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Detroit: The Next Agrarian Paradise?

| Friday August 28th, 2009 | 9 Comments

Many people have all but written off the once booming “Motor City.” With a poverty rate of 32 percent and a population that has shrunk from 2 million to under 900,000, the auto capital of the world has become our nation’s most depressed metropolis. Today, as more and more people flee the city, it becomes harder to imagine what the future holds. Now having reached a bottom, Detroit has the opportunity to experience the same kind of revitalization that is slowly taking hold in New Orleans, which aims to be a clean, green model for the nation. Both cities experienced life-altering disasters. Hurricane Katrina, which killed thousands, decimated New Orleans in 2005 and the death of the auto industry, ruined the lives of many and left Detroit unrecognizable. The unlikely sister cities became ghost towns as long time residents fled homes and businesses in search of higher ground and greener pastures.

But before we entirely write off Detroit as an environmental wasteland, let’s look again, and try to imagine the possibilities.

The buzzword is “revitalization.” Urban planners, non-profit groups and remaining residents are trying to find ways to breathe life back into their ailing city. The blank canvas that is Detroit may pose the greatest potential to become sustainable. One possible future for Detroit rests in the growing food movement and the chance to overhaul a food system dependent on massive fossil fuel inputs and chemicals. Even more pressing, is the fact that there is no produce carrying grocery store chain in the city anymore.

Not only are supplies of fresh fruits and veggies disappearing, but there is also a shortage of protein. These conditions qualify Detroit as a food desert, defined as a locality from which healthy food is more than twice as far away as unhealthy food. The health consequences of this phenomenon include diabetes, heart failure, hypertension, and obesity, all currently plaguing Detroit, which has a life expectancy rate lower than any other American city.

One sustainable solution is for Detroit to grow their own food. There is plentiful open land, fertile soil, ample water and a willing workforce. A recent study by a student at Michigan State University indicates that Detroit has enough vacant land to grow 76 percent of the vegetables and 42 percent of the fruits consumed by city residents. The acres of abandoned buildings and property lots make Detroit a hotbed for community gardens and large-scale urban agriculture.

According to GreenBiz.com, the Hantz Group (a Michigan-based financial company) recently announced a plan to develop 10,000 acres of vacant land in downtown Detroit into a mixture of cash crops, ornamental gardens and riding trails. There are over 103,000 vacant lots in the city, 60,000 of which are owned by the city. Urban Farming, a non-profit organization, headed by Taja Seville, has already taken over nearly 60 derelict properties in Detroit and the surrounding areas since 2008. Their mission is to “eradicate hunger while increasing diversity, motivating youth and seniors and optimizing the production of unused land for food and alternative energy.” After the food is grown and dispersed, what ever is left over is donated to local food banks.

Detroit may be in the best position to become the world’s first 100 percent food self-sufficient city…talk about sustainability! Imagine America’s once prosperous, industrial Detroit as the first modern American city where agriculture, not automobiles, is the most vital industry. Mark Dowie, an investigative historian, eloquently portrayed a vision of Detroit in his article, Food Among the Ruins, as one where growing in the city are “chard and tomatoes on vacant lots, orchards on former school grounds, mushrooms in open basements, fish in abandoned factories, hydroponics in bankrupt department stores, livestock grazing on former golf courses, high rise farms in old hotels and waving wheat where cars were once test-driven.”

Can you see it yet?


▼▼▼      9 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • Jen Boynton

    love it. Thanks for this excellent piece Cory!

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  • http://peoplingplaces.wordpress.com Lynn Stevens

    “food desert, defined as a locality from which healthy food is more than twice as far away as unhealthy food”

    I’m troubled by this definition as it would make almost every big city neighborhood a food desert. In the cities we have convenience stores on every second corner at least, but the grocery stores may be at least 1/4 – 1/2 mile apart (or more of course), though still walkable (for most).

  • Ashwin Seshagiri

    I just heard something about the city of Detroit considering filing for bankruptcy. I wonder what sort of implications this kind of development would have when a city needs survival rather than revitalization.

  • Ryan Patrick Hooper

    Before you write off Detroit as a “food desert,” consider the idea that Detroit’s Eastern Market is the largest historic public market in the United States. Each weekend (about eight to nine months out of the year), fresh produce, local meat and other weekly grocery items are made available to thousands upon thousands of citizens from both the suburbs and inner-city. Also, Meijer recently signed a deal to open a store in north Detroit.

    Considering Eastern Market’s growth (even in a dire economy), a line like “supples of fresh fruits and veggies disappearing” doesn’t really apply. I like your point of view on the potential of Detroit and your writing in general (this is not written in anger by any means), but in the future, you should do some more research before predicting the future and availability of fresh food for an entire city.

  • Erin Marie McDonald

    A food desert is defined by “little or no access” to healthy food. I hardly believe that one (admittedly) large public market and a Meijer (not even open yet) in a city that is 143 square miles constitutes as easy access to fresh and healthy produce. Especially when you consider that limited mobility and financial resources are two integral parts of the problem that create food deserts.

    What is making the on the grounds, large difference is neither Eastern Market or Meijer. The exponential increase in community gardens, networks like the Garden Resource Program, the creation of new farmers markets in underserved neighborhoods, are addressing the actual problems in a local, concrete manner.

    I have lived and worked on-and-off in various neighborhoods in Detroit for several years. I would describe Detroit as a food desert that is amidst an Agricultural Revolution. The city, state, and national government has failed the people of Detroit. Yet the beauty lies in the residents, the activists, the farmers, and the artists who are taking these problems into their own hands, into their own neighborhoods, and into their own backyards, where they cultivate new solutions and a new way to urban sustainability.

  • Roxanne Christensen

    What can help to power the movement to relocalize food production in Detroit is a commercial sub-acre farming system called SPIN-Farming. SPIN makes it possible to earn $50,000+ from a half acre. SPIN farmers utilize relay cropping to increase yield and achieve good economic returns by growing only the most profitable food crops tailored to local markets. SPIN’s growing techniques are not, in themselves, breakthrough. What is novel is the way a SPIN farm business is run. SPIN provides everything you’d expect from a good franchise: a business plan, marketing advice, and a detailed day-to-day workflow. In standardizing the system and creating a reproducible process it really isn’t any different from McDonalds. There are now hundreds of practicing SPIN farmers around the U.S. and Canada, and this is happening without significant policy changes or government supports. It is entirely entrepreneurially-driven. You can see some of these SPIN farmers in action at http://www.spinfarming.com

  • Laura

    The emptying of Detroit has not been as a result of the “death of the auto industry,” as stated in this article. Since the 1950s, the population of Detroit proper has consistently decreased while the population (and land mass) of the city’s metropolitan region has increased, census after census. Sprawl, fueled by car culture, racism, and the downward spiral of urban decay, is the reason for Detroit’s present state.

    While it is true that Detroit needs more access to healthy foods throughout the city and that urban agriculture is a tremendous opportunity, the presence of grocery stores in the city has been misrepresented in the national media. There may be no chain stores, but there are independent grocers throughout the city that sell perfectly acceptable produce and any other product one would expect to find at an average grocery store. Why does a grocery store have to be part of a national chain to be recognized? Many stories in the national press tell about Detroit residents who have to go to the suburbs to buy groceries and who travel as much as 30 miles. They may do this, but it is only because they want to. There are plenty of stores (as well as several farmers’ markets, including the excellent Eastern and Gratiot Central Markets) in the city limits where residents can buy healthy food.

    There is a very real problem, however, for residents who have limited mobility. These residents (as well as everyone else) would benefit from additional farmers’ markets. Perhaps the biggest benefit would result if the ubiquitous “party stores” (liquor/convenience stores) converted back to the neighborhood corner store of old and started selling produce and other healthy food the way they did decades ago.

  • Suzanne

    Great article to inspire a dialogue for using the resources in Michigan. I was recently in Detroit and amazed at the number of large scale growers (nurseries) in the area that ship to the rest of the country. Agrarian paradise….yes.

  • Cory Vanderpool

    Thanks everyone for the comments. The purpose of articles like this one and others on this site is to get a discussion going. We as writers are not experts in every field, but do our best to gather information from all sides, synthesize it and put out a thought-provoking piece. Whether you agree or disagree, you learn more about where you stand and how you feel about the issues at hand. Great discussion!!