Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Detroit - Part V (Farms)

There are a lot of good parts in Detroit and a lot of bad parts, but there are also some truly unique places. The agricultural movement in Detroit is arguably the strongest in the nation, driven by bountiful space, economic necessity, institutional support and a lack of government interference. The intensity of agricultural activity varies greatly across the city but some neighborhoods look downright rural. So rural that some unusual species add to the urban ecosystem here.
But domesticated animals far outnumber the pheasants that roam freely throughout sections of the city. Driving through North Corktown reveals quite a scene.

One enterprising woman has acted as something of a livestock distributor for much of the city, and her expanded yard looks the part.These places act as focal points in neighborhoods. Near-by residents congregate on their way to and from work to visit the friendly goats and chickens and to donate the crusts of their bread. The only rule is to keep the treats unprocessed (no chips). In the country, animal pens like this would be totally ordinary, but in the city, it's one step away from visiting the zoo.
This neighborhood is interesting because it is not particularly devastated. In fact, the local neighborhood corporation recently constructed a few dozen new residences in the area targeted to lower middle income occupants, greatly filling out the area.Despite this reduction in available space, gardens and livestock pens have popped up in spaces big and small. Some gardens are fenced in, some are community run and some are just a plot of land with neat rows of collard greens sprouting from the earth.One gentleman has even taken it upon himself to make enough compost for every community garden in the city. Of all the compost piles in all the world, this one was the most pleasant to walk through.It's really quite amazing what a person can do with a bit of space, time and know-how.

I'd like to briefly discuss the conditions that made all of this possible, and to consider whether those conditions will arise in other decaying suburbs around the country. This particular quasi-suburban neighborhood was originally designed with features that modern New Urbanist thinkers find ideal. The uniform setbacks, connected street grid, local corner store, proximity to public transit and totally residential make-up defines this place as one of the pseudo-suburbs of the early 1900s. This pre-cursor to modern suburbs decayed much like other poor neighborhoods in the Detroit area. However, a variety of factors have created the perfect conditions for this place to turn from a slum to an agricultural paradise and I wouldn't be surprised if these factors become more and more common throughout the country.

1. A lack of government intervention. Detroit's police force has enough problems to deal with, they have no need to waste their time enforcing zoning provisions that prohibit agriculture. Suburban police might not feel the same way right now, but as crime increases in the suburbs, they'll soon discover that they too have bigger fish to fry.

2. Enough space. It doesn't take much. A lot here, a back yard there. In newer suburbs, people certainly have enough lawn space. In older ones, decaying houses will turn into open lots that will be gobbled up first by community gardens and then by individuals.

3. People want free food. If you have some extra time but no extra money, growing your own food makes a whole lot of sense. As unemployment increases, urban farming will only increase as people search for something beyond their government provided soy and corn rations (bleak eh?).

4. Institutional support. A wide range of organizations have come together to make this agricultural movement work. The Greening of Detroit, an established organization in the Metro Detroit area, provides the monetary aid and necessary connections. Michigan State University provides the technical know-how. The recently minted Garden Resource Program effectively delivers all of the necessary services to communities and individuals. The Garden Resource Program tests soil for heavy metals, delivers compost, distributes seeds and plants, connects local gardeners with one another and provides inexpensive educational lectures. Without any one of these pieces, the face of Detroit would look entirely different.

If suburb managers are wise, they'll take an interest in these places so that their communities can effectively cope as the same symptoms that began showing in Detroit 40 years ago, begin to show up in their neck of the woods.

That's it for Detroit, quite a place. I'm off to Chicago for the next couple days.

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