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And Into Plowshares Beat Their...Fords?

Written by Joe Laur .
Plowing Under Detroit, And Not For The Reasons You Might Think

Plowing Under Detroit, And Not For The Reasons You Might Think

Detroit is going under – the plow. Faced with shrinking population and a decaying cityscape, many vacant lots are turning into community gardens and urban farmland. The Motor City may rise again as urban farm and prairie.

I’m from the upper Midwest, and there used to be an old joke that went; “Which if these four doesn’t belong? AIDS, Herpes, gonorrhea, or a house in Detroit?” The answer? Gonorrhea, because you can get rid of it. But there’s a sad reality behind the cruel joke. I’ve toured large areas of Detroit where entire blocks are abandoned, the houses boarded up, gone or turned to crack houses. No commercial establishments for miles. The only new construction was a nearby prison. But it’s never too late for a happy ending.  All that vacant land can have a rebirth. Recent pieces in the NY Times, Food Freedom, and New Geography have followed different aspects of this new direction for Motown.

Detroit 1942

IN 1949, Detroit was one of the largest cities in the United States, home to nearly 2 million people. Today it has roughly half that many- a loss of a million residents in just 60 years. Neighborhoods have literally rotted away. Look at these before and after photos, courtesy of DetroitYES:

A lot of Detroit that used to be, isn’t anymore. But now shift your focus away from houses that aren’t, and toward potential farmland that is. Both commercial farms as well as community gardens are springing up. Many folks flee the city to be in more spacious pastoral settings. With a little work and imagination, the vacant parts of the city can provide the space and agricultural amenities and still be close to the city’s cultural core.

A handful of investors are working to bring recovery to Detroit by bringing back the industry which started the city in the first place: farming.

Michael Score, president of Hantz Farms, has invested over $30 million and begun purchasing abandoned properties around the city in order to turn them into commercial farming operations. His company plans to obtain as much as 5,000 acres within the city limits to grow organic vegetables for food and trees and shrubs for biofuels, along with other agricultural projects.


Old houses, factories, and warehouses that would otherwise be torn down are being converted into greenhouses and hydroponic growing fields. Land previously contaminated with chemicals and other waste byproducts is being used to grow trees for biofuels. Empty lots with fertile soil are being converted into vegetable, fruit, and herb gardens.

With more than half of the city’s workers either unemployed or underemployed, making Detroit the perfect place for modern farming startups to flourish.

More than 125,000 property parcels in Detroit are either vacant or abandoned. Most of the city’s remaining residents shop at gas stations and convenient stores because the city proper has no major grocery store chains. All these factors and more render Detroit prime real estate for the farming boon that is quickly gaining ground there.

About five hundred small plots have been created by an international organization called Urban Farming.  Detroit is the most agriculturally promising of the fourteen cities in five countries where Urban Farming now exists. Their goal is to triple the amount of land under cultivation in Detroit every year. All food grown by Urban Farming is given free to the poor. The image above shows a new urban landscape, with a city core connected to urban village sprinkled among farms, gardens and other agricultural lands.

Detroit is now become a largely vacant urban prairie bigger than Manhattan, Boston and San Francisco.  This makes it a great test case for the “shrinking cities” movement. An American Institute of Architects study imagines Detroit reduced into a metro core surrounded by green belts, “urban villages” and banked land. If Ford can take the Rouge River plant, on one of the most polluted industrial sites of the 20th Century, and turn it into a state of the art manufacturing facility with a living roof creating songbird habitat, why not take Detroit back to its origins as a pastoral farming and manufacturing center? It only takes imagination and good Midwestern hard work.

Vladimir Menkov

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