Innovation in urban gardens. The example of Detroit.

11 December 2017

As we explained in an earlier blog page, climate change is going to make green town planning obligatory. But the development of nature downtown is not just a matter of urban planning. Urban agriculture has many other benefits. The proof? To save their city which had been declining for several decades, the inhabitants of Detroit chose to innovate with urban gardens. A beautiful – and fruitful - initiative!

Detroit, a city in crisis

To understand how Detroit, Michigan, USA, got into urban agriculture, it is necessary to go back a few years… With the automotive industry boom in the Twenties, the city grew quickly and attracted many blue-collar workers… until the slump of the Thirties. Although the population continued to grow, many factories were forced to close (1). In the Sixties, following racial riots, the white middle class moved out to the suburbs and the poorer black population took over the downtown area. The automotive industry was hard hit by Japanese competition selling reliable, cheap cars. The factories were delocalized and unemployment shot up. The inhabitants abandoned the city, with a consequent loss of tax revenues (1). In 2007, Detroit was seriously hit by the subprime crisis. 6 years later, in 2013, the city went bankrupt. The city lost federal financial aids, obliging the municipality to make cuts in its social and cultural budgets (public education, police, transport, health…). The population became even poorer, real estate prices went into in freefall, unemployment reached a record high and crime became alarming (1). Local shops closed, many buildings were simply abandoned and inhabitants found it difficult to buy quality food easily. Overindebted, the municipality was powerless to do anything. Locals had to find their own solutions.

Their solution was innovation and urban gardens

For more than 20 years, locals have been digging to solve the crisis by taking over urban brownfield land to save their city. In 2013, the municipality signed the urban agriculture ordinance, recognizing it as a legal activity and in a bid to strengthen the city’s bleak economy (2).

Urban gardens in the middle of the city…

Associations like The Greening of Detroit and Keep Growing Detroit encouraged local communities to get interested in urban agriculture by making populations aware of the benefits of healthy food, permaculture and sustainable development. They created kitchen gardens, orchards and fish farms in the city and turned them over to the inhabitants, who became apprentice farmers. They also set up workshops to teach people how to grow garlic, for example! More recently, The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative association developed a project on an even larger scale - a whole district dedicated to urban agriculture.

Discover the benefits of city centre aquaponics!

… and in its structures!

Urban gardens germinate in the streets of the city, but also in many establishments. For example, thanks to funding by an anonymous donor, West Bloomfield hospital has its own hydroponic greenhouse. This is not just a green relaxation space. Patients eat the fresh produce which cuts hospital catering costs – and improves meal quality. They can also attend workshops on growing fruit and vegetables - an activity which helps them get better and makes them aware of the benefits of healthy food – a good way to fight fast-growing obesity in the United States, the cause of many cardiovascular diseases as well as diabetes.

For Detroit, urban agriculture has many advantages

With a population deeply involved in these innovative gardens, urban agriculture has done the city a lot of good.

  • In 2017, there are 1,400 urban farms in Detroit (2). Thanks to these urban gardens, the income generated and the know-how acquired by the population partially reduced the unemployment rate: it is under 10% in 2017… whereas it was 27% in 2010 (3)!
  • The local farmers markets are not only meeting places reinforcing intercommunity bonds but also they allow city dwellers to get cheap, good quality vegetables, fruit and spices picked in the middle of the city – and a great way to reduce the carbon footprint!
  • Land values are increasing and the city is attracting investors again due to its new economic promise.
  • A solid community - very diversified in age, ethnicity and social class – has developed around these urban gardens. This mix is very important in a city historically hard hit by segregation.
  • According to several studies, the socio-economic benefits of the urban gardens and the presence of nature within the city have contributed to making it safer. The violent crime rate fell by 13% between 2014 and 2015 (4)!

Detroit is a good example of the benefits urban gardens bring. Interest in them is growing everywhere in the world demonstrating just how necessary they are in building a sustainable future.

1. L’economiste, The bankruptcy of Detroit: triumph over ruin (La faillite de la ville de Détroit aux Etats-Unis : du triomphe au déclin) 2., City of Detroit Urban Agriculture Ordinance Abridged 3., Detroit’s Greener Side 4. The Detroit News, Detroit unemployment rate hits 16-year low 5. The Detroit News, Violent crime down 13% in Detroit, still 2nd in U.S.

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