Ohio State Researcher Nets $900,000 NSF Grant to Study Vacant Lot Biodiversity, Management in Cleveland

Mary Gardiner has studied vacant lots and biodiversity in Cleveland since 2009. (Photo by Ken Chamberlain)

WOOSTER, Ohio -- Ohio State University entomologist Mary Gardiner has received a coveted grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to implement an unprecedented study of vacant land in the city of Cleveland.

The $909,200 Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) grant will fund a large-scale project examining the impact of various landscape treatments on the biodiversity and ecosystem function of 64 empty lots within eight Cleveland neighborhoods. The city of Cleveland currently has 32,000 acres of vacant land and witnesses the demolition of 1,000 homes every year.

The five-year project's main goal is to gather data that will inform future green space design in Cleveland and other cities engaged or interested in vacant-land management, said Gardiner, who is based on the Wooster campus of the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. OARDC is the research arm of the university's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

"The city currently plants turfgrass on these empty lots, but it's expensive to maintain and alternative plant communities may offer greater environmental benefits such as support of biodiversity and improved storm-water infiltration," said Gardiner, who has been studying vacant land biodiversity and food production in Cleveland since 2009.


According to NSF, the CAREER program provides the foundation's "most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations."

The eight landscape treatments to be utilized in the project include different soil preparation techniques and combinations of plant materials, ranging in diversity of species and percentages of native versus nonnative plants. The treatments represent a range of available options for vacant-land management and were selected in partnership with the Cleveland City Planning Commission, according to Gardiner.

The idea is to determine how and to what extent diversity of plant communities influences diversity of beneficial insects, such as pollinators and predators, and the pollination and biocontrol services these insects support within the urban landscape. Finding the right treatment or combination of treatments, Gardiner said, will shape the ecological and social quality of neighborhoods involved in the project for decades to come.

"Cleveland has more than 20,000 vacant lots as a result of decades of depopulation and out-migration," said Terry Schwarz, director of Kent State University's Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative and a partner in the project. "We need cost-effective, beautiful and ecologically productive landscape strategies that enhance city neighborhoods for the people who live here and make these neighborhoods more attractive to prospective residents and developers."

Gardiner said she is excited about the opportunity to create a "living laboratory" in Cleveland to measure the responses to different management strategies. Because the project is collaborative in nature, there will be field days and other venues for community members and city leaders to learn about costs and benefits and to provide input about their preferences.

"In addition to the scientific questions we are trying to answer, we are also very much interested in the impact this project will have on the residents of Cleveland," Gardiner said. "I am also very excited about the educational opportunities this grant supports. We will be developing modules for middle- and high-school classrooms focused on predator-prey relationships, which will be available to teachers throughout the state."


According to Schwarz, Ohio State is an ideal partner for this type of project.

"Working on ecological research in city neighborhoods requires advanced scientific knowledge and excellent people skills," Schwarz said. "Mary embodies both of these things. The benefit of collaborating with Mary is that her work has the potential to impact people's lives in tangible and lasting ways."

Gardiner believes that with the right combination of plants and increased ecosystem services, urban vacant land can be seen as an asset for community development rather than as an eyesore. Schwarz agrees.

"Cleveland is in the midst of a major transition," Schwarz said. "But we have an unprecedented opportunity to reshape the city, and to use our growing inventory of vacant land as a means of integrating natural systems into the built environment. Mary's work will contribute to new ways of thinking about Cleveland."


CFAES News Team
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Mary Gardiner