October 29, 2007

Motown Gets its Garden On

(reprint from SNRE compostable times, food edition)

Having grown up in rural Texas, I used to have deeply conflicted feelings about cities, at once mourning the loss of the biodiversity while wondering at the intricate human infrastructure that has replaced the “natural” environment. I have Detroit to thank for altering my view of urban areas.

At first look, I was stunned by the 45,000 vacant lots that pepper the city, and shaken by the hundreds of remnant industrial buildings that stand as testament to the nearly defunct car industry. It’s hard to believe that only a 45-minute drive east of the U-M bubble exits a metropolitan area with the highest unemployment rate in the nation for areas with more than 1 million residents. As a consequence of decades of discrimination, the primarily black residents are bestowed with a “food desert”. At last count in 2001, all but three of the large grocery stores had followed white flight to the suburbs. Most residents depend on corner stores, which are more likely to carry cigarettes than the minimum makings for a nutritious meal. Public transportation to the suburbs for regular grocery trips – well, it’s a joke. Adding insult to injury, corner stores often charge higher prices than up-scaled big box grocers.

So, amongst this post-apocalyptic backdrop of Detroit, the hundreds of community gardeners working to bolster their neighborhoods and form connections to this discounted land inspired me, to say the least. Organizations such as Detroit Agriculture Network (DAN) provide the education and means for Detroiters to transform blighted landscapes to productive urban farms. These efforts are beyond renewal; they exceed revitalization; they are hope embodied.

After looking at a map of vegetative regrowth in Detroit, I decided to take the idea of biodiversity conservation in fragmented landscapes utilized in Agroecology, and combine it with the emerging techniques of urban ecology piloted in places such as Phoenix. I’m studying the insect and plant diversity that exists in Detroit vacant lots, urban gardens, and the highest-quality remnant forests. With the help of former LA student Suzan Campbell, Ashley Atkinson of DAN, the Detroit Planning office and a multitude of friendly residents, I set up twelve sites across the city and spent the summer capturing, counting, and enumerating the less glamorous residents of the city. I’ll continue to process specimens this winter, looking to capture a picture of the life that endures on these particular land use types after 300 years of exploitation.

This year marks the first time in human history that the majority of people reside in urban areas. It’s important that we understand what processes are taking place in the cities, socially, politically, and physically, so that we can truly build a more sustainable future. The Worldwatch Institute devoted chapter three of the annual state of the world publication to “Farming the Cities.” Urban agriculture has many benefits, such as reducing the energy needed to transport food and protecting against hunger if distribution is disrupted. But as the authors note, there is more to food security than insuring calories if a bomb happens to fall on the highway. Food security means that all people get to eat a diet that is nutritionally sufficient and culturally appropriate.

More significant to practitioners, urban agriculture supplements a poor diet, builds community, improves personal safety and property value, and provides alternative waste and income streams. It provides opportunities to women and other groups that are often disenfranchised or unable to work outside the home. In Detroit, where most see the fire-scorched landscape that speaks of the city’s painful racial and economic history, I see the grasses and the milkweed, the wild pheasants and useful chickens, and the gardens that speak to a rebirth that only strength and perseverance can create. What a beautiful city.


Glad to have found your blog. I'm always interested in local projects promoting organic and sustainable methods.

Posted by: holybasil@mail.com at November 20, 2007 01:39 PM

Glad to have found your blog. I'm always interested in local projects promoting organic and sustainable methods.

Posted by: holybasil@mail.com at November 20, 2007 01:40 PM

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