The DIY movement in cities keeps the dollars nearby

Stop waiting for the federal government to rescue local economies. Consider how cities such as Cleveland are buying more local food, creating regional coops, and generating more local electrical power, thus keeping "the lettuce" home.

Crosscut archive image.

Stop waiting for the federal government to rescue local economies. Consider how cities such as Cleveland are buying more local food, creating regional coops, and generating more local electrical power, thus keeping "the lettuce" home.

As the federal government continues to spin its wheels and state governments keep struggling with lean budgets, cities are starting to experiment with ideas about how to create local, self-sustaining economies.

That starts with local purchasing, keeping as many dollars in the community as possible. Every dollar spent at a local business recirculates in the community several times before it leaves. Every dollar spent at a national chain leaves overnight. Municipal governments themselves can use their buying power to purchase products and services locally to stimulate their economy. Here in Madison, we allow for up to a 5 percent premium to buy all kinds of supplies and services if the vendor is in the city.
One of the most effective things governments and citizens can buy locally is food. There’s no better way to reduce your carbon footprint than to buy locally produced food because the amount of fossil fuel required to fly your tomato in from California is extraordinary. When you add it up for all the food a family consumes in a given week, eating locally is the single best thing we can do to fight global climate change.

At a recent convergence of the Citistates Group in Chattanooga, Tenn., we learned that a local foods group estimates that if that city were to get just 5 percent of the food it consumes from the local region (compared to only a half of a percent today) it would keep $100 million in the local economy every year. And people would eat healthier, fresher, better-tasting food.

Not to be outdone, in Seattle they’ve set a goal of getting 25 percent of their food from the local food shed. But that’s not as easy as just setting a goal or creating more farmers markets. In order to make this work we’ve got to deal with the whole food distribution system. Much like old zoning codes, when it comes to our food we’ve made the less healthy, less environmentally sound thing easy and the healthier, more pro-environment choice harder.

For decades zoning codes pretty much mandated strictly separated uses with the accompanying auto-dependency. It has only been recently that we’ve started to even allow the kind of mixed-use, transit, pedestrian, and bike-friendly new developments that we know are better for people and the environment.

In a similar way, the big national food distribution system just isn’t set up to get local produce to local markets in a way that’s big enough to make a dent in the market. So we need things like local food warehouses with their own distribution systems. We need more community gardens where local residents can grow their own food and more community kitchens where they can learn how to turn all that production into meals and maybe even businesses. And we need more community-supported agriculture, where city residents can buy a membership share in a local farm and get a box of fresh produce or meat delivered to them weekly.

But it shouldn’t end with food. An especially exciting idea comes from Cleveland. The Evergreen Cooperatives essentially root jobs in the community by building cooperative, worker-owned businesses tied to large institutions that can’t easily move from the city, like hospitals and universities.

In Cleveland alone these locally-rooted institutions buy about $3 billion of goods and services annually, very little of it locally until now.

One of the Evergreen coops, for example, provides a laundry service for area hospitals. Not only is it the greenest laundry in the region, but its workers are building equity in the business. Through payroll deductions of 50 cents an hour a worker can build a $65,000 stake in the business in eight or nine years.

Getting back to local food, another coop is a large-scale commercial greenhouse capable of producing 5 million heads of lettuce every year. Keeping the lettuce local – whether we’re talking literally or figuratively — is a good thing.

And yet another Evergreen venture is a solar installation company. That business has all the benefits of the others plus a third. Rustbelt cities import virtually all their energy. Capturing the sun’s energy when it shines down on Cleveland means that Clevelanders’ dollars aren’t flowing as much out of the city to purchase fossil fuels produced elsewhere. (A good story in the Nation details the Evergreen coop projects.)

These are only a few ideas of the many we need to build strong, resilient, locally based economies. And cities are perfect laboratories for progressive innovations like these.

If the recent Washington debt debacle teaches us anything it’s that we can’t rely on the feds to solve our problems or fix our economy. And states are strapped with ongoing deficits and some of the same polarizing partisanship that has paralyzed Congress. With creativity and the courage to try new ideas cities can do it for themselves.

This article comes to Crosscut from, which covers sustainability and planning issues for metropolitan regions.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors