Urban Gardening in Detroit

Over the weekend I listened to last week’s episode of the Slate Political Gabfest podcast. In it, Slate intern Jefferson Pestronk referred to a CNN article about poverty and urban gardens in Detroit:

In this recession-racked town, the lack of food is a serious problem. It’s a theme that comes up again and again in conversations in Detroit. There isn’t a single major non-discount chain supermarket in the city, forcing residents to buy food from corner stores or discount chains. Often less healthy, less varied, or more expensive food.

I got kind of interested in the subject, so I also read this BBC piece about Detroit’s urban gardens:

Motown has lost more than a million residents since its heyday in the 1950s and it is common to see downtown residential streets with just a few houses left standing. Taja Sevelle saw the hundreds of hectares of vacant land in the city and came up with the idea of creating an organic self-help movement that would be “affordable (and) practical”.

Beginning three years ago, armed with $5,000 (£2,500) and a pamphlet, the singer and entrepreneur managed to win a wide cross-section of support around the city. Now her charity is expanding across the US. Ms Sevelle is also keen to discuss her ideas with the new Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. With a handful of full-time staff, Urban Farming co-ordinates the cultivation of what amounts to 500 family-sized gardens across Detroit.

The organization that Sevelle started is called Urban Farming:

Here are a couple of Flickr photo sets showing some of these gardens. It’s a pretty clever idea, and coincides with the middle class’s increasing interest in locavorism.

Pestronk couldn’t remember where he’d read about it, but he described an idea where food stamp users could get twice the usual value for their stamps if they used them at local farmers’ markets. That sounds like a good idea. Except, aren’t the prices at farmers’ markets higher than those in the grocery stores? That might nullify a lot of the advantage, though such a program would still encourage healthy eating and local food production.

As a side note, I was curious about Detroit’s population loss. Check out this graph on Wikipedia–the city has about half as many people as it did in 1950.


  1. Your post is well timed as I listened to a CBC Q podcast yesterday (although the podcast is from the August 11th episode of Q). In the podcast, civic leader Dan Kildee looks to deal with Flint’s shrinking population by shrinking the city – essentially bulldozing forsaken neighbourhoods and returning the land to its natural state, an idea he referred to as Planned Urban Shrinkage. I thought you and your readers might be interested in the podcast as it seems very much in line with idea of Urban Farming and meaningful ways of dealing with cities that are losing their residents.

    Just found your blog via a twitter post by Rumon Carter and I am enjoying it very much.

    1. I’m curious about this. It was my impression that grocery distributors could exploit economies of scale and import efficiencies that would inevitably make fruits and vegetables cheaper than what local farmers could offer. But I don’t shop at farmers’ markets very often, so I could very well be wrong.

  2. Generally, farmer’s market prices may be a little more expensive, precisely for the reason you outlined, Darren.

    But there are numerous benefits for urban agriculture and gardens. I’m completing a certificate in Food Security through Ryerson-
    I’m learning all about different types of food systems, agriculture and food programs. The urban agriculture practiced in Havana is particularly interesting- they are largely self-sufficient and have a lot of great programs. Also the case of Belo Horizonte, Brazil is worth looking at.

    Urban agriculture helps combat a lot of the reliance on imports, decreases fossil fuel use, helps get people involved in their own food production, has numerous nutritional and community benefits and requires people to be more aware of their water and land use. Urban agriculture is also usually organic, which cuts down on chemical inputs.

    I’ll be taking 3 urban agriculture courses in 2009-2010 to finish my certificate in Food Security. I’m pretty excited about learning more.

    1. The reason that Farmer’s market food is more expensive is because farmers are trying to make a living wage from their food, which is damn near impossible. Farmers get a small amount from every bit of food they sell to the commodity market. It’s a challenge to change peoples’ minds and make them pay more for locally grown food. By doing so, they are stimulating their economy and ensuring that their community has farmers.

      I attended a conference where I went to a session on perceptions of farmer’s markets. Consumers also consider the food at farmers’ markets to be safer and healthier, which is another reason they’re willing to pay more.

      This belief increases in more urban areas. So consumers in Edmonton and Calgary are more willing to pay more than consumers in Red Deer or Innisfail.

      I could go on all day. I’m specializing in this stuff right now.

      1. Wow, that’s a lot of information. I fully support the idea of locally grown food–I just wonder about poor urbanites having to overly pay with food stamps for locally grown produce. It seems a bit like you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul. Or rather that everybody’s working with too small a money pie, if that makes any sense at all.

      2. Sorry, I get a little excited when it comes to this kind of topic. I don’t get to talk about it very often and I just go off when I get the opportunity.

        Yeah, basically our reliance on cheap imports has screwed our economy up and cause price distortions for food.

        However, there are a number of initiatives that people can undertake to make sure that everyone has access to fair-priced, affordable and safe food. We just need to adjust the current food system to do so.

      3. Good question Darren. Typically the Farmers Markets that we experience here in Vancouver and elsewhere in Canada are not for the urban poor since as Alexis pointed out, they are often the only means for a farmer to break even (by charging a slight premium). Consumers are generally willing to pay more for a direct relationship with the farmer.

        The concept of urban agriculture is a vague one and can mean many things. For the urban poor, it is often about providing a means for them to grow their own healthy food in their balcony, backyard, or the vacant lot next door. Urban poor areas often are ‘food deserts’; devoid of any nutritious options for the residents except for what the corner store is offering.

        Conversely, urban agriculture for the economically advantaged members of society is usually concerned with growing food locally, developing a relationship with the farmer ( or with the earth), and understanding where food came from.

        The wonderful thing about urban agriculture is that it address so many of the issues that cities are facing today; jobs for the urban poor, access to healthy food, local food options, reduced environmental footprint, and on and on…

      4. @Alexis I meant a lot of good information, no apology necessary.

        I should emphasize that I’m all for farmer’s markets–I think they’re a great idea. I was just speculating on the possible downsides of this particular food stamps-related scheme.

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