It’s fairly obvious that the city of Detroit has a whole host of pressing problems to solve. The Governor, Mayor, and City Council just entered into a consent agreement to help keep the city afloat financially, and are now sorting out core governance issues. Despite a small drop last month, Detroit’s unemployment rate is 17.8% in comparison to the national 8.2% rate. Indeed, Detroit has a bad reputation that carries throughout the country.
Though Detroit residents are working hard to improve the city while highlighting the city’s positive features and redeeming qualities, we still need to have an honest conversation about which problems to address, in what order, and to what degree. To start, I think Detroit needs to tackle food insecurity and vacant land issues; the growing urban agriculture movement can mitigate these problems and help empower communities throughout the city.
Food Insecurity: The US Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as households that lack consistent access to adequate food for active, healthy lives. In 2010, the Detroit Food Policy Council estimated that Detroit’s food insecurity rate was at least 30%, compared to the11% national average. The problem isn’t just that people in Detroit don’t have enough food to eat. The Fair Food Network published a case study on access to food in Detroit, which identified several additional problems: lack of healthy and affordable food and retailers, neighborhood safety, and environmental contamination. Some interviewees also mentioned racial tensions, as some “African American residents say that food quality, service, and condition of their neighborhood stores are unacceptable, and feel disrespected by the store owners, who are often from different racial and ethnic backgrounds and live outside their neighborhoods.”
Vacant Land: At its core, Detroit is too big for its population, and the city needs to adapt in order to survive. Detroit officials and other stakeholders have been talking about “right-sizing” the city over the past few years, and the Detroit Works Project is a city initiative that is trying to figure out just what to do with this space. While these conversations will likely remain controversial, prompt and thoughtful action is necessary, and in this case proof is in the statistics. By area, Detroit is about 138 square miles. From 2000 to 2010, Detroit’s population declined by 25% and is now about 713,000. According to the Detroit Residential Parcel Survey data, about 581 of the city’s 3116 miles of highways and streets front vacant lots. And, 10,683 of the city’s 32,913 blocks are made up of at least 25% vacant lots. The costs of maintaining this lack of land use are too high for the city to bear.
Last month, the University of Michigan Food Stamp Advocacy Project organized a panel that asked whether urban agriculture/urban farming can help put vacant land to good use and promote food security. First, Professor Alicia Alvarez, director of the Community & Economic Development Clinic (CEDC), which provides legal support to community-based nonprofit organizations in Detroit, discussed how her work supporting community-based organizations engaged in urban agriculture has made her believe that urban agriculture can positively impact the city.
The next speaker, Professor John Mogk of Wayne State University Law School argued that urban agriculture is a great opportunity to productively use otherwise vacant land to help support communities through providing access to healthy foods, fostering community development through improving neighborhoods, and reducing crime.
Finally, Executive Director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network Malik Yakini emphasized the importance of undoing racism in the Detroit food system by “rejecting the missionary attitude of whites who come into our communities, via grant funded nonprofits, to lead us to the urban agricultural promised land.” He also pointed out that urban agriculture can be used to connect more Detroiters to affordable, healthy, and delicious food. Mr. Yakini’s group advances urban agriculture by running the D-Town farm, supporting food justice activism, and engaging in policy advocacy projects.
The panelists both contend that city officials need to work with community groups and other stakeholders to address the operational, legislative, and regulatory challenges currently facing urban agriculture in Detroit. This point left me with a host of critical questions about what city and community collaboration would look like and achieve. For example, if the city is “right-sizing” and is going to end up rezoning several different neighborhoods, what does that mean for up and coming farms? Also, how much urban agriculture does the city want within city limits? How will Detroit deal with the Michigan Right to Farm Act, which in many respects leaves Detroit powerless to regulate commercial farming.
While there need to be more discussions about the mechanics and vision(s) for urban agriculture in the city, the punch line was that if city officials and communities work together, urban agriculture can be an opportunity to reduce food insecurity, empower communities, and put otherwise vacant land to productive use. I agree entirely.
Liz Lamoste is a second-year student at the University of Michigan Law School, a native of Suburban Detroit, and a 2009 DMI Scholar. She is a board member of the Michigan Universal Health Care Access Network (MichUHCAN) and an outgoing co-chair of the Food Stamp Advocacy Project (FSAP). You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on twitter @LizLamoste.