Urban farming in Detroit

Turning the Motor City into Farm City?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2011 14 Pages

Communications - Intercultural Communication


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Characteristics

3 Urban farming in Detroit

3.1 S'W OT analysis

3.2 Urban farming projects in Detroit

4 Conclusion

5 Bibliography

1 Introduction

The term urban farming or agriculture recently pops up in the media. It is mainly applied regarding city development in third world countries, but as well it becomes more often a phenomena taking place in cities of industrial countries. After examining the general characteristics of urban farming, I am going to scrutinize the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of urban agricultural projects taking place in the city of Detroit. The former Motor City has been experiencing a dramatic economic collapse. Hence, because of its urgent need for change, it serves as prime example for urban farming in industrialized countries. Further on, introducing the Earthworks project in detail, the potential of urban farming as a possible long-term solution for Detroit’s problems will be examined.

2 Characteristics

Van Veenhuizen defines urban agriculture as “[...] the growing of plants and the raising of animals for food and other uses within and around cities and towns, and related activities such as the production and delivery of inputs, and the processing and marketing of products” (Van Veenhuizen, 2006, p.2).

Moreover, urban farming depicts an integral part of the cities’ economic, social and ecological system. This describes the sensible use of local resources like degraded land, workers, organic wastes and water. Furthermore, urban farming is operated by citizens producing for citizens. Even though most of the urban farms are non-profit organisations, they still guarantee food security and help to reduce poverty. Their work also has a great impact on people’s health by ensuring a better nutrition. Nevertheless, urban farming projects highly depend on the cities’ policy, especially concerning land distribution. Additionally, limited space, a low degree of farmer organisation, a rather specialized production of nutritious food and closeness to the local markets mark the phenomenon of urban farming. Its goal is the transformation of the cities’ physical and social environment in order to create a better future far away from poverty and hunger (cf. ibid., p.2).

Three types of urban farming can be distinguished: subsistence urban farmers, family-type (semi-) commercial farmers and agricultural entrepreneurs (cf. ibid., p.3). Additionally, urban farming projects meet three policy dimensions: social, economic and ecological. Since this work does not have the extent to explain all of them, it shall be referred only to the social dimension, which concerns cities, including Detroit, with mainly food security issues and exclusion of certain parts of the population. Social urban farm projects produce mainly for their self-consumption. Because of the little direct viability, these people need extra income to cover all of their expenditures. Farming varieties within the social dimension are home gardening, community gardening and institutional gardens at schools or hospitals. Farms meeting the social policy dimension have a great impact on social inclusion, poverty alleviation and community development (cf. ibid. p.10ff). These functions shall be explained in detail introducing to the example of urban farming in the city of Detroit.

3 Urban farming in Detroit

3.1 SWOT analysis

In order to examine the potential for urban farming in the city of Detroit, I am going to present a SWOT analysis.

The former Motor City has been facing economic decline since decades, but the collapse of the so called “Great three” General Motors, Chrysler and Ford let the city’s problems culminate nowadays. While the city of Detroit had an overall population of about 1.85 Million inhabitants in its peak time in the year 1950, today its population is shrunken by about desperate 50% (cf. Grünweg, 18.02.2010). Statistics about unemployment in the region turn out to be contradictory. Official records state an unemployment rate of about 30% for the city of Detroit. Nevertheless, this number should be viewed with caution, since here only people officially registered as job-seeking are taken into account; part-time workers or those who abandoned the idea of looking for a job are not included in this statistic. In fact, the unemployment rate of Detroit city is estimated to cover 50% of the population (cf. unknown, 16.12.2009). The economic crisis forced many families to leave their houses. As a result, about 27% of Detroit’s area are covered with fallow land. Whole streets of abandoned houses get demolished (cf. Benedetti, 11.08.2008). The investigation of the use of Detroit’s land revealed that nearly 5.000 acres of public land owned by the City of Detroit, Wayne County or the State of Michigan are vacant on more than 44.000 parcels (cf. West, 22.11.2010). Hence, the availability of unused land as well as the high potential for recruiting people from the desolate labour market form the basic assumptions to enable urban farming as a successful development strategy in Detroit. The steady closing down of big supermarkets in the city of Detroit has left, a food desert. The Earthwork project, which will be further explained in this essay, defines a food desert as “[...] a place where it is easier for someone to get access to low-quality foods like chips, soda, or fast food than to access fresh fruits and vegetables and good sources of protein” (Eartworks Urban Farm, p.1). If the inhabitants do not have the possibility of transport to go shopping in the suburban supermarkets, the only alternative is to buy food in small grocery stores with significantly higher prices and a desperate choice of fresh and nutritious food. Moreover, because of the great poverty caused by unemployment, about two thirds of Detroit’s inhabitants depend on food charity (cf. Cibien/ Guillon/ Carcanade, 2010). Hence, the demand for food consumption convinces Detroit’s inhabitants to take part in urban farming. As will be further explained, a strong cooperation in between several associations can already be recognized as strength of urban farming in Detroit.

In contrast, this agricultural movement shows also some weaknesses: Most significant is the so far limited support from the official side. Regulations about the use of the abandoned land have not been found so far. Even though the city of Detroit is deeply in debt, it is only disposed to sell small amounts of land. A law frame for using publicly owned land for private use needs to be enacted to support the growing non-profit urban farming movement. Like this, the city will not make any direct profit from its land, but at the same time the food grown on the parcels will ensure the food consumption of its population. The fund rising represent another weakness of urban farming. So far many of the urban farming projects in Detroit work as non-profit organisations run by locals to feed locals with the outcome. Hence, donations are essential to keep those projects running. Some of the urban farming communities also sell their harvest on markets. So, poor market accessibility or a rather bad reputation might be weaknesses as well. The standing of fresh food grown in Detroit might be influenced by industrial caused environmental contamination from the past (cf. Colasanti/ Litjens/ Hamm, 2010, p.11).

Analysing strengths and weaknesses of Detroit as a place of urban farming, certain opportunities and threats can be constituted:

The greatest opportunity is the development and extension of urban agriculture to satisfy the demand for food consumption and to facilitate the access to high-quality food. Thus, by ensuring a better nutrition the inhabitants’ health can be improved. Additionally, the supply of occupation, even if it is unpaid, can open up new perspectives and hope to the unemployed population. The fact, that unemployed people spend about 60 to 80% of their money in food, shows the indirect financial impact on volunteering in urban farming communities and harvesting own fresh vegetables and fruit by saving on the households expenditure (cf. Van Veenhuizen, 2006, p.8). At this stage only few communities also make profit out of their businesses. But in the future bigger and better structured agro-companies might also supply new jobs and even boost the local economy by stimulating the development of microenterprises. Especially, the extension of the growing season by modern farming techniques such as hoop and greenhouses is a step towards commercialization (cf. ibid., p.4).



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European University Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder) – Intercultural Management
urban farming Motor City Detroit SWOT ananlysis Earthworks urban agriculture community gardening unemployment city development ecological farming food desert



Title: Urban farming in Detroit