If Detroit has an excess of anything, it’s unutilized space. The Greening of Detroit contends it could be as much as 40 square miles left vacant. In 1989 the group started to promote the reforestation of the city, but as time passes, they’re expanding their goals to promote urban agriculture and educational programs. One of their end goals is to use these empty spaces to help Detroit become food sovereign.
Food sovereign means that 51% or more of the fresh foods consumed in Detroit are grown by Detroiters—within city limits. It’s lofty, but they’re pursuing this mile by mile through both commercial partnerships and small-scale support of local farmers.
The Detroit Market Garden and MGM Grand Garden are among the Greening’s larger projects in terms of the square millage of farms. The Detroit Market Garden takes up 2.5 acres in the Eastern Market district, but more than just farming ground, the center will be used for production and processing of fresh foods, as well as an urban farming training program. This location alone is expected to increase the amount of produce available for sale by 35,000 lbs. annually.
The MGM Grand Casino, with the help of Greening’s Youth Growing Program, developed its new farm in the heart of downtown. Apprentices converted the soil, planted and built the site’s heated greenhouse, half of which will be used for in-ground production. The other half will be used for transplant production. Profits from the sale of produce and transplants will be recycled into the program.
The Greening of Detroit’s Open Space program takes a different approach, working with farmers and community members to support already existing gardens and transform vacant lots into green community spaces. You can see several of these initiatives within blocks of each other in North Corktown.
The Vermont St. Community Garden was created this year in collaboration with Corktown residents. Down the street, the Pine St. Tree Nursery’s canopy is formed from over 200 young trees.
In terms of food production, the Greening supports Hope Takes Root and Brother Nature urban farms. The first is behind the Spirit of Hope church on Martin Luther King Blvd. In addition to its lush produce, they also have a honeybee colony and gravitational irrigation system. As such, the farm is considered a permaculture plot. That is they grow their produce in a way that doesn’t deplete our natural resources. Brother Nature sells their produce at Eastern Market every Saturday or through the Community Supported Agriculture program.
In neighborhoods like North Corktown, the organization’s role in promoting a green infrastructure is pretty clear. But they also have a hand in what goes on underneath the surface through a pilot project on dendroremediation. That is, cleaning up the soil by planting vegetation. The trees they’re using can literally pull contaminants out of the ground. The group also offers a soil test to every one of the gardens they work with to ensure we’re planting our food on safe ground.
Between all of their initiatives, the Greening of Detroit generally focuses on small gardens and community input. “Most of the farmers we work with are small scale because when you exceed three acres, it can be very disruptive to the neighborhood,” says Ashley Atkinson, director of Urban Agriculture.
Zoning issues are also a concern. Only the principal uses listed in the city’s zoning ordinance are considered legal. Farming and gardening have not been specifically mentioned. So while it isn’t specifically illegal, you cannot buy city-owned land for the distinct purpose of planting a community garden or farm. Farming in one’s backyard, side yard or land you may own is perfectly fine, though.
There is currently a proposed Urban Agriculture Ordinance that would allow city-owned land to be purchased for the express purpose of farming. Community meetings will take place September 19, 24 and 25.