When thinking about urban environmental repair, there is perhaps no better place to start than in what may seem to be the most unlikely of places: Detroit, MI. Yes, the ex-capital of the auto-industry is rewriting the rules of urban regeneration as we know them and Detroit residents are creating a whole new way of thinking city-life.
As Rebecca Solnit says, Detroit’s best-known recent history is one of urban apocalypse characterized by “deindustrialization, depopulation, and resource depletion”
One third of the population lives beneath the poverty line and local officials estimate unemployment to be near 50% (the official figure is 30%).
Since the mid 1950s, the population has gone from nearly 2 million people to less than 900,000. Thirty percent of Detroit’s land is currently vacant – roughly the size of San Francisco in square miles. On top of this, the entire city of Detroit has become a “food desert” — there is not one produce-carrying supermarket in the City. The endless rows of abandoned buildings and houses of what was once Motor City offer an eerie glimpse into a “post-American” future.
But out of this land, another story is emerging, in which the people of Detroit are re-inventing their city as the urban agriculture center of the country.
I recently met Asenath Andrews, the principal of the Catherine Ferguson Academy, a high school for young mothers and pregnant teens who raise animals and organic fruits and vegetables. The school also offers classes on beekeeping and more to the community..
The conversation opened a window for me upon Detroit Green.
In 2009 alone, the Detroit Garden Resource Program Collaborative provided support to 236 community gardens, 55 schools, and 557 families who are growing food.
The Detroit Black Food Security Network hosts a 2 acre farm, a Harvest Festival, the Ujamaa Cooperative Food Buying Club, and the Food Warriors Youth Development Program, which partners with three African-centered schools to introduce elementary school students to agriculture.
Here’s a video of a 2007 walking tour of Detroit’s farms and community gardens to give you a sense of what’s happening on the land.
What’s going on in grassroots Detroit is bigger than farms and gardens. The urban farming movement is an expression of many bottom-up attempts to recreate the city in a way that is locally sustainable and redefines relationships and the idea of what employment means.
In his article Resurrection City, Detroit activist and United Methodist Pastor Bill Wylie-Kellerman, explains:
…Some of the jobs in gardening are more about community than employment. They revive elder wisdom not yet lost and create intergenerational relationships. They foster real relationship to place and to earth and even to the creatures in the living soil. They reclaim neighborhoods as public communal spaces, safe ones. They encourage an economy of giving and sharing. An economy more of grace than consumption.
For Wylie-Kellerman, “greening the auto powers” goes beyond greening roofs and producing electric cars:
It would entail a renewal of … corporate vocations to serve human life rather than growth (or now, mere survival), let alone market share or event profit.
Many Detroiters believe this to be possible, and that it has to come from the right source, as Rebecca Solnit says:
The free range chickens and Priuses are great, but then alone aren’t adequate tools for creating a truly different society and ecology. The future, at least the sustainable one, the one in which we survive, isn’t going to be invented by people who are happily surrendering selective bits and pieces of environmentally unsound privilege. It’s going to be made by those who had all that taken away from them or never had it in the first place.
These ideas are being challenged as several corporate urban agriculture projects are now on the table, including one from the Hantz Group to create Hanz Farms, as “the world’s largest urban farm.” Detroit’s indigenous urban farming community is concerned as much about corporate appropriation as the specter of pesticide use that would undermine already thriving organic systems.
But right now I look towards Detroit not as a city in ruins but as a leader in community-led sustainable change and perhaps as the soon-to-be first community-led “postindustrial green city”. A city of hope.
“What if Detroit, the vacated and rusting shell of a deindustrialized city, turns out to be the hustling forefront of urban sustainability?” asks Wylie-Kellerman. “Another city is possible in the shell of the old.”
So what better city to host the 2nd U.S. Social Forum?
In June an estimated 15,000 people will meet up in Detroit under the banner “Another World is Possible.” I hope to see you there.
Resurrection City by Bill Wylie-Kellerman, Sojourners Magazine. May 2009.
Detroit Arcadia: Exploring the post-American landscape by Rebecca Solnit, Harpers, July, 2007.
Corporate or neighborhood? Urban Farmers Question the Mix by Eric T. Campbell, The Michigan Citizen.