Given the past half-century, it’s no wonder that Yakini and his fellow Detroit citizens “have an edge” to them. Yet Detroit’s postwar furnace has also forged a remarkable resiliency and creativity in its citizens. You can hear it in the Motown Sound of the ‘60s — and see it in the urban-agriculture movement of today. Detroit residents have a “fortitude and resilience that produces creativity,” Yakini told me. “People trying to survive in a hard environment tend to become very creative.”

Ashley Atkinson, 31, director of urban agriculture and project development for Greening of Detroit, a nonprofit founded in 1989, echoes that idea, adding that the relentless tension of living in a city under economic siege can bring people together. “You can be the most wealthy, privileged person in the world,” she told me. “But if you’re here in the city, you cannot hide from poverty and suffering. It’s right there in your face. You can either embrace humanity and try to live every moment to try to make everyone’s life easier, or you leave … if you have the option to.”  

It’s that civic-minded impulse to “make everyone’s life easier” that drives the garden movement. I talked to several agriculture activists for this essay, and they all characterized the urban-ag revival as a community-based, almost painfully cooperative effort, anchored by a few key local nonprofit institutions. Greening of Detroit may be the most pervasive of them — it provides a broad array of support, including tools and compost, to the city’s nearly 1,200 registered vegetable gardens. These gardens range from single-family plots to community and school gardens to 37 market gardens, which are business enterprises that sell their goods at farmers’ markets.

According to Atkinson, gardens of all types continue sprouting up at a steady rate throughout the city. What kind of potential do they have to bring healthy food to the city as well as jobs? Atkinson pointed me to a study released in June by the C.S. Mott Group at Michigan State University gauging “The Production Potential of Detroit’s Vacant Land.”  

Community gardenLots o’ land: Located on the corner of Farnsworth and Moran, this community garden was started by Molly Motor long before urban farming became the buzzword of the day in Detroit. Photo courtesy of Angela Anderson-Cobb via FlickrThe city’s food-production capacity is, in a word, immense. The Mott researchers reckon that there are 44,000 vacant publicly owned land parcels, representing nearly 5,000 acres, around the city. That’s more than enough land for the city’s farmers and gardeners to crank out a significant portion of Detroit’s fruit and vegetable needs, the study showed. They calculate that with proper investments in season-extension infrastructure like hoop houses (which wouldn’t require fossil fuel for heating even in Detroit’s frigid winters) and space to store crops like potatoes, skilled farmers using biointensive techniques on just 570 acres could produce 70 percent of the vegetables consumed in Detroit and 40 percent of the fruit. (Non-professional-level gardeners could produce that much food with 2,100 acres under cultivation.)

The Mott study doesn’t comment on the possible economic benefits, but back-of-the envelope calculations suggests that they are significant. Detroit residents spend less than the residents of any other American city on food — about $2,200 combined at home and in restaurants and bars in 2009, according to the data crunchers at the financial website Bundle. If fruit and vegetables make up about 7.5 percent each of that $871 spent on food consumed at home, going by USDA estimates, and if Detroit growers were to provide 70 percent of the vegetables consumed by the city’s 900,000 residents, that would amount to $41.2 million in annual sales. For fruits, receipts would be $23 million. Grand total: $63 million per year into the local economy.

Seeding the next phase of growth

One can imagine that infusion rippling through the economy in myriad ways. In her book The Economy of Cities, Jane Jacobs argues that in vibrant urban economies, new industries are always arising from existing one. Once that process stops — as it did in the case of Detroit’s car factories — economic stagnation sets in. Urban agriculture, dispersed throughout the city at the scale envisioned by the Mott study, could provide a Jacobsian engine for sustainable growth.

New distribution networks, for example, would need to arise to move that produce from farmers to retail outlets, providing opportunity for entrepreneurship. Then there’s retail, which in itself represents a massive opportunity, both to capture profits from local produce and to improve public health. In 2007, A&P closed its last two Detroit-area supermarkets. It had been the last national supermarket chain operating in the city. Now, more than half of Detroit residents live in areas that have severely limited access to healthy food, a study from Yale’s Rudd Center recently found, making them “statistically more likely to suffer or die prematurely from a diet-related disease, holding other key factors constant,” the report concluded.

Yet high-quality food retail could be economically viable activity. “A 2003 University of Michigan study concluded that the city could support 41 supermarkets with at least 40,000 square feet of space based on its population and spending habits,” the Detroit Free-Press reports. Today there are none. If a bounty of city-grown vegetables began to overwhelm existing farmers markets, local citizens might be moved to band together, raise investment cash, and create full-service food retail outlets that feature local produce. Such projects would keep food dollars circulating within the community, broaden access to healthy food, and provide robust market access to local farmers.

Detroit’s heritage as a manufacturing powerhouse could come into play as well. Yakini told me that people are already talking about launching businesses to fabricate the kind of hardware necessary for inten
sive urban agriculture: hoop houses for season extension, hand tools, etc. Working closely with innovative farmers at the frontier of intensive urban agriculture, such businesses could generate urban-farming tools sought out the world over.

To hear Atkinson tell it, the city is well on its way to becoming a powerhouse of community-based urban agriculture: dotted with smallholder farms, along with myriad family and community gardens, churning out top-quality produce, feeding the city’s citizens as well as its economy.

The obstacles mainly have to do with policy, she says. “Right now, farming is essentially illegal in the city,” she told me. Farming can’t be the principle use of city land, legally. That means you can have a market garden on the land around your home — the principle use of your land; but you can’t buy an empty parcel explicitly to farm it. “Those rules have to change for market gardening to take off here,” she told me.

Malik YakiniGreen powerhouse: Malik Yakini, chairman of the Detroit Black Food Security NetworkPhoto: Tom PhilpottHappily, policy change is afoot, even if the pace is slow.

Late in 2009, the Detroit Food Policy Council, which advises the City Council, started meeting. Yakini chairs it — Atkinson told me it grew out of efforts by the Black Food Security Network — and Atkinson also sits on it. One of its tasks is to amend and propose policies to facilitate urban agriculture. Then there’s the Urban Agriculture Work Group, which operates under the City Planning Commission, and which has also been working on tweaking city policy to make it friendly to for-profit farming.

Atkinson is confident that these efforts will change city policy. She and fellow members of the Policy Council and Work Group “wouldn’t be working so hard, doing homework and attending theses meetings, if we didn’t believe it would happen … eventually.”

Yakini agrees that urban agriculture has “tremendous economic potential” in Detroit, but doesn’t want to overplay it. He stresses the need for investments in infrastructure along with policy change. Moreover, he sees Detroit not in isolation, but rather as part of a regional food economy, joined in a network with urban centers and rural areas in Michigan as well as Illinois and Ohio.

Yakini also sees vast value beyond the economics of Detroit’s urban agriculture scene. “Even if the gardening movement had no economic viability, just the fact that it’s bringing people together for the common good is very significant,” he said. “African-Americans in Detroit tend to have a sense of despair and helplessness that is a direct result of oppression. Producing even some of our own food restores a sense of power, a sense that we can shape our own destiny.”

In the next week, I’ll profile three of the projects that are greening Detroit’s fate.