Why Cleveland is Tops in Innovation

In an era of lean federal budgets and congressional gridlock, the burden of urban problem solving often falls on the local community.

Fortunately, Cleveland has proven itself up to the challenge: According to a recent survey by CNNMoney, our town is one of the 10 Most Innovative Cities in the nation, right up there with powerhouses like New York, Boston, Portland and San Francisco.

The survey was undertaken to highlight creative solutions to urban problems that improve the quality of life and economic opportunities for the people who live there. According to the study’s authors, “We wanted to consider everything from transportation and technology to education and jobs.”

To that end, 100 experts in urban planning were asked to identify the most innovative cities with populations above 150,000. When their initial responses were combined, refined and ranked, Cleveland came in at #10.

The ongoing Sustainable Cleveland 2019 program – a citywide campaign for “building an economic engine to empower a green city on a blue lake” – was cited as one of the region’s outstanding innovations.

Healthy Foods Innovation

The city’s initiative to combat urban “food deserts” by expanding access to fresh, locally grown foodstuffs earned particular mention. As the study notes, improving access to healthy food is especially important in Cleveland, where many neighborhoods have heart disease death rates twice that of the suburbs. “Access to good food isn’t just a quality of life issue,” the report notes. “Poor nutrition is linked to everything from low self-esteem to disease and poor educational performance. It’s literally costing the nation billions in health care costs.”

The innovative Bridgeport Mobile Market – a 16-foot refrigerated box truck that carries fresh produce on a weekly basis to sites on Cleveland’s eastside – provides one solution to that problem. Launched in 2013 by the non-profit Burten, Bell, Carr Development, Inc., the mobile market’s offerings include locally made bread and buns; all-natural “no spray” produce from the neighborhood’s Kinsman Farm; and lettuces from Green City Growers, a $17 million, 3.25-acre hydroponic greenhouse on 10 inner-city acres, and one of the largest urban greenhouses in the nation. Better still, since opening in 2013, the worker-owned greenhouse (part of Evergreen Cooperatives Corporation) has been investing in the local economy by hiring neighborhood residents at a living wage.

Also drawing kudos from the CNNMoney experts was the city’s Double Value Produce Perks program that provides a dollar-for-dollar match to shoppers who use their food assistance benefits to purchase fruits and vegetables at area farmers markets.

Green Innovation

Speaking of farms, sheep also have a role to play in Cleveland’s recognition. In a novel approach to lowering maintenance costs, a flock of 36 sheep has been grazing a four-acre patch of unused industrial land along the Lake Erie shoreline since 2012. In the process, CNNMoney notes, the eco-friendly flock has saved the city $2,500 a year in mowing costs – not an insignificant consideration in a place with 20,000 abandoned lots, equaling 3,600 acres of grass, which cost about $3 million per year to maintain.

In fact, this Urban Lambscape Project, designed by the St. Clair Superior Development Corporation and Urban Shepherds, Inc., has proven so successful that it’s being expanded this summer to a six-acre solar field owned by the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority. Beginning in June, a flock of 50 sheep is expected to graze among the solar panels, not only keeping the grass mowed but also serving as “green” ambassadors to the youngsters who participate in CMHA’s 21st Century Community Learning Center, a program that provides quality afterschool care and enrichment for residents’ families. Perhaps not surprising (considering that this is Cleveland, after all), CMHA is one of only a handful of public housing authorities across the country to win federal funding for the program – and the only one in the state!

Transportation Innovation

The CNNMoney study also touched on Cleveland’s transportation innovations, including the city’s HealthLine, one of the nation’s first rapid bus transit programs. “An idea borrowed from the developing world, buses get their own lane and can theoretically transport people nearly as fast as a subway for a fraction of the cost,” the study notes.

Expansion of city bike paths, a “data-driven approach to identify and rehabilitate abandoned properties, and a local content initiative aimed at getting the city’s big organizations to source products from local businesses” are other examples of Cleveland’s new way of thinking.

Together these initiatives help prove that, when it comes to creative problem solving, Cleveland has earned its rank as a leader in innovation.

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