03/05/2014 12:14 pm ET Updated May 05, 2014

A HOME GR/OWN Approach to Central City Redevelopment

Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley's new book The Metropolitan Revolution discusses how American cities have become the cutting edge purveyors of social innovation -- "A new growth model is emerging (via American cities) from the rubble of the recession, a next economy where we export more and waste less, innovate in what matters, produce and deploy more of what we invent, and build an economy that works for working families."

Industrial and former industrial cities, many on or near the Fresh Coast, have been pursuing extremely innovative strategies to deal with the impact of manufacturing job losses.

In my last Huffington Post column I stated: "Our climate is telling us that the old ways won't work anymore... I hope it's also a spark for community dialogue that leads to practical improvements in all of our neighborhoods and can serve as a template for other cities." Under my direction as Mayor of the City of Milwaukee, the city's Green Team developed a sustainability plan, ReFresh Milwaukee, in which one core objective is to promote healthy communities by improving local, healthy food supply chains -- from growing to distribution. One of our main tools to effect this change will be my HOME GR/OWN initiative.

To understand the healthy food access deficiency in many Milwaukee neighborhoods is to understand the interdependent relationship between health and food within a community. Food, healthy or not, impacts the physical health of an individual, as well the cohesion and community spirit of a neighborhood. According to the 2012 Milwaukee Health Report, "Milwaukee's large population, poor health outcomes, and large health disparities-many associated with socioeconomic status -- continue to have significant impact on... the economic vibrancy of the city." Eating healthy food is difficult and expensive for low-income Milwaukeeans. A study of one typical neighborhood found that 2/3 of corner stores did not sell fresh food: less than 1/3 of residents reported inadequate produce consumption and 1/3 of residents were obese.

As manufacturing jobs disappeared in formerly solidly middle-class neighborhoods, many amenities disappeared too including easily accessible full-service grocery stores. Subsequently, these losses resulted in a lack of healthy food access, decline in public health and reduced economic development.

The benefits of community-based food systems are significant to the redevelopment and sustainability of blighted neighborhoods. Food-based employment opportunities include food hub site construction and preparation, urban farming, and alternate food-based distribution. Educational opportunities include grower training, food-based small business training, and nutrition education. Beyond food initiatives, vacant properties can become new urban homesteads, pocket parks, community centers and plant nurseries -- catalyzing renew community spirit, cohesion and local economic growth. HOME GR/OWN target neighborhoods will ultimately have access to culturally-appropriate, fresh, local food.

My HOME GR/OWN Initiative to address access and demand for local, healthy food started up last summer. HOME GR/OWN, a Top 20 Finalist in Bloomberg Philanthropies' 2013 Mayors Challenge and the focus of increasing national attention, reflects a paradigm shift in city real estate disposition. HOME GR/OWN will help turn municipal liabilities (Milwaukee's 3,900+ City-owned foreclosed homes and lots) into income- and wellness-generating neighborhood assets. HOME GR/OWN will also amplify and strategically "connect the dots" between the many neighborhood-based organizations already doing award-winning work on food issues in Milwaukee's most challenged neighborhoods.

As mayor, I am committing city resources to jump-start HOME GR/OWN in a target neighborhood where community stakeholders have already laid a solid foundation for change in the neighborhood food system. As a result, a new public-private model for improving quality of life will emerge so that all Milwaukee neighborhoods can be better places to live and raise a family. This is the HOME GR/OWN vision.

HOME GR/OWN strategies include:
* Increasing the use of city-owned vacant land and foreclosed buildings for growing, processing and distributing food, catalyzing the local food supply chain;
* Increasing the availability of local, healthy foods, at traditional neighborhood retail outlets;
* Attracting grocery stores to underserved neighborhoods;
* Implementing educational initiatives promoting nutrition, small business and grower training;
* Providing creative opportunities to generate income through food supply chain activities and commercializing (profit, new jobs) urban agriculture;

We have the land, the human capacity and the political will to transform neighborhoods via HOME GR/OWN into more sustainable, economically diverse and healthier communities. That's civic innovation! This is the type of sustainable, "next economy", family-friendly economic growth that the new "Metropolitan Revolution" is about. American cities like Milwaukee are proudly leading the effort.

Tom, Barrett
Mayor, Milwaukee