A few days ago I went on a tour of urban farms in Detroit. The city has large swaths of empty land where derelict buildings were torn down, and a lack of fresh produce available to current residents. This combination would seem to make urban farming an obvious win, but as we learned on our tour, there are many complications. The soil is poor, and full of debris; the city still has many restrictions in place that limit farm options; and then there’s the human factor. For every group happy to have the tomatoes, there’s a group that wants its city back. What is the best use of this land? What is the possible use of this land?
Detroit is about 140 square miles in area, and there’s not even agreement on how much of it is vacant. One group claims it’s 40 square miles; another claims it’s only 25. Being a city built around cars, its glory days featured neighborhoods spread out with plenty of road access and parking. When you knock down two houses that once had landscaping around them, you get a bigger empty space than when you knock down an apartment building where several times as many people once lived. Houses in these neighborhoods stand now like a melancholy smile with teeth missing.
In one such neighborhood – Boston Edison – we visited Food Field, an urban farm named as a play on Detroit’s home football stadium, Ford Field. http://www.foodfielddetroit.com
Not far away in the North End, we saw a farm run by the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative, or Miufi. http://www.miufi.org
The various small farms in Detroit get together to sell community farm shares, since each farm grows a fairly small range of produce. The miufi farm gives its produce for free to anyone who shows up and asks for it, though that may soon be only for North End residents.
And one more example of urban farming in Detroit is up on the roof of the fifty year old restaurant/bakery/ microbrewery/dairy, Traffic Jam and Snug. They grow fresh herbs and vegetables for the restaurant, and with a greenhouse up there too they have fresh herbs all winter. They don’t have to struggle between their urban and farm roles, but do both at once.
If Detroit real estate recovers its value, these farms may find their land worth too much to keep undeveloped. Farmland around Ann Arbor is protected by non-profits that buy the development rights; thereafter the land can still be sold, but only as a farm. Will Detroiters come to love their urban farms, and conserve them? Will they outgrow the farms? Or will urbanization by mid-21st century will take some completely different form? Detroit may be a good place to see what happens.