Urban Farming holds out the promise of renewal for Detroit

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

A Michigan-based financial group has announced ambitious plans to turn large swathes of crime-ridden Detroit into urban farmland.

When one mentions Detroit most people will immediately think about the auto industry or music. Not many, if any, would think urban farmland. But that is exactly what Hantz Group, a Michigan-based financial group, is thinking.

The group has been putting together a most ambitious and creative plan to turn large acres of underused, derelict and vacant inner city land into farmland featuring a mixture of cash crops, ornamental gardens and riding trails.

The Hantz Group, with their Hantz Farms subsidiary, hopes to begin with a 70-acre purchase on the city’s east side, an area that was selected due to its low population density of between zero and nine residents per acre.

Ultimately, the Hantz Group is looking at turning up to 10,000 acres of inner city Detroit - almost a 10th of the city's 143-square-mile area - into urban farmland. In a city riddled with real estate dereliction and economic woes, large scale urban gardens may be just the thing to help get Detroit back in the fast lane.

Under the proposals, the land will be sourced from privately held parcels, along with foreclosed land currently owned by the city, state and county. In addition to buying some land outright the company is also looking to enter into partnerships with local communities to help develop other parcels of land.

Hantz will be working with researchers from Michigan State University to select the types of crop that can be grown on the land, Allen explained. Where possible, edible crops will be grown, but where soil will not support them - if, for example, it has been degraded by industrial use - it will be used for non-edible crops.

"We hope to put in several hundred acres of Christmas tree farms, and also wood veneering projects or long-term sustainable growing operations where we can harvest wood and non-edibles," Allen explained.

The purchase price for the initial land is roughly $3,000 per acre, he added. The group hopes to purchase 5,000 acres over the next five years.

Sandra Pederson, founder of the urban farming community Urban Land Army, argued that the proximity to residential areas meant that organic farming methods should be used on the new development, although press reports indicate that due to time constraints the company will not be taking this approach.

"Since it is such a large area in an urban centre, for environmental and human health reasons, it would be really important to start off organic from the beginning. The potential for water, air, and soil contamination from using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides on a large scale is significant - and the negative impacts on residents' health would follow", said Pederson.

If given the go-ahead, the proposals would represent a drastic change in tack for administrators who have seen a city that grew on the back of the now-troubled automobile industry enter into a steady decline that has seen many areas succumb to chronic social problems. Large swathes of Detroit have been abandoned in a classic example of the "doughnut effect", in which poverty-stricken downtown areas are eviscerated as the middle classes take to the suburbs.

Matt Allen, senior vice present for Hantz subsidiary Hantz Farms, who lives close to the proposed "phase one farm," and area of initially 70 acres, said that the land has been targeted for its low density, and currently supports between zero and nine residents per acre.

"We are past the tipping point, so there is no point in discussing it any more," argued Allen, who said that as a resident, he had an interest in seeing the area flourish. "It's been getting worse. Unless we make some radical changes, we will only continue to fool ourselves. What was Einstein's definition of insanity? To do the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result."

In addition to that, I would suggest, that if the soil does not support, due to contamination, the growing of edible crops, one uses the methods that have been employed in some “urban farms” in Britain, for instance, in that the produce is grown in those large builder bags in good soil. I do my food growing like that and it works well and it does so too where it is being done on a larger scale, say, in London.


© 2009