Can Urban Farming Revitalize Detroit’s Lower East Side?

Last Update: October 5, 2020

The Great Recession was tougher on some cities than others. Take Detroit, for instance.

Once the shining world automotive capital with a population of 1.9 million in 1950, the Motor City saw its population decrease by more than half over the next 60 years. The 2012 census data showed that Detroit’s population was down to around 700,000 people. In a city that covers nearly 140 square miles, this population decline has resulted in neighborhoods that now look like ghost towns and tracts of empty lots that stretch for miles. (Boston, by comparison, has about the same population as Detroit living on just 89 square miles of land.)

Could a few dozen greenhouses and hoop houses bring some life back to the barren Detroit soil?

The city is looking to urban agriculture to do just that—transform entire blighted neighborhoods—while producing good, local food for its existing residents and restaurants. On Monday, the city announced its intention to turn 60 acres, or 22 blocks, of blighted and empty urban land into a job-creating, food-producing agriculture project. According to plans, part of the land would be leased to RecoveryPark Farms, a nonprofit that would employ recovering addicts and ex-offenders as a way of rehabilitating them.

“We are not just transforming property. We are going to transform lives,” Mayor Mike Duggan said in announcing the project Monday. “They are taking the hardest-to-employ folks in our community and putting them to work on land that had been long abandoned and forgotten.”

The build-out of the farm and distribution center, which will be privately funded by $15 million of capital investment coming into the neighborhood, could produce more than $8 million in produce for more than 400 regional restaurants in the next 10 years, according to RecoveryPark CEO Gary Wozniak. Wozniak told The Detroit News that he’s raised about $1 million of the $15 million so far.

This isn’t the only agriculture project happening in Detroit—far from it. Financial services mogul John Hantz is buying scores of city-owned land and beginning to transform it into urban forests and for-profit farms with the hope of not only beautifying neighborhoods that have gone into disrepair, but also building a new, green economy in the city.

But many—perhaps most—of the growing in Detroit is being done below the radar in the form of guerilla gardening. Some suggest that the “vast majority” of the 1,500 to 2,000 urban gardens being maintained within city limits exist on land not owned by the gardener. These organic, literally grassroots projects, observers say, have played a vital role for the communities that are left in Detroit following the economic collapse, and will play a crucial role as the city begins to rebuild.

“It’s not like we’re striving to bypass the law,” Tepfirah Rushden of Greening of Detroit said in a 2014 MSNBC article. “But at the same time, the way the system is set up, we will never get anything done if we wait for someone to give us the OK to do something.”

But as the city, local nonprofits and developers catch up to ordinary residents in cultivating the land that was once bustling with prosperity and people, hope is again renewed that farms and food—and the hands that produce them—will play a central role in healing a city that has been broken.

Photo credit: Adam via Flickr

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats,, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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