Detroit: The Next Agrarian Paradise?

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?

Cory Vanderpool joined EnOcean Alliance as the Business Development Director for North America. Prior to this role, she was Executive Director of GreenLink Alliance, a non profit organization dedicated to promoting energy conservation in buildings and tax incentives for building owners. Before establishing GreenLink, Cory worked in business development supporting a government contracting firm focused on civilian and defense markets. In addition to her work at EnOcean, Cory is also pursuing her PhD in Environmental Policy at George Mason University and is a part-time contributing writer at Triple Pundit.