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Plowing Over: Can Urban Farming Save Detroit and Other Declining Cities? Will the Law Allow It?

Aug 1, 2011, 08:50 am CDT

Comments

Wow, what a cool concept! Anybody know if there’s anything like this going on in the San Francisco Bay area?

By blown-away on 2011 07 30, 3:19 am CDT

Yes there appears to be a good amount of farming in your area.  Try googleing San Francisco urban farming.

By Maria on 2011 07 30, 3:29 am CDT

hmmmm, the guy who wrote Forget Urban Farms- We Need a Wal-Mart needs to have his head examined.  nobody needs a Wal-Mart.  in fact, one of the benefits of urban farming not mentioned in this article might be the rebirth of communities with strong enough local economies that they can ignore the shopping malls

By carolyn on 2011 07 30, 6:06 pm CDT

Carolyn….....I’m the guy who suggested forget urban farms and look for Wal-Mart instead. Perhaps I need my head examined—opinions vary on this point. But you need a trip to one of these inner-city neighborhoods, many of them food deserts, that are being encouraged by well-meaning locavores like you to plow up tiny and often polluted vacant lots and plant them with the produce that will feed entire neighborhoods through the long Detroit winters. This is just cruel. It helps a bit at the margin—anything that provides people with some fresh produce is a plus—but it will never solve the problem. These projects will never be self-sustaining—even Will Allen’s terrific project in Milwaukee needs subsidies to keep going. In addition, most of these people are the edescendants of folks to who came north to escape share-cropping down South, to get jobs in the mighty industries of the day. Now these industries are gone and they’re stranded. A return to inner-city share-cropping is not my idea of a civilizational advance. What they need are jobs, which will come from investment that neither cities nor the private sector seems likely to make any time soon. Only an ideologue with no conception of how communities and economies are formed would think that these pathetic little plots are the core of this solution. Sorry to be cynical, but I’m only interested in getting decent food to people who need it, not in salving your little whimsies. So yes, I’m in favor of Wal-Mart or any other store who can bring this food to all neighborhoods. I’ve written that, if Wal-mart wants to set up superstores in cities, it should be required to also set up smaller local marts selling fresh produce and wrapped meats throughout the city. It should be required to make a commitment—10 years, say—and also to offer nutrition classes. Now, whaddaya know? Wal-Marts are indeed opening smaller stores in these cdfities. So are drugstores like Walgreens, which hve opened produce sections in food deserts. I don’t know if any of this food is grown locally and I don’t care. All i care about is feeding people on something other than Doritos. How about you?

By Richard Longworth on 2011 08 01, 3:42 pm CDT

On the food desert front, one promising project in Cleveland is a large scale urban greenhouse, to be run on an employee-owned cooperative model.  This is good for rust belt cities with cold winters.  There are commercial greenhouses in Canada and the Netherlands; surely we can do it here.  Also I recently read about new ways to treat lead-contaminated soils, which would help assure the safety of soil-based inner city gardening.  So there are lots of ways to make this work.  Perhaps the urban greenhouse could sell to the urban Wal-Mart!

By Catherine LaCroix on 2011 08 01, 6:36 pm CDT

We need a Wal Mart?

I think the talk of needing “access” to fresh food is mistaken.  Access to fresh food is not the problem, it’s valuing fresh food.  I have not simply “taken a trip” to the inner city, I have a garden on a vacant lot in an area frequented by prostitutes, drug dealers and junkies.  People ask me, “aren’t you afraid someone will steal all the food you grow?”  I used to me, but then found that no one was interested in my vegetables.  I invite people from the neighborhood to pick as much as they want and they say “That’s alright man.”  I’ve also picked it myself and given it away, but the second time around people said, “That’s alright, man last time that stuff just rotted back where I ‘stay.”

These people have cash, cash for drugs, cash for cigarettes, cash for beer.  They want a $1 hamburger from McDonalds that they don’t even have to microwave.  They also have food stamps.  If there were a demand for vegetables, trust me, Wal Mart or some other grocery store would be there.

I’m not trying to put these people down either.  I look at them and it would be so much easier for them to have a better life. I wonder what demons drive them to spend all their time drinking and doing drugs, fighting with each other, putting so much thought and effort into stealing things that they could make a good honest living if they used that energy to start a little business.

With my little 1/4 acre garden I am trying to promote the value of fresh food (though my main interest is growing good food for myself and getting exercise).  They know I’m a white collar professional and they ask me why I work so hard in that garden.  I explain that it is free exercise that pays me something, that I work off stress, that the food tastes a lot better, that the food makes me feel good rather than the nasty way I used to feel when I ate McDonalds.  I’m making a little progress.  Four people in the neighborhood are now raising rabbits, chickens and/or vegetables.  Others are now trying out recipes and come brag to me about how well they can cook.

By Erik on 2011 08 03, 1:11 pm CDT

Wow, what a good idea.  Hope Detroit fully embraces it.  I don’t live there anymore, but would like to move back.  It would enrich the character of the city and allow any money that is made to be kept locally.

By Michele on 2011 08 18, 6:05 am CDT

Hmmm…as often the case the issue is more complex than many of the comments address.  From my vantage point having worked with planners, lawyers, nonprofits and policymakers in several shrinking cities (Detroit, Buffalo, Cleveland, Flint, etc.) where urban agriculture is being tested, there are three, perhaps four issues that may need supplemental policy and legal changes:  1) a food security/food equity; 2) a jobs/high unemployment issue; 3) vacant and abandoned properties issues; 4) a regional growth management issue; and a 5) climate change issue. 

The folks in Detroit and many shrinking cities are becoming more realistic—they have an over supply of urban land and with less people and less jobs—so instead of living in neighborhoods with vacant and abandoned properties, why not reclaim it for productive use?  Urban Ag might be possible in some places.  Cleveland has a great program as part of its Reimagining initiative.  Philly uses vacant lots for green infrastructure and stormwater control.  Hopefully these are temporary approaches (5-10+ years) to help stabilize these most distressed neighborhoods and offer them some hope, peace of mind, and security. 

Then the private sector might be willing to return (Wal Marts included I guess), but instead of Wal Marts (who are unlikely to go to places where the demand is so low), why not provide incentives for growing small green businesses that reconnect people to the land of today and not the sharecropping past?  Nonprofits in places such as Youngstown and Flint are training folks in the basics of green infrastructure maintenance and management—not ideal jobs, but still jobs without long commutes. 

I do want to raise the climate change issue as it adds greater complexity.  These plans in Detroit should be made in the context of a 20-30 year time horizon when the world as we know will be vastly different.  Having local food systems (probably from a regional scale) might give all residents of Detroit access to healthy food when it becomes cost prohibitive to fly grapes in from Chile during January.

By JM Schilling on 2011 08 23, 9:25 pm CDT

Very thoughtful comments, JM.  One minor point (actually a couple of points) I would like to make in regard to share cropping:  The first point, is that the history of sharecropping is largely misunderstood, due in part to banking interests that wanted to make money off the backs of the “victims” of the sharecropping system.  The second point is that arrangements very similar to sharecropping offer advantages to would-be farmers.  To cite but a couple of very practical and knowledgable authors on the cutting edge of alternative agriculture, Joel Salatin (YOU CAN FARM) and Gene Logsdon (THE CONTRARY FARMER), the last thing a person needs is to own property in order to farm.  It is in no small part a liability.  I will add to this that the many successful farmers and those crunching numbers and planning to go into farming agree and say: “You cannot buy land and pay for it farming.”  Logsdon, and even more feverently Salatin, suggest that a better solution is often to farm on someone else’s land.  Also note that in urban agriculture there are number of people who are entering agreements to garden someone else’s back yard and give the home owner 20% of what is grown.

I guess to cut to the chase my point is there are a number of arrangements that would be classified as “sharecropping” that would be beneficial to farmers—a lot better than the system of debt slavery they work under currently.  Like you say, this is a lot more complex than what can be framed in an online article or a comment, but I think you get my point.  We have to get rid of some prejudices and think outside the money-banking-capitalist box.

By Erik on 2011 08 23, 10:05 pm CDT

I would like to see urban agriculture even more firmly tied to education in the form of urb/ag public schools.  Plants, animals, and the soil are good for the soul.  Not just greenhouses and urban vegetable and fruit farms and orchards, but also riding academies.

By julie on 2011 08 24, 9:13 am CDT

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