Detroit: The New Frontier for Urban Farming?
Detroit is a city where a very important, very innovative U.S. industry was born: assembly line automobile manufacturing. The recession has left the car industry gasping for breath and looking for government handouts, and what was once the backbone of Michigan’s economy is thriving no longer. Meanwhile, unemployment in the city is at an all-time high of 27 percent. The average Detroit home is valued at $15,000, the lowest in the country. Crime and vacancies pervade across the landscape. Detroit needs an opportunity to turn blight into growth.
The answer may be farms.
What makes Detroit the perfect city for growing food? Available land is cheap, empty lots are plentiful, and residents are desperately seeking jobs. The total vacant property space in Detroit covers roughly the same space as the entire city of San Francisco. The number of small community gardens has been growing each year, and larger scale commercial agriculture could be coming as city planners draw up land use rules for farming.
Large Scale Commercial
Millionaire businessman and founder of Hantz Farms, John Hantz, has a vision to create the world’s largest urban farm within the city limits of Detroit. He’s behind this vision with $30 million of his own cash. Hantz’s farm plan involves “pods” placed throughout the city. The pods will utilize the latest in sustainable farming technology like compost-heated greenhouses and hydroponic systems. Also worth noting: For now, Hantz Farms will be creating conventional farms, complete with the customary pesticides and fertilizers. This is because organic certifications take upwards of three years to approve. Hantz wants to get moving. The more I read about this man, his gated home and his expensive cars and cigars, the more cynical I grow about his motives (just check out this Fortune article from last year), but it’s true a business-savvy approach might be what the city needs…
Small Scale Nonprofit
Urban Farming, a nonprofit founded in the city, has been turning vacant lots into garden plots for a couple of years now. The model works at very low overhead to the organization or to the city (who supplies the water), and anyone and everyone can walk into the unfenced gardens and take their pick of produce. Any excess goes to food banks. Urban Farming is growing rapidly, too—they plan to reach 1,100 gardens in thirty U.S. cities in 2010.
Questions remain to be answered about taxing, zoning, and what to do about remaining residents that may be scattered amongst targeted land parcel areas. These obstacles have stalled farming on larger parcels. Rather than recreate the city with some new agrarian model, companies like Hantz Farms hope to do as much planting as possible in the city limits as they are now.
I find myself asking: What does it mean that a once industrial city is returning to the land to save its economy? What does it say about shifting economics, industries and values in America? A “model city” for successful urban agriculture in the U.S. has yet to emerge, although Portland, the Bay Area and Los Angeles have several farm programs underway. Could Detroit be the golden city of the future, and is it only after losing so much industry that this option emerges?
As an organization that keeps a finger on the pulse of sustainability issues throughout the Upper Midwest, the folks at the Minnesota Project are keen to observe the progress Detroit makes in this urban farms experiment. Perhaps a single food-focused project will spur economic growth in other areas and industries in the city. Is commercial farming, versus smaller individual or community-sponsored farming, the surest path to success? To my mind, Detroit’s residents are in need of both access to healthy foods and access to paid, full-time employment. Large-scale farming may promise those jobs. If Hantz can provide jobs as well as fruits and veggies at fair prices, it seems a winning combination. Then again, Urban Farming is giving their produce away. On its own scale, the city of Detroit is going to have to grapple with the fundamental issues at odds within the “food movement” nationwide–how to balance sustainability with access and affordability.
What do you think? Feel free to join the conversation below. And stay tuned to the MN Project blog, because next week I’ll be doing a Q&A with the folks at Urban Farming to learn more about their goals for the program.
Nonprofit headquartered in Detroit and now expanded to 30 other cities across the U.S.
A commercial farm formed by longtime Detroit businessman John Hantz.