Sunday, January 10, 2010

Urban Agriculture: a plan to save Detroit

In the United States, shifts in the manufacturing base, heightened by the economic challenges of the past couple of years, have lead to the collapse of the business base of many American cities. No city better personifies this predicament than Detroit. With the loss of its automotive manufacturing backbone combined with high unemployment, home foreclosures. and the flight of its citizenry (the population has dropped from 1.8 million in 1950 to a current population of 800,00 and still dropping), Detroit is a city with considerable land that is going idle.

So, what does this have to do with nature and conservation, you ask? The latest issue of Fortune magazine reports on an interesting solution for Detroit's abandoned acreage: urban agriculture. And we're not talking about rooftop tomato gardens. No, what is being proposed is major, full-scale farming but utilizing the latest techniques in an attempt to produce maximum yield with as low of an impact (energy consumption, CO2 emissions, chemicals, etc.) as possible.

Currently, the plan is primarily the brainchild of John Hantz, a Detroit stockbroker, who has been consulting with Michigan State and the Kellogg Foundation for advice. And he is gaining support from Detroit civic leaders and a variety of potential investors. Hantz is prepared to make the initial $30 million investment himself and plans to begin planting this spring.

Wouldn't it be better to attract people - homeowners and businessmen alike - back to Detroit to use that idle acreage for suburban or industrial purposes? Perhaps, but it's been clear for some time that homeowners won't be coming back to Detroit any time soon if there's no work, and the industrial base has definitely moved on - either elsewhere within the country or overseas.

There are environmental benefits to this approach if it's done right. More CO2-absorbing plants rather than concrete, steel or aluminum siding. The use of compost-fed farms, thereby recycling various waste and using less chemical fertilizers. And supporting more locally grown produce, reducing the cost and environmental impact from national or international shipping.

Admittedly, the environmental benefits are not the biggest priority in Hantz's plan; he is more concerned with revitalizing Detroit's abandoned acreage - which currently totals nearly 30% of the city's 139 square miles - and seeing both a profit and revitalization of the former Motor City. And he is not without his critics who are skeptical that he is hoping for a major land grab. But something needs to be done for Detroit and anyone who steps up to the plate is most likely going to do so with some expectation of making a viable and profitable enterprise. The city's problems are just too enormous to realistically expect any other type of action.

So, we'll have to see. Maybe someday, while passing through the mid-west, you'll buy some plums grown in downtown Detroit!

FYI: I read a variety of publications, from conservative Fortune to liberal Rolling Stone, as I find it's a great way to get a feel for the pulse of things. I typically read Fortune to see what is being adopted in the world of technology gadgets - if it's in Fortune, then it's probably going mainstream.

Read the article by David Whitford in

No comments: