Monday, December 29, 2003

A different kind of urban renewal

This came to me via, an anarchist activist website, but the original source was the New York Times for December 4 (now archived here).
After decades of blight, large swathes of Detroit are being reclaimed by nature. Roughly a third of this 139-square-mile city consists of weed-choked lots and dilapidated buildings. Satellite images show an urban core giving way to an urban prairie.

Rather than fight this return to nature, [Paul] Weertz and other urban farmers have embraced it, gradually converting 15 acres of idle land into more than 40 community gardens and microfarms - some consuming entire blocks. ...

Staking claims on abandoned lots, they produce about six tons of produce a year, said Ashley Atkinson, head of the Detroit Agriculture Network, a loose coalition of 230 growers and volunteers. ...

"Detroit has been abandoned by everything, including grocery stores," Ms. Atkinson said, suggesting that in a city where many do their shopping at "party stores," liquor stores that sell some convenience items, community farms are more than a symbol of environmental awareness. ...

None of the farms are profitable, and all depend on students and volunteers....

Advocates often say profits are secondary to building a sense of community. "It's a means for people to take control of their neighborhoods and get tangible results that they can see and eat," said Yamini Bala, coordinator of Detroit Summer, a youth gardening group.

In 2000, frustrated by stadium-building and other traditional means of drawing business downtown, a group of growers, architects, urban planners and activists collaborated on an alternative city plan focused on neighborhoods called Adamah (Hebrew for "of the earth"). Drafted by architects and students at the University of Detroit Mercy, it proposed converting four and a half square miles on the east side into a self-sustaining village, complete with farms, greenhouses, grazing land, a dairy and cannery. For irrigation, Adamah proposed tapping an underground creek (now used as a sewage main).

Some of Adamah's elements are already taking shape in northeast Detroit....
Of course, they face many problems beyond producing enough income to keep the projects going. Getting clean water can be a challenge; even cleaning up the glass and litter from a site can be difficult, not to mention the possibility the ground is polluted and the on-going issue of theft. Then there's the fact that much of what they're doing is "under the radar" of the city and some of these microfarms may be on land still owned by the city - which may want to sell it at some point.

One of the projects (on privately-owned land) was actually threatened with seizure by eminent domain for the sake of putting up a convenience store. An acceptable compromise was worked out in that case, but the risk remains that to the very extent these efforts may succeed in revitalizing a community, to that same extent they may become targets of city officials looking to expand the tax base who can't see the benefit of what these folks are doing and have built.

In the meantime, though, let's celebrate the fact that such efforts exist, and not just in Detroit. Up with farms!

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