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Will Detroit Become a Showcase for Urban Farming?

By November 20, 2010

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Detroit is best known as the home of the U.S. auto industry and a special flavor of 1960s rock music (Motown), but the Motor City also has the potential to become a national center for urban farming, according to a new study by Michigan State University.

The MSU researchers found that turning publicly owned parcels of vacant land into urban farms and community gardens, building produce storage facilities, and using intensive farming techniques and greenhouses to extend the growing season, could supply Detroit residents with more than 75 percent of their fresh vegetables and 40 percent of their fresh fruits.

Over the past 60 years, Detroit's population declined by more than half, from 1.85 million people in 1950 to 912,000 in 2008, which resulted in a lot of vacant and unused land inside the city limits. Using aerial imagery and the city database of vacant property, researchers identified nearly 5,000 acres of public land on more than 44,000 vacant parcels, which are owned by the City of Detroit, Wayne County, or the State of Michigan. The study included only publicly owned land with no existing structures. Researchers purposely excluded all private property as well as land in and around parks, golf courses, cemeteries, schools, churches, hospitals, jails, utilities and rights-of-way.

"Our totals are conservative," said Mike Hamm, who leads the C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems. "But it may be closer to representing the quantity of land more readily available for urban farms and gardens because these parcels are publicly owned and clear of any buildings."

In addition to identifying available properties that could be used for urban agriculture, the study also assessed public opinion on the issue and found that different groups value urban farms for different reasons. Some see widespread implementation of urban farms and community gardens as a chance to earn extra income while others support the idea as a way to have better access to higher-quality foods or to strengthen neighborhoods.

Detroit already has a number of small community gardens, but the proposal to create larger commercial farms within the city limits has languished on the drawing board for nearly two years, according to a story in the Detroit Free Press.

City officials say they are struggling to understand the implications of urban agriculture within the city limits, such as the possibility of increased noise and pollution, lack of zoning regulations for urban farming, and questions about who will benefit from any economic gains. Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, a former NBA-star and successful entrepreneur, is also trying to assess how urban agriculture would mesh with his Detroit Works project--a comprehensive effort to reshape how the city looks and operates, and to breathe new life into Detroit's moribund economy--which Bing announced in early September [2010].

Dan Lijana, a spokesman for Mayor Bing, said the city is considering commercial urban farming as just one of many ideas for economic development and will not be rushed to make a decision. Meanwhile, individual proposals for urban farming on various parcels within the Detroit city limits continue to languish, frustrating people such as Gary Wozniak, project director of RecoveryPark, a nonprofit venture that hopes to begin large-scale urban farming on Detroit's east side in a program that would put recovering addicts and other economically distressed people to work growing crops and processing food for local consumption.

"Everybody's doing all these projects in other cities," Wozniak said in an interview with the Detroit Free Press. "They're all looking at Detroit. They're all looking to us for the ideas we're going to create, and we're not creating any.

"We've asked the city for no money, no tax breaks, no resources other than access to land," he said. "And we don't care if we buy it, lease it, if it's deeded to us, if it's in a trust. Let us try something."

With Detroit Works still in the planning stages, it is not surprising that Bing is in no hurry to implement widespread urban farming in Detroit without first determining how it might support or undermine other key initiatives such as job creation, better transportation, environmental sustainability, and a wide range of neighborhood improvements.

Yet, given the proven benefits of urban agriculture programs in other cities--including increased income and employment, better health and nutrition, reduced energy consumption and fewer greenhouse gas emissions, a stronger and more interactive community life, and greater access to high-quality, locally grown food--Mayor Bing and the people of Detroit would be well-advised to put urban farming high on their list of uses for a good portion of their city's vacant land.

Photo of Detroit skyline by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

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