Faces of Food Systems Planning: Robert Brown

Bob Head Shot July 31 B - 2015 CROPRobert (Bob) Brown is the former director of city planning for the City of Cleveland and the newly appointed interim executive director of MidTown Cleveland, Inc. As Cleveland’s planning director, Bob was instrumental in developing some of the most innovative and progressive urban agriculture zoning regulations in the U.S. These regulations paved the way for allowing urban agriculture – both commercial and non-commercial – to flourish throughout the city.

Kimberley Hodgson, Chair of APA-FIG, conducted this interview via email in October 2015.

  1. What is your first and last name? Robert N. Brown, FAICP
  2. What is your current (or most recent) position? Director of City Planning for the City of Cleveland (retired May 2014); Interim Executive Director of MidTown Cleveland, Inc. (current)
  3. How long did you hold this position? I was at the Cleveland City Planning Commission for nearly 30 years and was Director for nearly 10 years. I have been at MidTown Cleveland for just 2 months.
  4. What did you enjoy about your work? I love cities and I love city planning, so my work is a perfect fit.  I enjoy coming up with creative solutions to problems in a way that betters the community.
  5. Similarly, what did you find challenging about your work? The most challenging aspects of my work as a city planner include the slow pace of change, the persistence of key problems (like poverty and housing deterioration), and the lack of funds to address key issues.
  6. What areas of the food system did you focus on in your work? Updating zoning regulations to permit expanded urban agriculture and making City-owned land available for urban agriculture.
  7. In the work that you performed, where did addressing food systems issues fit in? How did that change over time? Food systems planning was not a part of my work until late in my career – the past several years.  It had become a significant part of my work in the past several years.
  8. Do you consider yourself a food systems planner? Why or why not? Food systems planning was a small (but important) part of my job as a generalist city planner.
  9. What is the biggest food systems planning-related hurdle your community/organization faced in recent years and how was it dealt with? From my limited role, the biggest hurdles we faced were removing obstacles from the zoning code that prevented the use of vacant land for exclusive use as farming and prevented the use of most land for raising chickens and keeping bees, as well as selling produce from residentially zoned property. We successfully overcame these obstacles.
  10. How has your perception of food systems planning changed since you first entered the planning field? I have realized the importance of urban farming for several reasons including:  productive use of otherwise “vacated” land, improved nutrition for some city residents, and as a community-building activity that brings neighbors together both for the farming activities and for the farmers’ markets.
  11. Who has had the most influence on you as a planner? As a food systems planner? As a planner, I was influenced most by Jane Jacobs and by local Cleveland City Planning Directors, Norm Krumholz and Hunter Morrison.  In my limited role as a food systems planner, I was most influenced by Morgan Taggart through her former work at Ohio Extension.
  12. Do you have any advice for someone entering the food systems planning field? What makes you successful in your work? What skills do you use the most in your food systems planning related work? I would advise a person entering the field to learn about the realities and the challenges of urban food systems planning, including the financial issues associated with small-scale farming operations and the issues regarding environmental contamination.
  13. What do you wish you would have known before going to planning school? My planning career could have benefited by more knowledge of real estate and development financing.

Faces of Food Systems Planning is a series of interviews with practicing planners from across North America who are engaging in food systems planning and policy work. This series is part of APA-FIG’s efforts to highlight food systems planning as an important planning topic. Click here for more information.