from rust to (…)

Cultivating the land in the heart of the city is the principle ofurban farming (urban agriculture in French) which has known for several years a growing craze in many metropolises around the world. If some do it to better control their food, in other cities, like Detroit, in Michigan (United States), pioneer in the matter, it is above all the hope of an economic renewal which is nourished.
Update: Overwhelmed by $ 18.5 billion in debt, Detroit became the largest city in the United States on Thursday, July 18, to declare bankruptcy.

Half a century of crises

Indeed, the city has not been spared in recent decades. It all started at the start of the 20th century, when three giants of the automotive industry arrived: Ford, Chrysler and General Motors. There followed a period of indisputable economic growth, which propelled Detroit to the rank of a symbol of industrial America. But this is without counting the crisis that began in the 1970s: globalization obliges, the sector undergoes deep restructuring which leads to the closure of entire factories and the layoffs of tens of thousands of workers. The “Manufacturing Belt” around the Great Lakes becomes the “Rust Belt”. Dark Strait in crisis.

But that’s not all: the city has also suffered from particularly strong racial tensions between African-American workers who flocked from the south to work in the auto industry and the white population. In 1967, Detroit was beset by very violent riots, following which a large majority of the white middle class fled to the suburbs. Capital followed, municipal services deteriorated, and the population continued to emigrate. Of the 1.8 million inhabitants in 1950, the heyday of the city, only 700,000 remain today. With this overwhelming result: abandoned housing, brownfield sites, record crime, unemployment rate more than twice the national rate (reaching up to 50% in some particularly battered areas) … The only cost of maintenance for all these neglected housing is such that the municipality cannot cover it – hence the sorry aspect of the urban landscape-, and the decision, taken last March, to put the city under guardianship to restore its finances.

Vegetable gardens, orchards and fish farming centers

On the other hand, with an area equivalent to the city of San Francisco, these wasteland is a boon to develop urban agriculture. The initiative started a few years ago: in 1970, Mayor Coleman Young launched the program Farm-A-Lot, authorizing residents to obtain a permit to cultivate a piece of land in their neighborhood. 40 years later, 16,000 people would invest in nearly 1,300 gardens. Several associations are also involved in the transformation of Detroit, like Urban Farming, founded in 2005 by singer Taja Sevelle. The association notably manages a community field of 3 hectares, on which tomatoes, cucumbers and other spinach are grown. So vegetable gardens, but also orchards, thanks to the microclimate enjoyed by the Great Lakes region, beehives, chicken coops, and since spring 2013, fish farming … Above all, it is a question for the inhabitants of Detroit of diversifying crops in order to ensure year-round production.

But how do you make sure the city’s soil, which has not been spared decades of industrialization, is healthy enough to be cultivable? To extract pollutants, especially heavy metals, several phytoremediation methods have been adopted: sunflowers for some, poplars and willows for others. Techniques that are still in the testing phase.

Healthy, accessible and free food?

In addition to a transformed, more attractive and less dangerous urban landscape, what benefits can Detroit hope to gain from this new form of agriculture? First, to feed the population of an agglomeration that some describe as a “food desert”, since access to fresh food is limited there. Few large supermarkets, but many liquor stores who sell, we understand, alcohol but also canned food, and very few fruits and vegetables. For all those who do not have a car (20% of the population anyway), proximity often takes precedence over the quality of food. Urban agriculture therefore makes it possible to offer healthier food to the inhabitants, especially to theEastern market, a large covered market which sells products “Grown in Detroit”, or by truck Peaches and Greens who crisscross the neighborhoods to distribute locally produced fruits and vegetables. In 2010, Michelle Obama in person had visited the famous truck during her national anti-obesity tour.

The fact remains that locally produced food unfortunately has too high a price for a large majority of the population. It is for this reason that many of the associations at the origin of the gardens have made this incredible decision: not to close them, so that everyone can use them free of charge, at any time, without any question being asked. Taja Sevelle, founder of Urban Farming, makes it a point of honor because too many people go hungry in Detroit. However, this desire seems difficult to reconcile with the goal defended by others: that of encouraging people to take part, actively, in the production process, either by cultivating their gardens themselves, or by being a volunteer or employee in a community garden. Question: in this perspective, does not providing free food risk perpetuating a long-standing vicious circle in the city, where a large part of the population survives on dozens of soup kitchens?

Priority to jobs

Above all, the mere free distribution of cultivated products would not make urban agriculture profitable. And if some say that it is mainly a way to recreate social ties, for example through the harvest festival organized each year by the D-Town farm, for others, more down-to-earth, the urgency is first of all to generate jobs, in particular to stop the emigration of the inhabitants (always up to ten thousand people per year). To this end, a number of associations offer various and varied courses to train entrepreneurs and future employees. But this creation of posts, which often requires several years, remains for the moment limited in number. Another problem raised: some worry that these potential jobs will not benefit the current residents of Detroit, but people who have just moved to the city.

But large-scale projects worry …

What about the popularity of these projects among the population? If small community gardens are often greeted with pleasure and gratitude, if only because they offer a more pleasant living environment, other projects are more difficult to accept. This is particularly the case of John Hantz, the son of an automobile worker, who wishes to acquire nearly 1,500 plots to plant 50,000 trees. Many voices were raised against this project, denouncing the very advantageous price at which the land is acquired. Opponents fear that some businessmen may be speculating. In addition, other concerns about the use that would be made of these areas were expressed: fear of excessive use of pesticides, GMO plantations … As a result, the project stagnated for several years and is only start. From the small personal vegetable patch to the large urban farms that could produce a significant part of the population’s consumption of fruit and vegetables, there is still a long way to go.

Detroit is not the only city that has wagered on urban agriculture to emerge from the economic slump: in Rosario, Argentina, a similar phenomenon has been observable since the crisis of 2001. The UN program for Habitat also recognized, in 2004, the Rosario plan as one of the ten best practices in the world to fight poverty while respecting the environment.

For more information on urban agriculture, we invite you to consult this report on the ENSAT Round Tables of December 4, 2012 “Urban agriculture, between common ground and fields of tension”


  • Urban activities, actors and challenges, Brownfields of Detroit, November 10, 2007
  • Alter Echos, Detroit: urban agriculture, an antidote to deindustrialization?, May 15, 2013
  • L’Express, How Detroit turns to agriculture, August 20, 2010
  • Liberation, Under the paving stones of the earth, June 9, 2009
  • Urban Farming
  • HuffPost Detroit, Peck Produce are taking their Detroit urban farm to the next level, April 9, 2013
  • Greening of Detroit
  • HuffPost Detroit, Soil Remediation: Detroit Experiments Explore Urban Farming’s Next Frontier, July 26, 2012
  • CBSNews, Bringing Fresh Food to Areas that Get None, September 3, 2009
  • Michigan Live, Hantz Woodlands, billed as “world’s largest urban farm”, starts to take shape on Detroit’s east side, June 26, 2013