An outdoor farmers market at Detroit’s historic Eastern Market. (Courtesy of Eastern Market)

Amid the concrete, steel, and asphalt of American cities, open space has long been celebrated and valued. From Chicago’s majestic Grant Park to New York City’s iconic Central Park, these civic treasures inspire pride and provide the setting where citizens gather for important celebrations. Land adjacent to these magnificent municipal commons is typically among the highest valued in the region.

As important as these monumental parks are, however, they do not tell the whole story about the importance of green space in cities. Similarly, but in a much more dispersed manner, neighborhood green spaces ranging from parks to playgrounds to backyards improve residents’ quality of life while creating value.

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In Detroit, as in many cities across the United States, a distinctive type of open space—the urban garden—has emerged as another type of civic asset. Whether growing vegetables for the family table or flowers to sell at the local farmers market, such gardens have provided a way for families and communities to survive and thrive—leading healthier, happier, and more prosperous lives.

General Motors donated 100 steel crates used previously to ship engines to its Orion Assembly Plant for use in raised urban gardens in vacant parking lots throughout Detroit, building on an earlier donation of 250 crates that enabled Cadillac Urban Gardens to bloom in southwest Detroit.

Planting the Seeds

Detroit’s urban gardens are part of a long tradition that extends back to the 1890s. In response to the recession brought on by the Silver Panic of 1893, Detroit Mayor Hazen S. Pingree exhorted Detroit residents to plant their own backyard gardens. While his efforts were initially mocked as “Pingree Potato Patches,” urban gardens were a huge success—and actually ended up generating more income for participating families than those families received from nascent government assistance programs.

Detroiters joined other Americans in enthusiastically embracing the Victory Garden movement during World War II. At one point, nearly 40 percent of all food produced in the United States came from these gardens. Later, in the 1970s, Mayor Coleman Young’s “Farm a Lot” program set an ambitious goal of transforming 3,000 empty lots into urban gardens. The program assigned interested Detroit residents their own lot with twin goals of helping citizens trim living expenses while creating a greener, more appealing urban landscape.

(Keep Growing Detroit)

Taking Root

Urban gardens aren’t just a part of Detroit’s history; they are a part of its present and its future. Urban gardens are playing an important role in the city’s recovery: a proud and thriving tradition that continues to expand in innovative and influential new ways to inspire new forms of urban land development. Today, Detroit has one of the most robust urban garden networks in the country. More than 23,000 Detroit residents participate in urban gardening, and the city boasts more than 1,500 individual gardens.

The rich cultural and community tradition of gardening among African American families is still very evident along with other backyard and side-lot growers. A number of neighborhood and city-wide initiatives designed to support and promote urban agriculture in many different forms have emerged, resulting in a robust ecosystem of independent small-plot growers, community-based gardens, larger nonprofit initiatives, and commercial growers, all contributing to a greener Detroit.

Key programs and organizations that play important roles in furthering urban agriculture include the following:

  • The Detroit Garden Resource Program, which supports family, community, school, and market gardens in Detroit, Highland Park, and Hamtramck, provides resources for vegetable gardens—including seeds and Detroit-grown transplants, free soil testing, and tool lending libraries.
  • “Grown in Detroit” is a cooperative that sells urban garden– and urban farm–grown fruit, vegetables, flowers, and herbs (produced in healthy soil without harmful chemicals, pesticides, fertilizers, or genetically modified products) at the historic Eastern Market, to area restaurants, and through a community-supported-agriculture (CSA) program.

Both the Garden Resource Program and Grown in Detroit are operated by Keep Growing Detroit, a nonprofit organization with the stated goal of promoting a “food-sovereign city,” where the majority of fruits and vegetables Detroiters consume are grown by residents within the city’s limits. One of the most advanced programs of its kind in the country, Keep Growing Detroit helps both aspiring and established urban gardeners become more successful food entrepreneurs and more engaged community leaders—not only addressing the immediate needs of the community, but also promoting sustainable change in the food system.

The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the cultivation of healthier food and greater local participation in the politics of food production. DBCFSN operates D-Town Farm, a seven-acre (2.8 ha) property in Rouge Park in northwestern Detroit that includes organic vegetable plots, beehives, a hoop house for year-round food production, and a composting operation. DBCFSN is also planning the Healthy Food Complex in Detroit’s North End, a multiuse complex that will include the Detroit People’s Food Co-op, a retail co-op grocery store, an incubator kitchen, a community meeting space, a café, and new offices for DBCFSN staff.

Urban gardens have even become enmeshed with Detroit’s celebrated auto industry: General Motors implemented a program repurposing former steel shipping crates as raised planters. The company recently announced that from 2012 to 2017, approximately 2,000 of those crates had been donated and are now home to plantings in 33 different gardens around the city.

(Keep Growing Detroit)

A Bountiful Harvest

The civic and community benefits of a robust network of urban gardens are having an impact on everything from property values and workforce participation numbers, to nutrition and social empowerment. Those 23,000 Detroiters who garden are making their neighborhoods better without outside help and many are changing how they eat—adopting diets with more fruits and vegetables. And those impacts are profoundly changing Detroit.

Urban gardens are much more than just a way to make a few extra dollars or put some fresh food on the table: they have the potential to revolutionize the way food is produced and consumed. Urban agriculture is an important part of strengthening regional food systems in which regional economies benefit from having more small and medium-sized businesses participating in food production, processing, distribution, retailing, and composting/recycling.

The impact of stronger regional food economies is already evident in a few categories. The nation’s beer industry, for example, has undergone a 30-year evolution that has seen the number of breweries increase from 103 to more than 4,000 between 1985 and 2017.

As has been the case for beer drinkers, consumer preferences are changing other parts of the food sector with the potential to create thousands of new jobs and hundreds of smaller enterprises in regional food economies across the nation.

There is strong conviction in Detroit to rebuild a stronger regional food economy with greater equity, thereby leveraging a stronger regional food economy to improve the financial health of some of the city’s most vulnerable households.

The food sector has among the highest percentages of entry-level, living-wage jobs of any sector of the economy. Increased localized food production, processing, and distribution helps Detroit residents take advantage of workforce development programs and reenter the workforce.

Another robust ecosystem has emerged in providing incubation and acceleration services to the thriving local food-making scene.

Food Lab Detroit, a “diverse community of food businesses and allies working to make good food a sustainable reality for all Detroiters,” is part of a national trend of small food producers banding together to effect positive change.

Eastern Market’s Detroit Kitchen Connect program provides access to commercially licensed shared-use kitchens at four sites in the city, providing food entrepreneurs with low-cost production space.

FEAST Detroit is the city’s first food accelerator providing co-packing services to its three joint venture partner owners and other emerging food businesses that experience a sudden surge in demand. Three additional food accelerators are planned over the next few years.

Tech Town Detroit, Build Institute, and ProsperUs Detroit are three other entrepreneurial support programs that have implemented significant programming in the food sector in response to the trend that indicates that around one-third of overall entrepreneurship activity is happening in the food sector.

With our national health care crisis, led by staggering rates of lifestyle diseases such as type II diabetes and hypertension, access to healthy food has become a significant issue in cities and rural areas that have lost full-service grocers over recent decades.

Here again there has been much work in Detroit in recent years. The city of Detroit and Detroit Economic Growth Corporation have worked to attract new food retailers to the city and, just as important, encourage existing grocers in the city to up their produce offerings through the Green Grocer Program.

Alternative food distribution schemes have also flourished from the Detroit Community Markets, a network of neighborhood farmers markets, to various pop-up programs such as Eastern Market’s Farm Stand program to those operated by the area’s outstanding emergency food providers—Gleaners Community Food Bank and Forgotten Harvest.

Detroit has become a national hot spot for work to break generational cycles of limited food options and poor nutrition and facilitate access to fresher, healthier food options for urban populations.

Given the circular nature of the food system, it really all starts with gardening. Ashley Atkinson, the codirector of Keep Growing Detroit, says that urban gardens are not only helping Detroiters eat more healthfully, but they also have the potential to reshape Detroit neighborhoods in important ways: “Ultimately, it’s not just about connecting people to the land, but to each other.”

A Sustainable, Resilient, and Successful City

For Detroit, which has tackled uniquely complex land use issues in recent years, the growing popularity of urban gardening presents both a challenge and an opportunity. It seems clear that Detroit’s flourishing urban gardens need to be part of a comprehensive open-space policy. The flexibility of urban gardens makes them an ideal way to potentially knit together meaningful green space and open space in the city as it continues to redevelop.

One such area is a planned expansion of the Eastern Market District, where planning is underway to find space to keep established food processing businesses (and their jobs) in the city.

The city of Detroit, the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, the Nature Conservancy, and the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department are working collaboratively to develop a mixed-use template that includes space for food processing businesses and a district-wide approach to stormwater management in addition to existing residential, educational, and recreational uses.

Integrating a variety of open spaces from those that retain stormwater to those that provide opportunities for recreation and agricultural production will be the outcome of a major planning process that launched in early 2018.

In this part of the city and others, urban agriculture advocates and city officials alike recognize the need to be both thoughtful and strategic—and to take advantage of land vacancies to develop policies in this post-recessionary, mid-boomtown moment to create urban templates that can yield a dynamic and distinctive future for Detroit.

Going forward, it is important to continue the role that urban gardens have played in sparking entrepreneurship and innovation in Detroit. Creating future land development templates that will enable new growers to join current urban farms like Brother Nature in Corktown and Rising Pheasant Farms on Detroit’s East Side is important work.

Atkinson says that “Detroit’s urban gardens are an incredibly powerful community resource, with the potential to help shape the social, economic, and nutritional future for generations of inspired Detroit residents.”

While much finer in detail, a compelling open-space thread—comprising gardens, recreation, and stormwater green infrastructure—woven through the urban fabric of Detroit as it is rebuilt can have the same transformational power that Central Park and Grant Park have had on their respective cities.

Dan Carmody is president of Detroit’s Eastern Market Corporation, a nonprofit organization operating one of the nation’s largest public markets.