May 18, 2010

The Greening Of Detroit

Run-down, ransacked and abandoned neighborhoods in Detroit could come back to life with the help of apple orchards, Christmas-tree fields and large-scale city farm networks that could help rejuvenate the city and give disadvantaged city residents a place to cultivate crops such as strawberries, mushrooms and greens.

Michael Score, a veteran of the state's agricultural school and now president of Hantz Farms, a commercial firm formed by longtime Detroit businessman John Hantz, said inner-city farming "becomes a tool to reignite Detroit's economy."

Hantz pledged 30 million dollars of his own money to fund year-round, for-profit farming within city limits. Other urban agriculture plans are under way in the city, but like Hantz, are on hold awaiting approval from Detroit's bureaucracy.

Once the heart of the nation, the Motor City's economy has drastically dropped over recent decades. Its industries are gutted, most factories are closed and joblessness and crime are at the highest rates among major US cities.

Demographers estimate that there are 40 square miles of abandoned residential property within the city limits. Nearly 33,000 houses are abandoned or ceded to the city through foreclosures. Mansions and middle-class homes stand roofless and in shambles. And the city does not have the funds to tear them down.

Those who still live in the heart of the city are forced to buy processed goods from convenience stores or travel miles to suburban groceries for fresh meat and produce.

A city burdened by a failing economy, racial tension, crime and political corruption have driven residents away, leaving Detroit's population nearly halved. Lingering crime and violence discouraged business and investment which eroded Detroit's tax base, quickening the decay and decline.

Many factories moved out and none moved in to fill void, further accelerating the city's woes.

Environmentalists and for-profit farmers are seeing the city's lifeless areas as opportunity, rather blight.

Apple orchards would be the first crops to pop up after planting them at the cost of 30 to 40 thousand dollars per acre, said Score. Contaminated land unfit for edible crops would be planted with trees, flowers and other plants.

"Rather than wasting resources to recreate Iowa in the middle of Detroit, let's see what we can grow in the city as it exists," Score said in an interview. "You don't have to plow an orchard every year, for example."

Recovery Park, a plan instated by the non-profit group SHAR, aims to farm 2,000 acres in 15-to-30-acre pods.

Gary Wozniak, chief development officer for SHAR, aims to establish for-profit farming via a worker-owned cooperative system, much like Spain's famed Mondragon Corporacion Cooperativa.

Wozniak feels that agriculture circumvents many of the obstacles Detroiters encounter in finding jobs and establishing careers. "You don't need book learning to do a lot of farming and land-reclamation jobs," Wozniak told AFP.

Despite enthusiasm, it is unlikely there will be summer crops this year. Ironically, in a city with so much idle property, no one has been able to assemble parcels large enough to farm.

Issues include how much the city plans to charge for properties it owns through tax liens, what to do about the few residents still scattered amid target parcels and questions of taxation and zoning. The city also has no way of zoning or taxing land for agricultural use.


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