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Detroit: Back to the Future?

November 04, 2009

Urban_farming Yesterday afternoon, I had the chance to speak with a very busy Diana Aviv. Aviv, president and CEO of Independent Sector, was getting ready for her organization's annual conference, which opens today at the Marriott Renaissance in downtown Detroit and runs through Friday. (With a little luck, I'll post the transcript of our conversation tomorrow.)

The theme of this year's conference, "Challenging Times, New Opportunities," couldn't be more timely, and the choice of Detroit as host city -- a decision made four years ago -- was prescient. The pre-conference materials on the IS Web site describe the Motor City as "a laboratory for exploring how the nonprofit and foundation community, government and business can together respond to the new opportunities offered by these challenging times" and goes on to commend Detroiters for their "creativity, passion and entrepreneurship" in reinventing their city and the region.

Those qualities are certainly evident in the urban farming movement that has taken root within the city's 140 square (and often deserted) miles. Indeed, the "de-urbanization" of Detroit has become a fertile topic of discussion for the likes of Aaron Renn (a/k/a "the Urbanophile"), City Journal's Steven Malanga, and others.

The latest to explore the topic is Mark Dowie, the former publisher and editor of Mother Jones magazine (and the author of American Foundations: An Investigative History). As Dowie explains it, the phenomenon is largely driven by two things: Detroit has become a "food desert" -- i.e., "a locality from which healthy food is more than twice as far away as unhealthy food, or where the distance to a bag of potato chips is half the distance to a head of lettuce." And it has a lot of open space.

"Manhattan, Boston, and San Francisco could be placed inside the borders of Detroit with room to spare," Dowie writes,

and the population is about the same as the smallest of those cities, San Francisco: eight hundred thousand. And that number is still declining from a high of two million in the mid-nineteen fifties. Demographers expect Detroit’s population to level off somewhere between five hundred thousand and six hundred thousand by 2025. Right now there is about forty square miles of unoccupied open land in the city, the area of San Francisco, and that landmass could be doubled by moving a few thousand people out of hazardous firetraps into affordable housing....

Combine the two with old-fashioned American ingenuity and you have a recipe for...well, if not an urban paradise, then

something close to it. The most intriguing visionaries in Detroit, at least the ones who drew me to the city, were those who imagine growing food among the ruins -- chard and tomatoes on vacant lots (there are over 103,000 in the city, sixty thousand owned by the city), orchards on former school grounds, mushrooms in open basements, fish in abandoned factories, hydroponics in bankrupt department stores, livestock grazing on former golf courses, high-rise farms in old hotels, vermiculture, permaculture, hydroponics, aquaponics, waving wheat where cars were once test-driven, and winter greens sprouting inside the frames of single-story bungalows stripped of their skin and re-sided with Plexiglas -- a homemade greenhouse. Those are just a few of the agricultural technologies envisioned for the urban prairie Detroit has become....

It's an intriguing piece and well worth your time. Click here to read it in its entirety.

-- Mitch Nauffts

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