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Hope for the Motor City: Urban Farms Change Blighted Detroit Neighborhoods

By Jonathan Midgett | Most Popular, Urban Agriculture, Urban Farming

Cities have always served as a center for culture, economic activity, social interaction and integration. Cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago provide iconic views to the citizens who live there as well as to outsiders from other countries looking for a visual definition of an American urban landscape. For industrial cities, there is no other city that can convey the true success and failure of an urban empire other than Detroit. In the mid 1920s the city was on top of the world with 1.5 million residents and a booming automobile industry that provided jobs to 90% percent of its population. It wouldn’t be until after WWII when suburban sprawl and decentralization pulled many city dwellers to the outskirts of the urban center. Deindustrialization, racial tensions, and political corruption would further push the decline of the former urban empire. Today, the city is still struggling with its recent file for bankruptcy and decaying infrastructure. However, residents are starting to develop ways to deal with the decay and are taking back their neighborhoods.

Rebuilding From the Ground Up

One of the largest movements of urban farming in the US is taking place in Detroit. With an estimated 500-1000 farms taking root both large and small, what Detroit has lost visually and structurally, is being made up for agriculturally through grass root and large-scale corporate farming. Automakers in the region have also made the initiative to contribute to the urban farming movement by repurposing shipping crates as raised planters. With Detroit’s population reduced to just 700,000 residents, there’s an abundance of empty lots available, allowing residents, organizations, and businesses to buy up parcels of land for as little as $300.

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Volunteer Wednesdays ay Earth Works urban farm in Detroit. Image via Molded Media.

Urban Agriculture at the Heart of the Motor City

Detroit’s blight has also opened up possibilities for a large company. Hantz Woodlands has proposed plans to use 300 acres to farm oaks, maples, and poplar trees. The trees would then be sold to help the company pay for the land purchased. Hantz also sees the future in growing fruit trees, making fresh fruit available for the summer seasons and creating jobs. Despite this major move by the company, some residents have their concerns. Residents argue that more grassroots based farms give residents a stake in their neighborhoods as opposed to a large-scale farming run by corporations.

Other challenges have arisen from the latest urban farming trends going on in Detroit. The Michigan Right to Farm Act protects farming practices from being labeled nuisances, which causes some discrepancies with the city. If the city can’t control land use, then creating a large-scale farm could prevent the city from having any control over a particular space. City funding and bank funding for farm projects has also been hard to come by for many urban farming enthusiasts in the area. Many independent farm owners have had to dig into their own savings and credit cards to create their independent farms in the city. In addition, potential farmers are having trouble obtaining commercial loans from banks to create these farms. One factor that creates the barrier for farmers is that they have no financial track record to prove their viability. In some cases, the businesses have unconventional methods of running their farms that they aren’t considered eligible for financial assistance, leaving many potential agricultural entrepreneurs digging into their own pockets.

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D-Town urban farm in Detroit. Image via Hello Ms. Detroit.

Non-Profits Support Urban Farming Economy

In efforts to help potential farmers, the Fair Food Network, a national non-profit dedicated to improving access to healthy foods influencing public policy, is providing microloans to potential farm owners. These loans carry flexible interest rates depending on business fluctuations, which allow the FFN to have a closer relationship with entrepreneurs as appose to a typical loan from a bank that is usually out of touch with the business owner. Rather than having a history of strong profits, future farm owners can have a business plan to make them eligible for the loan.

Other positives have come out of the urban farming movement in the city. In addition to assisting in eliminating food deserts in the city, the farms also provide activities for the youth. The Greening of Detroit, another non-profit located in the city, has created the Green Corps, which employs 200 high school students over the summer. Schools have also started integrating urban farming into their curriculum as well.

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Community Supported Agriculture encourages families to pick their own produce. Image via Ann Arbor Detroit, Kids Out And About.

Resilience in the Face of Challenge

In the midst of high crime, violence, and decay, the amazing efforts of residents, non-profits, and corporations have given hope citizens of Detroit.  Residents are now seeing how agriculture is changing the lives of those living in the city in terms of health and community development. Although the city has an extremely long way to go to restore itself, the establishment of urban farms is a step forward.

Feature Image: Repurposed GM shipping containers are used as urban garden planter beds. Image via Fastlane.gm.com

Editor’s Note

For more information on the urban farming culture of Detroit visit some of the following websites of groups that are working to rebuild the Motor City:

RecoveryPark

A collaborative planned community of like-minded Detroit residents that will develop over a 10-year period. RecoveryPark will redefine urban living for struggling community members through education, urban farming, food production, and commercial and residential construction.

Urban Farming

The mission of Urban Farming is to transform the lives of struggling Detroit residents to give them back their independence through the economic opportunities obtained through the practice of urban agriculture. Urban Farming turns unused land into development opportunities for youth, adults, and seniors to center them towards healthy living.

Hantz Woodlands

This urban forest project is aiming to plant 15,000 trees on May 17 with the help of volunteers. Hantz Group has a vision of new, green, and lively Detroit urban center that will reinvigorate and inspire residents back to economic and environmental prosperity.

About The Author

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Originally from the rural suburbs of Maryland, Jonathan Terrell Midgett has always had a curiosity for urban life. His exposure to city life in the areas of Richmond, Washington D.C and Baltimore, would later lead him to travel throughout his college career. Jonathan began studying at Virginia Commonwealth University and then later transferred to Towson University where he would gain his Bachelors of Science in Metropolitan Studies. While studying at Towson, Jonathan studied urban design in Denmark at the Danish Institute for Studies Abroad. Currently, Jonathan is a freelance photographer and is enrolled in the Graduate Architecture program at Morgan State. He continues to express his love for urbanism and sustainable design through academics, Research, and freelance photography.