Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture

Urban Farming May Well Hold The Key To The Future Of Detroit

By Nolan Finley / The Detroit News
Sunday, March 13, 2005

Urban farming may well hold the key to the future of Detroit

What do you do with a city after most of its people leave? That's not a question that gets asked often in Detroit.

Instead, we keep posing the more hopeful questions.

How do we restore Detroit's neighborhoods to their 1950s heyday? How do we draw residents back to refill the schools and revitalize the business districts? How do we recreate a meaningful downtown?

But what if the answer to those questions is, "It ain't gonna happen"? Then what? What do you do with a city that's been all but abandoned? Do you let it become a ghost town?

As Detroit's residents drain away, they leave behind gap-toothed neighborhoods. Residential blocks with only one or two viable homes. Vast expanses of vacant land.

A city built to hold 2 million people now contains less than half that number. Thousands of acres sit idle within the city borders. Recently, teams of urban planning students from the University of Michigan swarmed over Eastern Market to brainstorm ways of pumping new energy into that part of downtown.

The teams looked at fresh designs for the market, as well as how to better use it to energize the surrounding community. One of the more intriquing ideas posted by several of the teams was urban agriculture.

Farms in the city. Truck patches to grow produce to be sold in Eastern Market's stalls. A terrific idea, and one that should be considered citywide. Suburban sprawl is a reality in Metro Detroit. People keep pushing outward, and nothing seems to deter them. Urban decline is also a reality. City residents keep leaving, and neighborhoods continue to fall into neglect, and so far, we haven't found the answer to stop the slide. We may reach a point where struggling against the inevitable is pointless. Then, the challenge will be putting all that empty land to use.

City farming might be an option.

Rather than a strong urban core with rural outskirts, Metro Detroit may evolve into a suburban ring around a re-ruralized core. It's one way to counter the negative affects of sprawl. As a region, we'd replace the open spaces that are being gobbled up on the outer edges with new farmland and forests where the city used to be. "It may be that the future of Detroit lies in a series of viable communities linked by open spaces, parks, forests and farms," says professor Roy Strickland, director of the Masters of Urban Design program at U-M. "That will require some tough political decision-making about the future direction of the city."

Farming fits Detroit's history. The city started as an agricultural settlement, with long narrow farms stretching inland from the river. Then as now, Detroit is built on good, fertile ground.

And while nobody's suggesting turning downtown's skyscrapers into grain silos, we may eventually face the choice of letting that empty land continue to sprout weeds and tumble-down houses, or putting it back to work growing tomatoes and grazing cattle.

That wouldn't necessarily mean giving up on Detroit's future, but rather making the vision of the future better fit the reality.

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Revised Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture