Greenin’ the Ghetto: Public Health, Public Beauty, Public Land

Public green space are rarely the first words that comes up when Black/Land asks people about their relationships to land and place. African-American relationships to urban land in the post-industrial Midwest hold especially complex stories. How does the mix ofagricultural roots, displacement through urban renewal, neighborhoods plagued by illegal dumping, and the strong inter-generational neighborhood ties that characterize black urban communities today connect to a vision of green cities full of parks, community gardens, mature tree cover, and peaceful walking trails?

Damien Forche in the Rid-All greenhouse.

Damien Forche in the Rid-All greenhouse.

Damien Forché has such a vision. He sees public land — like the urban farm he is building on a leased public parcel –  as way torestore natural beauty to urban areas. He sees beauty as something essential to improving his community’s health, just like good jobs and wholesome food.

Forché is the farming force behind Rid-All’s Environmental Science and Commercial Urban Agriculture Training Center, in Cleveland Ohio. Alongside his tilapia tanks and hydroponic salad greens, Forché is committed to cultivating green space as a place of pleasure, safety and imagination for the black residents of Cleveland’s Kinsman area.

 “This is park land.” says Forché, gesturing to the 1.8 acres that hold his greenhouse and hoop houses. “This is Otter Park. You know, they never really give us parks” he says wistfully, describing how unmanaged open space in the neighborhood where he grew up became illegal dumps for commercial waste, garbage, even dead bodies.“This is green space [now]… but it had been a flat piece of land since the 1970s” when hundreds of homes were destroyed by fire or razed during urban renewal.

Forché reminds us that a poverty of local green space affects health and well-being as much as lacking food or money. A recent Place Matters study showed a 24 year difference in life expectancy among residents of Greater Cleveland depending upon where they live.

Forché has designed Rid-All’s farm to make natural landscape a part of the Kinsman area’s well-being:

I’m going to set it up so you can walk through it, and it can just be a spot of tranquility, where you can sit down and just enjoy the sound of the Rapid [Transit trains] going by. We’re going to build benches back there… We’ve left the big trees tall, so we have a family of hawks, and the deer. When you live in a congested city, you can’t see that. You’ve been so closed in for so long, it makes a difference in your mindset, to where you can’t see what you can do with land. … If you’ve never seen it, you can’t seethe importance of land.”

Leave a Comment: How is public green space used in black communities where you live? Does access to green space affect how you think about land?