Can urban farming save Detroit?

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John Hantz, President of Hantz Farms thinks so. He and a growing number of “urban farmers” are utilizing unused city space to produce fruit and vegetables (and in some cases fish and poultry) while creating jobs and revitalizing communities. The practice has a long history and was used extensively in Britain during WWII and more recently in Cuba, to boost local food supplies but Mr Hantz feels that a large scale urban farming operation can help re-develop Detroit, a city which has lost more than 500,000 inhabitants since the 1970s and has one of the highest unemployment rates in the US.

As Detroit’s population has shrunk so have property prices and Mr Hantz expects that turning unused urban plots into farmland—and beautifying some of the most destitute neighborhoods in the city—will begin to create scarcity and revive demand. The process has not been easy and Hantz Farms has yet to start planting but the idea of urban farming as a way to improve the city seems to be gaining momentum. The Detroit Garden Resource Program has been operating since 2003 and supports more than 850 urban gardens in the region.

The foundations
Will Allen, the founder of Growing Power, is one of the US’s main advocates for urban farming and has been promoting the practice as a way to build sustainable food systems and food security in low-income urban areas even longer than his counterparts in Detroit. Growing Power, which started as a community program for teens in 1993, now oversees 6 farms in Milwaukee and Chicago. The results are impressive, as this video shows, and have proven to be a model for other urban communities across the country. Given the combination of high food and transportation prices and a poor economic environment this style of urban farming is likely to continue spreading, although its impact has thus far been limited to specific communities.

The future
A new book takes a more long term (and futuristic) view of how urban farming can develop. Dickson Despommier, author of The Vertical Farm, envisions skyscrapers of hydroponic greenhouses which will be needed to “provide safe, fresh food around the globe” as urbanization increases and rising populations strain traditional food sources. One example of such a design is pictured above, courtesy of The Vertical Farm. The book estimates that large scale urban farming will require hundreds of millions in dollars in research and some of the futuristic techniques are years away.

Nonetheless, urban farming is already proving a viable solution to some current urban problems. Hantz Farms in Detroit will be a test case to see if large scale urban farming is a viable option for the future.


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