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Can urban farming rescue Detroit?

Detroit is about to embark on a journey that is unavoidable, but also seems unreal.  The amount of space considered blight or wasteland is so huge, and the prospects for rehabilitating it so small, that Detroit must come up with a viable plan to demolish large sections of the city and possibly return it to farmland.  It sounds like something out of science fiction, but it is real and apparently might have some benefits.  An editorial in the Free Press discusses some of this:

One likely component of any viable plan to reverse blight and reclaim Detroit's vacant land for productive use is legislative action to boost the city's nascent urban farming movement.

Mayor Dave Bing says he's open to promoting the cultivation of crops south of 8 Mile. Sometime this year, Detroit City Council members will likely be asked to add a new zoning designation authorizing commercial agricultural production in neighborhoods previously restricted to residential, retail or manufacturing development. And one visionary entrepreneur vows to market his first crop of salad greens this fall, even if he has to use hydroponic growing methods to comply with zoning that currently precludes the commercial cultivation of the city's soil.

Grow more, market more

To Detroiters who grew up in a densely populated city of some 2 million souls, the notion of urban real estate reverting to farmland may seem a devolutionary development that seals Detroit's demise as a viable city. But it could also augur changes as revolutionary as those that transformed the transportation industry a century ago.

What are these opportunities (Free Press)?

To exploit that opportunity, Detroiters and their elected officials will have to start thinking of fresh food as an urban amenity and their city as a potential player in the state's agricultural industry. Not a single Detroit legislator currently sits on either of the legislative committees that oversee the state's gargantuan agribusiness sector, and only one, Sen. Martha Scott, has a vote on either of the appropriations subcommittees that determine how public support for farming is apportioned in Michigan. The need for the next generation of Detroit legislators to take a more active interest in such matters is obvious.

So is the need for the mayor and the City Council to create zoning opportunities and a hospitable business climate for everyone, from aspiring commercial growers like Detroit's John Hantz to nonprofit groups such as Greening of Detroit.

Detroit, which suffers from a competitive disadvantage in so many other economic sectors, could be ideally posed to exploit the possibilities inherent in the local food movement that is sweeping the nation. This is a moment for visionary city leaders to seize that opportunity, and chart the path to a new model of urban success.

The first question is: Do you have any better ideas?  Green energy? Wait for the auto industry to return to what it once was in Michigan? Endless tax credits to turn Detroit into Hollywood-Midwest?  Those ideas all need to be considered, but they're all speculative and there might not be benefits for a long time.  Aside from the potential economic benefits, Detroit  also needs to do this because they cannot afford to maintain services to such a huge area, and something needs to be done to give the city something of a fresh start. 

Aside from ensuring public safety, there is no reason for Detroit's leaders not to create a more hospitable business climate for such farming (what do they have to lose?).  It's possible that entreprenueral situations don't come along like this in America much any more (it might  even have a Wild West-esque feel), and that might attract  people who think there is money to be make in urban farming that would not otherwise consider Detroit a worthwhile venture. 

Other benefits could include there being less crime in areas with farmland as opposed to abandoned buildings, and it might even spark some tourism in the long run.  Until they come up with a better idea, Detroit should move forward on increasing the viability of urban farming and cultivating it as a new productive industry in the city.


  • Donald Michael Schwartz 5 years ago

    I think this is a great ideas. Inner city residents have a lack of access to fresh quality produce at reasonable prices. Crops can also be grown for green energy purposes. Detroiters could, not only start community supported agriculture projects (CSAs), but also start ethanol energy co-ops.

    The re-greening of Detroit has the potential to make Detroit the most livable city in the USA someday. That day, of course, would be far off into the future - but what a great gift to our grandchildren.

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