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

Soil – getting to the root of things

Unless you are practicing an unconventional system of cultivation like hydroponics (see this great blog if you are interested in doing so) then soil is the foundation of everything you grow.

Gardeners tend to value their soil – they see what they are taking out in terms of crops and try to put something back – often by adding compost, soil improvers or fertilizers. My favourite addition to the soil is compost because it doesn’t cost me anything – I am converting what others would regard as waste (from the kitchen, garden or chickens) into a useful resource. I don’t tend to use commercial fertilizers or feeds, relying on compost, woody material from the willow hedge and other prunings, and worm wee. That’s not to say that I won’t use commercial fertilizers, I’m just too mean to buy them! I received a free gift of some organic liquid tomato feed earlier in the year and so I have recently been using this on potted crops – although it does make the greenhouse smell like someone has been storing fish in there for a week!

Unlike gardeners, many large-scale agricultural enterprises don’t use their ‘waste’ outputs as a resource, choosing instead to treat organic matter as rubbish and buy in fertility in the form of fertilisers derived from the petrochemical industry. In a recent post, Yambean highlighted the shocking waste when Spanish farmers dumped cucumbers in protest at being paid so little for them by the supermarkets. I asked her about this and commented that they would, surely, have been better composting them and returning them to the soil, but she tells me that composting is unheard of in that part of southern Spain and the soil is, as a result, completely impoverished. It’s shocking to me.

Soil is a complex system consisting of a mineral component, organic matter in various states of decomposition (from freshly fallen leaves and recently deceased animals to humus and root exudates) and living organisms (bacteria, fungi, worms, insects, other invertebrates, plant roots etc). It is common sense that we need to nurture such systems if we wish to make use of them. Unless we replenish the soil, it will not continue to be productive. This was the basis of the organic movement in the UK, you know? Ever wondered why the Soil Association (one of the regulators of organic produce here) is called the Soil Association? Well, it was founded in 1946, partly because of concerns about “the loss of soil through erosion and depletion”. In 1967, the association stated that “The use of, or abstinence from, any particular practice should be judged by its effect on the well-being of the micro-organic life of the soil, on which the health of the consumer ultimately depends.” So, you can see that their name really does reflect an acknowledgement of the key importance of the soil.

In large-scale systems, particularly where it is common to have periods when the soil has no vegetation cover, erosion is common. As the Soil Association noted in 1946, soil is not simply lost as a result of nutrients being extracted because we grow crops in it, erosion is also a problem. If you live beside the sea (as I do) you cannot help but notice the brown water around river mouths after heavy rain… this is the soil that was previously supporting plants. It does get replenished naturally – rocks weather and add to the mineral component, organisms die, excrete and shed parts of their bodies and add to the organic matter – but bare land is subject to high levels of erosion that can take a significant time to be replaced. Thus we lose substrate, nutrients and water-holding capacity because we chose to leave soil bare – a simple ‘green manure’ such as clover could reduce the erosion and enhance fertility (clover fixes nitrogen).

If we do not care for our soil is it any wonder that there is an increasing need to add to it from external sources and rely on non-renewable resources? Many people, when thinking of organic growing, focus on the absence of pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertiliser, but I’d like to suggest that one of the most important reasons to support organic production is because its practitioners care for the soil and are, thus, ensuring that it is available for future generations to use too. In my garden, I would like to think that I will leave the soil in a better condition than when I found it… not just preservation, but enhancement.

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