City Plans to Make ‘Lemonade’ With ‘Home Gr/Own’ Project by Peggy Schulz

Collaborate:  To work or labor with.  Innovate:  To make new. Lemonade:  A positive product or result arising out of the manipulation of negative or “sour” circumstances.

The City of Milwaukee’s “Home Gr/Own” proposal was named one of 20 finalists in the Bloomberg Challenge early last month.  In essence, the program will transform some of the more than 3,000 vacant lots and nearly 1,000 foreclosed homes which the city – unfortunately – owns, into creative, productive uses, including urban agriculture and urban homesteading.


“Home Gr/Own” is an excellent example of multiple parties collaborating to come up with innovative ideas, making lemons into lemonade. 

Mayor Tom Barrett immediately responded, with the goal of creating a vision for changing how cities across the United States approach and manage the glut of foreclosed properties in their municipalities.

In August, Mayor Barrett issued a call to Milwaukee citizens in the form of a “Tournavation,” asking for ideas addressing two significant problems in urban America:  the lack of food security and the high number of foreclosures.  The Top 10 ideas to come out of Tournavation, many of which built on existing, successful programs in Milwaukee, were used to flesh out the plan that ultimately was submitted to the Challenge (

Regardless of the outcome of the Challenge (which will be known in spring 2013), city government intends to go forward with the “Home Gr/Own” program.  Of course, the $5 million grand prize, or one of four $1 million second prizes, would be a big help!

Earlier this year, the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge asked the mayors of cities with more 30,000 residents to come up with plans to address the many challenges facing urban leaders in the continuing tough economy.

The foreclosed properties owned by the City will become vital pieces in a new production system for fresh, nutritious food.  Both the homes and lots will be the site of urban farms, community kitchens and food distribution centers.

Food security means all city residents would have access to sufficient, high-quality and nutritious food.  The City’s initial application in the Challenge indicated that as many as 69% of Milwaukee residents do not eat enough fruits and vegetables.  Health concerns including childhood obesity, inadequate prenatal nutrition and the alarming increase in diabetes are one result of that dietary gap.

Venice Williams, of Alice’s Garden at 21st and Garfield, spoke in a video the City created and submitted with its proposal to the Bloomberg Challenge.

“As I look around the city and see so much emptiness, it is important that we reclaim the empty spots of the city and literally plant new life,” Williams said.  (

In the video, Mayor Barrett talks about the concept of a “food desert” – an area, especially an urban area, where fresh, wholesome food is hard to find. 

The Bloomberg Challenge is a nationwide competition coming out of the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Project.  Bloomberg Philanthropies is funded by Mike Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City.  (

Milwaukee was one of 305 cities across 45 states competing in the first step of the Challenge.  After the finalist designations were made, teams from each of the 20 cities went to New York City just after Veterans Day to participate in an Ideas Camp. The Camp helped them further refine their respective proposals by collaborating with other finalists and with experts brought in to assist.

The Bloomberg Challenge is intended to help cities collaborate with each other now and in the future, by eliciting locally-based programmatic answers to the problems that plague the entire nation.

Milwaukee is fortunate to have a number of existing programs that will help feed into a successful “Home Gr/Own” experience, including the Victory Garden Initiative, Walnut Way Conservation Corporation, Alice’s Garden and Growing Power.

Walnut Way, housed in a former drug house near 17th St. and North Ave., now with a thriving neighborhood garden next door, is just one example of the innovative ideas that can result when parties with a vested interest in improving the quality of life for city residents collaborate toward a positive outcome.

Building on what’s already in place, adding in the resources the City brings to the table by way of the foreclosed homes and vacant city-owned lots, and, especially, harnessing the incredible energy that already has emerged in the Top 10 ideas coming out of Tournavation, how can “Home Gr/Own” not succeed?

You can contact Peggy Schulz at