InFACT-Funded Land Reuse Study Published in International Edited Volume

February 26, 2021

Volunteer Mark Decker and Knowlton Professor of Practice Tameka Sims prepped the new South Jackson Community Garden for winter.

A study led by InFACT faculty affiliates MJ Van Maasakkers and Nancy Bowen-Ellzey, and partially funded by InFACT through an Ohio State Office of Outreach and Engagement Connect and Collaborate grant, has been published in the edited volume Civic Engagement, Community-Based Initiatives and Governance Capacity, An International Perspective (Routledge 2020). The chapter, “Community-Based Initiatives in the Rust Belt: Collaborative Land Use Governance in a Shrinking City,” chronicles the experience of rehabilitating a vacant lot in Lima, Ohio, through community partnerships.

Land use and conflict resolution have long been research interests for Van Maasakkers, assistant professor of city and regional planning at the Knowlton School. He and Knowlton Associate Professors Kristi Cheramie and Jake Boswell had been studying how to build consensus around reuse strategies for vacant land, a problem throughout Ohio's Rust Belt and other cities nationally that have been impacted by population decline and loss of industry. Van Maasakkers wanted to study a possible land reuse project in Lima, a city facing these challenges and also home to an Ohio State regional campus. He wondered: Can consensus building techniques help a community reuse vacant land, without the university becoming the de facto owner of the vacant lot at the end of the process?

He reached out to Bowen-Ellzey, associate professor and field specialist for OSU Extension, to collaborate. The two began convening Lima stakeholders ranging from the local hospital to the food bank, a gardening club to the Chamber of Commerce, to discuss land reuse strategies. A common theme in the interviews with stakeholders? Concerns about public health and food access in the community. This interest also made the project a natural fit for InFACT funding.

Van Maasakkers and Bowen-Ellzey then helped stakeholders collaborate toward a vacant land reuse strategy involving fresh food and opportunities for the community to access mobile health services. They helped secure university funding, as well as matching funds from Mercy Health - St. Rita's Medical Center in Lima; helped identify the vacant lot to repurpose; and worked with landscape architect Tameka Sims, assistant professor of practice at Knowlton, to design the space.

Their hard work will soon pay off. This summer, the South Jackson Community Garden will open on Lima's south side, providing fresh produce for residents and a space where the community can learn about health and nutrition. For Van Maasakkers and Bowen-Ellzey, an additional achievement is that a Lima community group is taking over operations for the site—and their model for community-based land reuse works. “It's a nice indicator that our hypothesis was right: If a university would come in and connect these folks to one another and use some of our resources, the land reuse would be feasible,” says Van Maasakkers. “After bringing that to reality, we could step away again and deliver something collectively that the community can maintain and utilize on its own.”

Ohio State Vice Provost for Outreach and Engagement Ryan Schmiesing notes the long-term impact this type of partnership can have. “This is an excellent example of the co-creation of an initiative with community members. The approach and what they have learned will continue to inform the community-university partnership for years to come,” says Schmiesing.

This opportunity for engagement in the Lima community is another reason why InFACT decided to fund a portion of the project, says InFACT Executive Director Brian Snyder. “InFACT's strategic plan includes being involved in improving the food systems of all six communities where Ohio State has a campus, and this effort is especially important in a legacy city like Lima, where the economy is undergoing significant transition from what it had been in the past.”

Van Maasakkers and Bowen-Ellzey, who hadn't met before this project, now plan to collaborate again in Lima in the future. “We've already been discussing how we can help the same group move on to reusing another piece of land,” says Bowen-Ellzey. “We've learned that once you've developed this collaboration, it can become an engine for other projects within the community.”

Says Snyder, “Their continued success is likely to gain significance, especially with so many cities in Ohio and elsewhere throughout the Rust Belt now struggling to deal with the dual scourge of food insecurity and vacant properties within their urban cores.”