Detroit, Michigan's urban agriculture has been enjoying stunning popularity for several years. From a city in exponential decline since the national financial crisis of the end of the last decade, the city's citizens and organisms are eager to promote a new paradigm that could help save the city from inevitable bankruptcy. The politicians, intellectuals and specialists are in agreement in saying that this method, which could be adapted in other great North American metropolises, is probably the path to giving a new life to Detroit. What if the Motor City took the green road?
From Motor City to a Dead City
Since the second half of the 20th century, Detroit, the signature city of the U.S. automotive industry, has experienced an unbelievable drop in its population base; from a city of 1.85 million inhabitants in 1950, it counted 713,000 people in 2010, a sixty-one percent reduction in its population. Several elements lead to this dramatic drop.
First of all, Detroit concentrated its industrial development into a single sector, the automotive industry. The nature of this sector lead to a strong unionization, which was central to its population. All of this engendered tensions and intense social protests. Also, at the beginning of the last century, we witnessed an African-American migration from the South: the latter were confined to overpopulated ghettos and Detroit became a theatre for racial tensions. While thirty percent of its population was black in 1960, Detroit went through major racial riots, one after the other, in 1944 and 1967.
In 1973, on the eve of the election of Coleman Young, the first black mayor in Detroit, the city went through its first "white flight," or the exodus of the whites to the suburbs. As a result, the city of Detroit developed a reputation for being dangerous; seventy percent of its population was made up of ethnic minorities at that point, sixty-three percent of which were African-Americans. The sub-prime mortgage crisis in 2007 did not improve Detroit's fate. Today, we estimate that nearly a third of the city's properties are abandoned, with 67,000 among them after the crisis of 2007. Detroit is currently the poorest agglomeration in the country with a third of its population living on the brink of poverty.
Tens of thousands of jobs have moved from the city center to outlying suburbs or to elsewhere in the country. The city itself is on the brink of bankruptcy. Already being the city that burdens the country the most with its citizens, Detroit can no longer fulfill basic needs, like renovating basic infrastructure or social programs. We estimate that 233 square kilometers of the city are vacant. This critical situation thus brings about enormous financial losses and increases the cost for upkeep and maintenance of services.
Urban Agriculture: A Solution and Stake
Undefined and abandoned territories have multiplied with the passage of time, creating a break in the urban landscape of Detroit's neighborhoods. The solution came from the inhabitants themselves with more than 500,000 living in food deserts - meaning in neighborhoods where it's difficult to access (physically and financially) fresh food. The solution: re-purpose undefined land and, on a small scale, plant vegetable and community gardens, or on a large scale, urban farms.
The urban agriculture movement which has been in existence for several decades, has taken off these last few years. In 2003, the University of Michigan decided that the city, with its current population, could support forty-one, 4,000 square-meter supermarkets; and yet, there are none. In 2012, Michigan State University also confirmed that the 44,000 vacant public lots of the city, representing 20,000 square meters, could potentially produce seventy-six percent of the vegetables and forty-two percent of the fruits consumed by Detroit's inhabitants. Thus, the city's residents began to organize and maintain these territories in order to create enriching spaces for the community out of them.
The use of land area mainly for agriculture is prohibited in Detroit. Yet, faced with the urgency of reacting, the municipal authorities resigned themselves to accepting the situation, which had already been identified by a large part of the population, local social groups and specialists as being an avenue for Detroit's growth. Since there was no precedent, a few years ago, the city raised committees in order to examine the question and facilitate the task of urban farmers.
The Detroit Food Policy Council was created in 2009. The paramunicipal organization's objective is to work toward the promotion of urban agriculture in Detroit, facilitate collaboration between municipal and paramunicipal organizations, and provide recommendation on new food regulations. Each year, it organizes a summit on food, "Detroit Food," and in 2010, it produced a report on food organization in Detroit. Also, the Urban Agriculture Workgroup, administered by the City Planning Commission, aims for the modification of zoning regulations in order to facilitate the establishment of agriculture on a larger scale. Mayor David Bing, an old NBA star who played for the Detroit Pistons, has also declared that he supports urban agriculture. He even entertains the idea of being able to re-centralize the population of his city, in such a way freeing up arable land. The American Institute of Architects estimates that the inhabitants of the metropolitan region of Detroit could be concentrated over 130 square kilometers, and that the 233 free square kilometers could accommodate agriculture.
There are a number of obstacles regarding the new Detroit economy based on urban agriculture. First of all, a large part of the city's land area is contaminated or has soil that it not suitable for agriculture. Now, on a small scale, soil contamination is perhaps not a huge danger, but the growers need to imagine costly or high-maintenance ways to decontaminate it. Also, in a more dense urban setting than the countryside, the coexistence between the residents of a neighborhood and commercial farms is an important consideration.
It's necessary to plan and think of physical ways to ensure that there is a cohesion between the different settings. While the city has put into place certain methods to facilitate agriculture, there is no policy yet in Detroit, and zoning laws still prohibit agrarian use, even if they tolerate it. We are dealing with an important political move, and opposition exists in Detroit; we can start with the automotive industry lobby, which wants to guard its stronghold on the city.
Despite the existing hurdles, residents are coming together and constructing several viable projects for the city's territories. The most important structure in place is the Detroit Garden Resource Program (DGRP). Directed by four groups, Greening of Detroit, Detroit Agricultural Network, Michigan State University Extension and Earthworks Urban Farms, the DGRP oversees eighty community gardens. This includes the management of more than 1,3000 garden plots rented out at between ten and twenty dollars per year, as well as the distribution of plants, grains and training.
In such a way, the organization makes sure that each small garden plot is used in an optimal way. In this program, Greening of Detroit is one of the most active organizations; it maintains the DGRP website and holds "open doors" between February and October. It supports 857 family plots, as well as supplying forty-eight markets. Also, Michigan State University Extension ensures university-level research and supports the artisans of urban agriculture in Detroit. They not only help with the soil culture, but also with more intensive forms of agriculture, such as animal husbandry.
Another initiative, Detroit Works, makes for an ambitious plan for restructuring the city, both in the short and long term. It's jointly directed by the Bing administration and several fund managers, among them the Kresge Foundation and the Ford Foundation. The short term plan puts its efforts into the development of the neighborhoods and landscapes - and leaves aside the efforts put into infrastructure, industry and commerce - the most vacant as well as the most occupied, regardless of which sector of the city they are in. The objective is to optimize the use of the soil in Detroit neighborhoods. Based in terrain development, Detroit Works wants to create new innovative jobs on the currently unused lots in order to put the breaks on the drastic drop in the value of Detroit's land area.
Several other initiatives encourage and promote Detroit's agriculture. The Detroit Eastern Market, which receives 40,000 curious visitors each week for its Saturday market, distributes and sells a part of the production of more than 250 local merchants. SEED Wayne is engaged in promoting and maintaining a sustainable agriculture culture on the campus of Wayne State University and in the adjacent communities. The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network has acquired lots since 2006 in order to build farms. It then distributes the harvests to its members or resells them in local markets. In addition to creating jobs and helping the city's black communities, it implants a sustainable culture within a poor community in Detroit. As far as its concerned, Suddenly Sauer is a small company which creates unique marinated products as well as artisanal ice creams out of the vegetables and fruits of Detroit. The distribution, limited to members, is still marginal.
We are talking about a handful of actors involved in the urban agricultural movement in Detroit. From a city on the brink of bankruptcy, the communities knew how to roll up their sleeves and save its lands parcel by parcel by imposing a new regime, which is now seen as Detroit's solution by its political, intellectual and commercial classes. Detroit, which for a long time survived and made its name thanks to the ubiquitous presence of the automotive industry, polluting and alienating its society, at the current moment, is doing a 180 in order to survive.
Can urban agriculture help change the path for the City of Detroit? Might Detroit face worse problems in the face of not diversifying its economics? Where have other urban agriculture programs been started; what makes them successful?
Original article, originally published in French, here.
Credits: Data and images linked to sources.