[URBANTH-L]NEWS: From Motor City to Garden City

Angela Jancius jancius3022 at comcast.net
Mon Apr 27 21:40:42 EDT 2009

>From Motor City to Garden City

April 27, 2009, Planetization
By Michael Summerton


Detroit may be struggling economically, but community groups and citizen 
activists are keeping the city vibrant with a wide variety of urban farming 
projects throughout the shrinking city.

Adam, a young Detroiter with a warm and easy way, works at Le Petit Zinc, a 
cafe on the way to Corktown. I'm slurping through a giant bowl of hot 
chocolate while Adam rests on his haunches opposite, his chin at tabletop 
level. He's talking about the responsibility that goes with inheriting a 
piece of farmland in the middle of an American city. "Our garden has grown 
to four city plots. Two older ladies had been farming there for decades. 
Until they passed away they were feeding their families for years. We're 
excited because the soil is really good, but it's a big garden now. I think 
we're going to plant an orchard."

The plight and blight of Detroit has been well documented. Between 1960 and 
2000 the city lost 75% of its jobs, mainly through restructuring in the auto 
industry. 50% of the population, one million people, left town and 200,000 
buildings have disappeared through processes of abandonment, demolition and 
arson. On the lower east side less than 20% of pre-1960 structures remain 
and over half of these are empty. Nature has reclaimed swathes of downtown 
Detroit - shrubs sprout through cracked concrete and grass and ivy covers 
the timber frames of empty, sagging houses.

This unique cityscape today offers a fertile opportunity for urban 
agriculture. Projects underway are not centrally led by city institutions 
but, to push a metaphor, grow organically from the grassroots up. Many 
downtown residents are active urban farmers in their downtime. Adam explains 
that Detroiters have always cultivated their lots for food, often out of 
economic necessity, whereas recent arrivals are attracted by the potential 
for sustainable urban living - land is cheap, buildings are ripe for 
adaptation to efficient green technologies, there is even a resurgent 
cycling scene in motor city - and home-grown food is central to this vision.

Keeping chickens for eggs is the latest thing. I meet Margaret at the Motor 
City Brewery in the Cass Corridor, where a number of small enterprises are 
clustering. Spring is imminent so she's planning her plot for the year and 
hopes to introduce a chicken run amongst the prairie, permaculture and 
vegetables. "It's illegal," she said. "A lot of what we do is illegal, but 
who's enforcing it? In Detroit a lot is left for you to work out with your 

Recent commitment from unlikely quarters also suggest that urban agriculture 
makes economic sense. Ford, whose name is synonymous with the city's rise 
and fall, now maintains 200 acres of corn and sunflowers close to its global 
HQ in Dearborn. And this month John R. Hantz, a Detroit financier, unveiled 
plans drawn up with the Kellogg Foundation for the world's largest urban 
farm. Hantz set out his ambitions for the project, which if granted city 
approval, will transform 70 acres on the lower east side. "Detroit could be 
the nation's leading example of urban farming and become a destination for 
fresh, local and natural foods," Hantz said. 

Much of what is grown is consumed by the farmers and their immediate 
communities but tenable jobs could also be created by selling any surplus 
through the largest open-air produce market in the U.S., Eastern Market, 
which occupies five downtown city blocks around Russell Street. Dan Carmody, 
Director of the Eastern Market Corporation, identifies two reasons why 
Detroit is now well placed to offer a post-industrial version of the 
Athenian Agora or Roman Forum, a vibrant food market and central public 
space: "Michigan is an incredibly diverse state agriculturally, second only 
to California in the U.S. in the number of different crops grown 
commercially, and the traders at Eastern Market have not been forced out by 
condo-loft mania like the market districts in NYC or Chicago." 
 Last year 
Eastern Market welcomed up to 40,000 visitors on Saturdays throughout the 
Summer. This Spring the historic central sheds are being rejuvenated to 
accommodate a forecast growth in business, driven by a widespread demand for 
fresh produce. The Detroit Agriculture Network (DAN), a citywide coalition 
of community farmers, operates a stand at the market and according to 
Carmody "each year their offerings increase and they have more product to 

The modern era had its urban corollary in Detroit, the city which devoured 
its hinterland to maximize mass-production, built freeways (an astonishing 
265 miles between 1950 and 1975) to expedite the movement of resources and 
goods, and the cars and trucks to go on them. Detroit, of all places, shows 
signs that urban agriculture could offer the key to life in the 
post-industrial city.

Michael Summerton is an independent urbanist and writer with professional 
planning experience in the UK, North-America and West-Africa. He currently 
lives in Toronto. 

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