How Urban Farming Can Save Detroit, Part 1: A Return to Its Roots

For generations, Detroit has been symbolic of urban decay and the abandonment of inner cities in America. The city has suffered economic hardship, high-crime levels, political corruption, a mass exodus of its population, and the subsequent inability to provide adequate basic services because of that dwindling tax base. But Detroit is so much more than that. It’s also beautiful, vibrant, spiritual. It’s redefining itself from a city abandoned and forgotten to a city shaking off its rust and stirring up echoes of glories long past. There is something growing in Detroit, something powerful that has been long lost for generations. The pride of Detroit is coming back, and much of that has germinated, literally and figuratively, from seed. In the coming weeks, I’ll introduce you to the city’s growing urban farming movement. In part 1, we explore how Detroit is returning to its farming roots.

Detroit is more than 138 square miles, larger than Boston, Manhattan, and San Francisco combined. Given its size, a struggling economy, and the shocking loss of a tax base, it’s no wonder the city struggles to provide basic services like street lights, mass transit, police and fire protection. As for food, Detroit is a food desert, where the combination of no mass transit and no grocery stores makes access to fresh, healthy food nearly impossible for many Detroiters. But recently, the urban farming movement in Detroit has created a buzz that has attracted attention worldwide.

Before we explore the rise of urban farming in Detroit, let’s first go back 100 years. In the midst of the worst economic depression in history in 1894, Detroit Mayor Hazen S. Pingree launched his “potato patch plan” for the city’s less fortunate to cultivate vacant lots in an effort to not only feed the poor, but to also produce income, increase food diversity, and boost self-reliance during hard times. Pingree’s Potato Patches were met with strong criticism, but just two years after launch, the program was heralded nationally as a success. New York, Boston, Chicago, Seattle, and Denver took notice of what Detroit was doing and soon adopted Pingree’s model. If this sounds familiar, it should. Though “urban farming” and “urban agriculture” were not trendy terms like they are now, that was precisely what Pingree was promoting, and both the social conditions and goals of his plan mirror the current efforts in Detroit.

Fast-forward to today, and we find ourselves repeating history. In the midst of widespread economic hardship, with large swaths of vacant land, Detroit once again is turning to urban farming as a sustainable model for improvement. And once again, other cities are watching what Detroit is doing. The city is in much the same situation as it was in Pingree’s time. Detroiters are struggling to make ends meet, especially the unemployed. We have a broken food system with limited access to fresh, nutritional foods, a need to reinvent different means of sustainable commerce, and 40 square miles of vacant land. In short, the potential of urban farming in Detroit is to build, from the ground up, a vibrant, sustainable economy while at the same time improving overall health, quality of life, and impact on the environment. Urban farming is about Detroit returning to its roots to help improve its future. In Part 2, we’ll meet some of the folks getting their hands dirty and some key players who believe the path to Detroit’s blue skies is paved in green.