From Motown to Growtown: Urban Agriculture in Detroit

Published first in Wharton International Business Review’s Fall 2018 Issue

In 1932, Diego Rivera was commissioned by the Detroit Institute of Art to complete a series of murals — the Detroit Industry Murals — to depict the city as a center of industry and to showcase the booming metropolis that Detroit was. The 1950 Census reported that approximately 1.8 million people called Detroit home. The majority of these individuals were employed by the automobile industry: the backbone of the city. Detroit was built for cars: its scale, its road-systems, and zoning laws were all conducive to a growing middle class that had the means to zip around the city in their locally produced automobiles. The city’s prosperity and booming real estate industry caused the cost of rent to skyrocket and major automobile factories were driven out of the city.

A Rivera mural

60 years later, the 2010 Census placed Detroit’s population at around 700,000, indicating a net loss of nearly 60% of the city’s population. Houses, lots, and neighborhoods were abandoned and the once majestic, bustling city came to be best associated with ruins of the industrial past and became a symbol of a failed American city.

The relocation of the automobile factories to the suburbs set off a chain-of-events that caused a downward spiral of incomes and employment, which caused businesses, including many grocery stores, to move out of the city. The city was soon considered to be a ‘food desert’ as its inhabitants became increasingly deprived of access to fresh produce. Thousands of vacant lots, high unemployment rates, and demand for healthier food, created the ideal environment for entrepreneurs to come up with an innovative idea to breathe life back into their city: urban agriculture.

Detroit’s downtown and vacant lots

The impact of this urban agriculture movement, started just over 10 years ago, has been far-reaching and has helped change the narrative of Detroit from being a city in abject ruin to a city slowly building itself up. Estimates by Citylab show that there were only 80 urban farms in Detroit in 2000, a number which has risen to over 1,400 in 2016. These farms collectively produce close to 400,000 pounds of fresh produce annually.

Urban agriculture began predominantly as a social arrangement rather than a commercial venture. NGOs often start their own urban farms in order to educate the local population on agriculture and sustainability. The farms have also been used as a way to heal divides and ease tensions in local communities. Since the use of strong chemicals, like those found in industrial pesticides, is prohibited in residential areas and inside city limits, urban farms in Detroit are also championing organic agriculture techniques and trends.

An urban farm in Detroit

Despite the small-scale and non-commercial model, urban agriculture is paving the way for a lot of complementary industries to blossom in Detroit. Farmers markets, farm-to-fork restaurants, and organic eateries are sprouting up all across the city. Entrepreneurship resources such as FoodLab Detroit, an incubator program for local food entrepreneurs, are also growing. As a result, Detroit is finding its way into the ranks of the best places to eat in America, having been titled “a city for the food lover” by the National Geographic and others. The rise of organic farming is also helping the rise of other sustainability-focused businesses, such as bike-tour companies and recycling businesses. Detroit, a city burned by the evils of unsustainable growth, is now looking towards sustainability to help it recover and become self-reliant. For instance: Detroit was built for cars, has limited public transport systems, and most Detroiters either can’t afford or don’t want cars: this is creating tremendous opportunities for electric cars and ride-sharing services. As the New York Times puts it, in Detroit the death of a great 20th century city is paving way for the rise of a great 21st century city powered by sustainability and creative problem-solving.

A farmers market in Detorit

According to a 2010 study, it costs the city of Detroit over $20 million each year to provide basic services to the city’s 40,000 abandoned and blighted lots, a number which rose to nearly 67,000 by July 2016. Urban farms and community gardens, therefore, provide large spillover benefits by cleaning up blighted lots, improving stormwater drainage, and requiring a lower number of polluting trucks from entering the city. These benefits of the urban agriculture movement will not only help improve standards of living over time but will also save taxpayer funds in the long run when the city has to inorganically deal with such environmental problems. Urban agriculture is also helping ease the city’s economic burden by making previously blighted lots into tax-paying entities. Moreover, a 2008 study in Real Estate Economics shows a strong positive correlation between urban agriculture and property values, especially in very poor neighborhoods, where properties in a 1,000 ft. radius can appreciate by nearly 9.4% within five years of the urban farm opening. This increase in property values also attracts investment and provides employment opportunities. While urban farming appears to be Detroit’s ‘Hail Mary’, some residents are worried that new commerce will unintentionally cause real-estate prices to rise, and also open the doors to gentrification.

Despite their massive economic potential, today, most farms in Detroit remain on the smaller side due to various legal and bureaucratic restrictions. The farms/gardens yield only enough produce to feed the owners’ family or to sustain minor farm-to-fork cottage industries. A 2012 survey of 370 urban farms across the country found the median level of sales from urban farms to be close to $5,000 a year, which at most, can be thought of as supplemental income. Kristin Choo, writing for the American Bar Association Journal notes that farms in Detroit are forced to be small due to legal restrictions on farming within city limits. The city is also reluctant to make explicit provision for agriculture since Detroit’s zoning ordinance does not fully recognize agriculture as a permitted use of land because agricultural lands cannot be used for any other purpose afterward. Choo also notes that a number of these urban farms are cases of extralegal farming, where despite their efforts to purchase lots, the people farming the land do not own it. This constant fear of getting uprooted, and regulations that prohibit permanent changes to city-owned land, discourage agricultural expansion. According to Citylab, despite the presence of a Land Bank responsible for selling and/or leasing vacant plots of land for revitalization projects, urban farmers maintain that the land acquisition process is not very transparent.

Craig Fahle, director of public affairs at the Detroit Land Bank, notes that tracking ownership records of abandoned plots, as well as nebulous zoning laws, are making the process slow. Patricia Salkin, director of the Government Law Center at Albany Law School further says that an increasing number of advocates of the urban agriculture movement are now championing provisions that allow ‘mixed-use’ of land within the city, and provide legality and security to allow these enterprises to grow to commercially viable sizes. Having said this, the legal status of urban farms in Detroit, while slowing improving, is still very much in the gray.

The question of legality has repeatedly been brought up in connection to Hantz Woodlands: a commercial farming venture owned by John Hantz, a financier based in the suburbs of Detroit. This project acquired 2,000 parcels of land in inner-city Detroit for the purpose of agriculture in 2012. The Hantz project would raze abandoned houses in blighted neighborhoods, a move that upsets many local residents, who have gone as far as to call it a ‘Land Grab’ in a 2016 documentary of the same name. Legal experts also claim that a seeming lack of due process when allocating the abandoned lots could make the city vulnerable to absentee landlords. Moreover, since this is the first large-scale commercial farm stemming from the urban agriculture movement, a lot of Detroit residents are worried about outsiders reaping the benefits of their grassroots movement., and about having to compete with industrial-sized farms.

Another school of thought is that projects like Hantz Farms will help scale urban agriculture in Detroit to a more commercially viable venture, and make the City Council more open to approving purchases that exceed 10 parcels. Supporters of Hantz Farms have also cited the economic benefits that the city gains in not having to clean up and maintain blighted blocks. The future of urban agriculture as a major economic opportunity hence depends, to some extent, on the outcome of the contention surrounding this project.

However, as a 2016 Johns Hopkins study notes, even though these farms are unlikely to be commercially viable or lucrative in the short term, and unlikely to replace actual jobs, they provide other economic benefits. These urban farms are helping train the workforce, provide healthier (and cheaper) diets, and provide supplemental incomes — all of which contribute to human development. As a result, urban agriculture is helping the city recover from its social, cultural, environmental, and health problems, but there still seems to be a long way to go until Detroit sees significant recovery directly as a result of urban agriculture. Among other things, Detroit’s land distribution system and laws need to catch up to the trend and instead of being roadblocks. Today, although direct commercial benefits of Urban Agriculture seem small, it has had a vast impact on the spirit, long-term sustainability, and narrative of the city.