Saturday, March 27, 2010

Downsizing Detroit

Can Detroit be downsized?  Can the vast tracts of land now featuring vacant, abandoned neighborhoods be transformed into orchards, pumpkin patches, cornfields, and vegetable gardens?  Can neighborhoods be consolidated? And will this, in the end, do anything to alleviate the generational poverty that has afflicted the remaining citizens of Detroit since the 1960's?

I am optimistic about this for several reasons:

1. Foundations in the area are coordinating efforts and leveraging resources with an emphasis on Detroit. Kresge Foundation is paying the salary for an outside urban planner to work with City Council to develop the downsizing plan. The foundations have historically worked piecemeal and independently.  This synergy must extend to the public and private sectors in order to avoid the same types of problems that have plagued government-led efforts in the past..

2. Local and organic food is a big deal. Even mid-level chain grocery stores such as Kroger are advertising sourcing of local products.  Done right,  there is unprecedented potential for local agriculture to be profitable.

3. Unlike earlier economic development schemes (think: casinos) the concepts of downsizing and urban farming are not designed to create thousands of jobs and enrich investors and developers.  Instead, downsizing is a rational response to existing conditions, and urban agriculture identifies a viable use for the city's main asset: land. No one will get rich, but maybe a stable and productive industry will lift some out of poverty. And unlike gambling, there is no societal cost to community gardens.


  1. In theory - this seems like an amazing idea AND solution. Think of Hazen Pingree Potato Patches...urban farming in Detroit. (Albeit a century ago, but the concept was planted. (crap - pardon the pun)). I think that you hit the nail on the head with your last question though..and this is where I have so much hesitation.

    Whilst you and I are young and energetic and open-minded and optimistic, the aging population of Detroit may not be as optimistic about urban agriculture. Not because they don't want it, but they may not understand it. These people have seen so much, they saw Detroit in it's heyday, they saw the downfall of the riots, and they stuck with the D through the crappy 80's and are still there. If that life doesn't beat you down and kill your optimism, I don't know what would.

    Think about it this way - would your grandma care? Mine (while she is awesome in her own way) would say "Hell No. I'm buyin' my groceries at the store where they are CHEAP". She wouldn't go to the Farmer's market, not in Royal Oak, and not off of Mack Ave. She would say "I did my time shucking peas", or something like that.

    As much as that saddens me, I think that the future of urban agriculture in Detroit won't be realized by the existing and/or aging population. It will be appreciated and realized by our children.

    So - I think it is up to us to show our children how to get to Eastern Market. It is up to us to show our children how to start vegetables from seed. And how to appreciate the taste and goodness that comes from fruits and vegetables grown locally and even in our own backyard.

    (On a tangent - I'm not so keen on Kresge and Detroit going outside of Michigan to bring in a planner. Hello - whatever happened to "Buy Michigan". That should also be "Hire Michigan")

  2. Jen- I raised my eyebrows too about the Kresge of the issues of taking foundation money is the foundation strings- and little transparency....