlighter like a miniature bulldozer, he traced a winding path over solid blocks of blue, knocking down houses so that strands of wilderness interlaced the neighborhood and neglected parks returned to wetland. That green network, he said, could help alleviate many of the city’s problems. “Vacant property affects everything from quality of life, public safety, and property values to economic development and stormwater management,” said van Dyk.

Van Dyk currently has $6.6 million from the federal government to tear down about a tenth of the city’s abandoned homes. To make sure it’s used in a way that benefits both the environment and the remaining residents, he is working with Pytel’s organization, Detroit’s Dynamo Metrics, and staff in Gary’s parks and stormwater management departments to develop a comprehensive demolition strategy.

One part of that strategy entails “deconstructing” rather than simply demolishing buildings, so that contractors can comb them for valuable old-growth timber, vintage fixtures, and other reusable elements. This spring, the Delta Institute received a $385,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to build a reclamation and reuse facility in Gary similar to one it launched in Chicago in 2009, which has since diverted around 9,700 tons of building materials from landfills. Jennifer White, a former Chicago architect who now lives in Gary, has launched a similar project to salvage building materials and use the money from reselling them to remodel or demolish homes in her neighborhood.

The second part of the strategy involves finding conservation-oriented uses for lots opened up by demolition. One idea already being piloted is to turn them into tree farms. Fresh Coast Capital, a real-estate investment firm based in Chicago, is planting poplar trees on 60 acres of abandoned land in Gary and six other Rust Belt cities; the fast-growing trees suck up heavy metals and other industrial pollutants with their deep roots, and will potentially sequester 14,000 tons of carbon dioxide over 15 years. They will then be harvested as timber and the revitalized land returned to municipal governments. By then, city leaders hope, they will have the resources to redevelop it.

An abandoned house in Gary, Indiana. WINIFRED BIRD

Another idea is to use vacant lots to augment or link the rich wilderness areas that already exist in Gary. The city hugs the southern curve of Lake Michigan, sitting on top of a globally rare ecosystem called dune-and-swale, where cacti, orchids, black oaks, and more than 1,400 other plant species grow in alternating strips of wetland and sand dunes. Although the U.S. Steel Corporation destroyed much of this ecosystem when it founded Gary — and the steel mill at its heart — in 1906, roughly 500 acres survive in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and several other preserves that abut the mill. The mill continues to operate with a fraction of its former workforce.

City officials have approached the managers of these preserves about expanding their holdings by rehabilitating vacant lots. But Kristopher Krouse, the executive director of the Shirley Heinz Land Trust, which manages about 50 acres of intact dune-and-swale habitat in Gary, said that could be difficult. While he enthusiastically supports the city’s efforts, and believes some of the properties targeted for demolition might work as buffers around existing preserves, Krouse questioned whether taking on scattered properties degraded by crushed foundations or former industrial use would be meaningful from a conservation perspective.

A third, and so far more promising reuse strategy, is to link demolition with stormwater management. Brenda Scott-Henry, director of green urbanism for Gary, said that whenever crews take down a property they create a three- to four-inch depression on the site and plant grass so that rain soaks into the water table rather than running off into sewage pipes. In areas with severe flooding, her department is starting to install more extensive green infrastructure, such as infiltration beds made up of buried gravel that act like an underground sponge to slow down the flow of water.

These measures are crucial because Gary, like many older cities, has a combined sewage system that carries rainwater, sewage, and industrial wastewater to the treatment plant in the same pipes. During heavy storms — which are becoming more common due to climate change —rainwater overwhelms the system, forcing the sanitary district to discharge huge amounts of raw sewage into rivers that lead to Lake Michigan, the region’s largest source of drinking water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has ordered Gary to fix the problem, but doing so with traditional infrastructure would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

“If we have to spend that money, why not use it to address some of the other issues we have here, like high unemployment [and the need for] buffers to reduce flooding in severe weather events?” Scott-Henry said.

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She plans to meet the EPA’s demands through a combination of gray and green infrastructure, as many Rust Belt cities are doing. Workers trained through a city jobs program for ex-offenders will maintain the plantings over the long term.

Rain gardens bring more direct benefits to neighborhoods, as well . In Philadelphia, several studies have linked a city-wide initiative to landscape more than 16 million square feet of vacant land — part of a stormwater-reduction effort — to reductions in violent crime and stress. Those are urgent problems in Gary, where murder rates are high (though declining) and police have found the bodies of at least 7 victims inside abandoned homes.

Even more than safety, though, community organizer Jessie Renslow said she values the hope that greening projects bring.

“It’s easy to be cynical, because Gary has been planned to death, and people have had their hearts broken before,” she said. “The people who have decided to stay are ready for a positive reincarnation.”