Recently the Wall Street Journal a plan in Detroit to use large pieces of land in the city that have been abandoned by de-urbanization and population loss consolidated into urban farms. As a veteran in community revitalization and an urban farming advocate, this is one of the coolest stories I can think of – bringing together a new solution for depopulating cities that is actually an old use.
Detroit has experienced more population loss and land vacancy than any other city in the U.S., losing more than 25% of its population in the last ten years, leaving more than 200,000 vacant parcels that generate no tax income. In response, smaller urban farms and community gardens have been popping up to reuse the land in the face of dwindling city services and increasing urban blight and decay. Lately, a local entrepreneur has proposed returning a large amount of land to a for-profit urban farming use, which would consolidate 200 acres into a farming operation. Ultimately, the entrepreneur wants to invest millions to convert some 10,000 acres of private and city-owned vacant property into the world’s largest for-profit urban farm. Some opponents call it a “land grab” to gain access to potentially valuable property if the city ever turns around and land values rise. Others seem threatened by its for-profit operation, thinking the land should be used for community based purposes, such as parks. He has since scaled back his initial plans for thousands of acres project to a much smaller sized 200 acre project as he works to cultivate much-needed support for the project.
And he will need that support to succeed to make such a shift in land use through the political, logistical and civic labyrinths of city development. Zoning regulations usually don’t know how to treat urban farms, something that stymies many urban farm initiatives in cities across the country. Detroit’s mayor wants to revise the city master plan to rezone the depopulated areas into other uses, such as farming, especially in support of Michigan’s latest Right to Farm law. Add to that absentee property owners, foreclosed properties, abandoned properties and soil contaminant issues, its clear that it takes citywide cooperation to make this solution work.
But for Detroit, which has lost 1 million residents since 1950 and leads the country in vacant land with more than 40 square miles by some estimates, the pressure of disinvestment has eroded standard resistance to a creative land use solution. Returning vacant properties to urban farm uses such as forestry, orchards and vegetable production returns these vacant lot properties to the city’s tax rolls and provides community benefit for its residents. The project is currently in a demonstration stage at 200 acres planted in trees and orchards, but the bolder vision of thousands of acres of Detroit’s land under farm use hasn’t dimmed for the project’s leaders. As a city with nothing to lose, Detroit has much to gain from the effort of paving the way for a progressive urban farm solution.
See the ‘Interactive’ tab of the article for a map of all urban farms in Detroit, with short descriptions of each project.
See the ‘Video’ tab to watch a video on this story of Detroit’s urban farming.