HOME GR/OWN Milwaukee

Milwaukee, United States

HOME GR/OWN Milwaukee empowers residents to transform neighbourhoods by re-purposing City-owned vacant lots into community food assets

Home GR/OWN is a program initiated by the City of Milwaukee to re-purpose vacant lots throughout the city and empower citizens to grow more of their own food.

The program has multiple goals:

  • urban renewal and redevelopment, 
  • improving health and well-being, 
  • enhancing the aesthetics of neighbourhoods affected by high levels of crime, poverty and unemployment, 
  • and building community connectedness and cohesion.

The program is only in its third year of operation, however it has managed to secure strong engagement from numerous internal stakeholders across the City of Milwaukee, as well as with a diverse range of external stakeholders including businesses, not-for-profit associations, financial institutions and philanthropic foundations. 


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City information
City
Milwaukee

Size and population development
City of Milwaukee: approx. 600,000; Metropolitan area: 1.57 million

Population composition
27,1% of the population are persons under 18 years (as of 2010); ethnically mixed city

Main industries / business
Centre for manufacturing and food processing; centre of printing and publishing

Sources for city budget
Principal sources of the budget are property taxes and a share of State government revenue (which has fallen in the past two decades), with other sources including user fees and levies.

Political structure
Mayor and 15 elected Councillors with a four-year term, each serving a district of approximately 40,000 residents.

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Background and objectives

Milwaukee, like many other parts of the United States, has been very hard hit by the home foreclosure crisis that has been unfolding since the housing market peaked in 2007. With the advent of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 and the resulting sharp rise in unemployment in many parts of the country, the capacity of many homeowners to continue to finance their mortgages has declined rapidly. Homes are both foreclosed and abandoned, and since the City of Milwaukee is the first creditor in line in cases where property taxes are unpaid, this has left the municipal government with a large reserve of foreclosed homes and vacant lots, where foreclosed and / or abandoned houses have been demolished. This spatial phenomenon is concentrated in socioeconomically deprived areas of the city’s inner north, and the population most affected is African American:

"The City of Milwaukee owns approximately 900 foreclosed homes and 2,700 vacant lots, most of which are located in low-income neighbourhoods. In these same neighbourhoods, poverty and lack of readily available healthy food create systemic food access and health issues. Healthy food can be expensive, and, in certain areas, difficult to find, disproportionately affecting low-income Milwaukeeans. A study of one typical neighbourhood found that two-thirds of corner stores did not sell fresh food. Additionally, more than two-thirds of residents reported inadequate produce consumption and one-third of residents were obese…Milwaukeeans (regardless of income) report unhealthy eating: 69 percent do not consume the recommended number of services of fresh fruits and vegetables daily, 51 percent report no access to healthy food, 37 percent are overweight and 31 percent are clinically obese. These percentages increase for lower socioeconomic groups…more than 80 percent of children who receive one or more meals a day through the Milwaukee public schools participate in the free- and reduced-lunch program, which is an indicator of poverty." (Milwaukee 2013 Sustainability Plan)

Home GR/OWN's objectives:

  • Transform targeted neighbourhoods by concentrating City and partner resources, catalyzing new, healthy food access and greenspace developments.
  • Make it easier to access local food and re-purpose city-owned vacant lots. We work within City government to streamline processes, permitting, and ordinances, making it easier to grow and distribute healthy food, start new food-based businesses, and improve vacant lots.
  • Work within Milwaukee's community food system to link local growers to local markets, increase urban food infrastructure (water, access, compost), and support new urban farms and healthy food retailers and wholesalers
Home GR/OWN is closely associated with the City of Milwaukee's Strong Neighbourhood Plan, whose four aims are as follows;
  • PREVENT tax foreclosures with new City efforts and working with community partners
     
  • MITIGATE blight and maintain City owned property to a “good neighbor” standard
     
  • REVITALIZE neighborhoods by selling City properties and generating funds for renovation
     
  • RENEW our neighborhoods by activating vacant spaces, involving city businesses, and creating job opportunities for city residents
Implementation
The cornerstone of Home GR/OWN is supporting urban renewal through the re-purposing of vacant and abandoned lots, transferring the status of these lots as liabilities on the City's books, into assets. Leveraging partnerships and collaboration within and across City departments, as well as with external stakeholders, is critical to the program's success. 

Liaison with City Agencies: The HOME GR/OWN initiative coordinates activities by several City departments and agencies to lower implementation costs and streamline City policies across departments in order to effectively catalyze food system change in Milwaukee neighbourhoods with the greatest demand for access to healthy food.
  • Office of the Mayor: Coordination with Strong Neighbourhoods Plan
  • Department of City Development: City-owned real estate, site planning, and food policy
  • Department of Public Works: Forestry services, composting, lot maintenance
  • Milwaukee Healthy Department: Food safety, licensing, and ordinance revisions
  • Department of Neighbourhood Services: Permits, and ordinance revisions
  • Community Development Grants Administration: Support for HOME GR/OWN staffing

Liaison with External Partners: HOME GR/OWN is working with community businesses and organisations to help connect the dots between local food, health, neighbourhood and economic development work currently taking place. HOME GR/OWN seeks to expand the capacity of this community team and attract the financial resources to take partners’ community-based work to the next level. The program seeks to create new public/private partnerships, catalyze new hope and real street-level change in our most vulnerable neighborhoods across Milwaukee.

Representation on city-wide urban agriculture bodies

  • Milwaukee Food Council steering committee to ensure City collaboration.
  • Institute for Urban Agriculture & Nutrition steering committee
  • Coordinating vacant lot rehabilitation efforts with the Mayor Barrett's Strong Neighborhoods Plan.
  • Building stronger links between new grower training efforts among local providers.

 

The four high-priority strategies are: 

  • Increase the use of city-owned foreclosed land and buildings for growing, processing, and distributing food to catalyze the local food value chain
  • Increase the availability of healthy foods, including locally grown foods, at traditional neighborhood retail outlets in the targeted neighborhood
  • Implement educational initiatives promoting nutrition and training for small businesses and growers
  • Provide creative opportunities to generate income and commercialize urban agriculture

A key implementation strategy in the first phase of the Project (2013-date) has been the relaxation of city laws and permits to facilitate the use of city-owned vacant lots for a diverse array of urban agriculture activities, both for personal consumption and for commercial sale. This includes permits for keeping bees and chickens, and for securing licences for temporary food vending and for mobile food carts. The City has also produced resources such as a Farm Fresh Atlas and a Vacant Lot Handbook. The City of Milwaukee's Urban Agriculture Ordinances were updated in 2014. 

In later phases, the City of Milwaukee aims to adopt a Food Charter to guide the development of a food policy; to ensure that 30 additional properties are producing food by 2016 and a further 173 properties by 2023; that 25 new properties distributing healthy, locally produced food are in operation by 2016 and 100 further outlets by 2023; and that a minimum percentage of residents are living within a 10-minute walk of healthy and nutritious food.  

Financing and resources

The program leverages funds from the Strong Neighbourhoods Plan, which has an allocation of $23.8 mn for 2014/5. This covers City of Milwaukee staffing for the program and assistance to community and neighbourhood groups to begin re-purposing vacant lots, covering the costs of plants, trees and infrastructure. Home GR/OWN also seeks to leverage private sponsorship from businesses, and grant funding from philanthropic foundations. For example, a consortium of Milwaukee organisations were awarded a $75,000 grant from the Funders Network for Smart Growth and Liveable Cities for infrastructure to help with the repurposing of vacant lots for urban agriculture. This national grant was matched with $75,000 from Miwlaukee-based foundations, allowing the construction of a dozen community orchards in 2015. 

Results and impacts

Accomplishments since 2013 Inception:

  • Passage of major revisions to the city's urban agriculture ordinances
  • Aided passage of revised Food Peddler ordinances
  • New community gardens & orchards on City vacant lots: with partners Neu-Life, Groundwork MKE & Infallible Helping Hands
  • Gillespie Park constructed summer 2014; named 2015 MANDI finalist
  • Fundraising targets met to date
  • 30 vacant lots have been coverted to food production
  • 2 new corner stores serving healthy food have been opened 

2015 Priority Projects:

  • Development and 2015 construction of two new urban farms: Alice's Herbal Farm and Cream City Gardens
  • 2015 construction of new mini-park at 37th St and Center St
  • 20 new orchards and 6 new mini-parks, including Sunshine Park at 14th St. and North Ave., built through Partners for Places grant
  • Final construction on All People's Church orchard stormwater features
Barriers and challenges

There was some initial concern about whether the City of Milwaukee would have capacity to deliver a program as ambitious and far-reaching as Home GR/OWN. However a key element of the program's design is collaboration with existing not-for-profit organisations, philanthropic foundations and private businesses. The City of Milwaukee also  participates on multi-stakeholder forums, in particular the Milwaukee Food Council (established in 2007) and the Milwaukee Institute for Urban Agriculture and Nutrition. These horizontal governance spaces allow for disagreements to be aired and resolved rather than generate into unproductive tensions and conflicts. 

Lessons learned and transferability

A key success factor is the integration of the Home GR/OWN program as a major plank of one of the City's priority programs over the next five years, the Strong Neighbourhood Plan. The City has clearly and strongly embraced urban agriculture as a key strategy for urban renewal and repurposing of vacant lots. This builds on the momentum and leadership generated by the dynamic, diverse and active urban agriculture community in Milwaukee (see Victory Gardens Initiative as one representative of this sector). 

The revision of urban agriculture zoning restrictions, licences and fees has been an important achievement. It is too early to say with confidence what the medium- and long-term effects will be, but it is likely that there will be a further uptick in an already dynamic sector. The establishment of partnerships and collaborations with the private and philanthropic sectors is also an important strategic move, and one that is already reaping dividends with grants secured for infrastructure to build community orchards.  
 
Home GR/OWN is especially applicable to other cities that are experiencing the post-industrial phenomenon of 'urban blight' seen across urban centres in the US MidWest. Its transferability to less similar contexts is not as obvious, though the general goals and strategies of supporting and empowering local people to utilise vacant space to grow more of their own food is transferable almost anywhere. 
References

External links / documents