Detroit Doesn’t Have to Die

Detroit Doesn’t Have to Die – It is Growing Itself Back to Life While Growing Community

Michael D. Whitty, PhD, Professor, University of Detroit Mercy

Detroit, Michigan, U.S.A. -- once the fifth largest city in the U.S.A. known for the automobiles it made is now a skeletal postindustrial city with much of its manufacturing activity shuttered and its population without jobs. Only 800,000 people are left in Detroit where 2 million lived in the 1950’s.  Much of the land and buildings are vacant or underutilized.  At the same time expensive energy and food costs cause much suffering in a city with an unemployment rate well over 30 percent.

Alternative ways of living are critical and starting to develop. Vacant land in some neighborhoods and even some city parkland are being used for gardens and small farms.  There are 700 farms that produced more than 120 tons of food in 2009.  Ironically the city is going back to its roots as it started out as farmland and then became industrialized. Farmers were helped by good soil, then as now.  Urban gardens and farms provide thousands of pounds of fresh, nutritious produce for Detroit families, especially vital considering that the city has no large grocery stores left  --- it is considered an underserved market --  a food desert, where fresh produce is scarce and the food that is available comes from gas stations, liquor stores and fast food outlets.

Nearly as important as providing nourishment, the endeavor is building community because farming tends to be a group activity.  It connects neighbors in a productive way, in some areas teenagers are responsible for their own patch and have spending money when they sell the fresh produce at the large farmers market near downtown helped by a program called Youth Farm Stand Initiative, a collaboration between Wayne State University’s extension program, The Greening of Detroit and Earthworks Urban Farm.

Urban gardening is something that young people and old people can do together.  It is an immediate, affordable way for local people to do something, providing a sense of meaning; thus, the long term value of gardening is rebuilding a pride of place.  Gardening efforts can lead to political action and repopulation of old neighborhoods which look more attractive as a lively settlement.  Gardens and parks filling in bleak space can make it easier to promote broader economic development such as restoration/preservation of existing housing stock.  A green city promotes repopulation and actually helps maintain the density some Detroit neighborhoods still have.

The Greening of Detroit, founded in 1989 to reforest Detroit's neighborhoods, boulevards and parks through tree planting projects, has expanded to help Detroiters through educational programs and advocacy.  Greening hosts planting projects, ranging from park restorations to helping with resources for community and family vegetable gardens. Other organizations that help people and groups garden have sprung up all over the city such as the Detroit Black Food Security Network, Detroit Agriculture Network, and the Garden Resource Program.  In 2009, over 263 community gardens, 55 schools, and 557 families received support from the Garden Resource Program. For a small fee members received 48,554 seed packets and approximately 209,346 Detroit grown plants and successfully produced thousands of pounds of food in the city.  Through participation in this larger network, gardeners gain access to additional resources, technical assistance, and educational opportunities.  Members participate in one of eight garden cluster groups, based on geographic regions. Cluster groups facilitate community connections for gardeners and urban farmers living and working in the same area of the city.  .  During the growing and harvesting seasons, each cluster group meets for an additional resource meeting, a spring and fall community workday, and a summer barbeque. By participating in one of these cluster events, gardeners become eligible for additional resources such as tilling, soil testing, compost, wood chips, mulch, tool sharing, and volunteers.

The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, a non-profit, grassroots, community organization, seeks to educate and sustain black communities in Detroit and runs a two-acre urban farm.

Only good will come from increasing the amount of fresh food available to the people, giving a sense of satisfaction to those to succeed in doing something for themselves and their neighbors.  The spirit of Detroit lives on in an intergenerational rebirth of community and creativity.

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