Detroit – from Motown to Grotown*

A couple of years ago I watched a programme on the BBC entitled Requiem for Detroit? Sadly, it’s no longer available to view, but it really opened my eyes to how a city can change. Detroit was the ‘Motor City’ – original home of the Ford Motor Company along with numerous other automobile manufacturers – but its population fell significantly with the decline in manufacturing, leaving a large urban area with a relatively sparse population and many empty factories, homes and other buildings. Schools closed down and their playing fields were left to return to prairie, along with other areas of open ground. City services are stretched because of the sparse population in some areas and the reduction in tax revenue as a result.

You’d hardly know this if you look at the Wikipedia entry for the city, which highlights its history and regeneration (at least when I looked at it on 16 August 2012) and appears to have been written for the purposes of marketing. There are a brief references to the depopulation:

The city has numerous neighborhoods consisting of vacant properties resulting in low inhabited density in those areas, stretching city services and infrastructure. These neighborhoods are concentrated in the northeast and on the city’s fringes

going on to say that the…

low density creates a strain on the city’s infrastructure. To remedy this, a number of solutions have been proposed including resident relocation from more sparsely populated neighborhoods and converting unused space to agricultural use, though the city expects to be in the planning stages for up to another two years

This latter quote seems to be the only mention of agriculture in the whole article, which is strange considering that if you Google ‘Detroit urban farm’ you will find a multitude of websites describing what is going on in the city. And this is really what interests me. Detroit seems to be turning into a model of what can happen in a city subjected to economic decline. Individuals and communities are taking matters into their own hands and creating gardens and urban farms to supply themselves and other residents with fresh food. A range of projects – Georgia Street Community Garden, Earthworks, SEED Wayne, DBCFSN amongst others – are up and running. Many of them choosing to grow organic produce and, it appears, committed to using only plots where the soil has been tested to ensure the absence of toxic substances. There are some commercial operations, but many are community gardens – more per square mile or per capita than in any other city in the US according to a metrotimes story.

This success, according to the Harvard Law and Policy Review  may not be legal. I have commented briefly before about US zoning laws and their impact on urban food growers, but the scale of things in Detroit has forced the authorities to start thinking about their zoning policies. It appears that gardens are allowed but not farms, and with the scale of some community projects it’s difficult to draw a line between them, especially since some call themselves farms and others gardens. Just a couple of months ago, however, Michigan State University launched a research project, the snappily named MetroFoodPlus Innovation Cluster @ Detroit program. A memorandum of understanding was signed between the mayor of Detroit and the MSU president. In the short-term, according to the Wall Street Journal, this might allow the zoning issues to be circumvented because research projects are exempt.

All-in-all it’s a fascinating situation. I have never visited Detroit, but I’d really like to hear if anyone else has. It’s hard to gauge from all the articles I’ve read how extensive the food-growing is in the city and what difference it is making to communities. The film Urban Roots, provides an insight into some of the activities, but the perspective is that of the growers… I wonder how others in the city perceive these developments?

I shall watch developments with interest… perhaps I’ll even get to visit one day.


* Shamelessly lifted from the film Urban Roots, 2010, The Tree Media Group

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  1. Detroit has to be one of the most interesting examples of urban decay and agricultural renewal around. I wonder if it will serve as a model for other Rust Belt cities in the future. Thanks for sharing.


  2. yambean

     /  August 25, 2012

    I have been looking into this as well! What a coincidence! I have also been appalled that it is illegal to grow vegetables on your own house plot in some US cities. I guess with the crop failure in the midwest some cities should rethink that one!


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