Could Sustainable Farming Bring Urban Renewal for Detroit?

by Kai Olson-Sawyer

Published: 4/19/17, Last updated: 5/24/19

Five years ago, Tyson Gersh was working on a college research project in Detroit that looked at inequality in the food system. Realizing that the system was failing and that people’s food needs weren’t met in many low-income neighborhoods, he sought to help address these inequalities.

Fast forward to today, and Gersh is still amazed by the success of the Michigan Urban Farming Institute (MUFI), of which he is president and co-founder. He admits that the initial mission of the nonprofit — supplying good food to those with little access – seemed straight forward. Gersh thought that if he could build a large, urban garden using his years of landscaping skills he could “grow food and feed people.”  But after he entered the thicket of problems that accompany such food issues it became clear just how complicated his mission was.

MUFI recently announced that it’s the first sustainable urban “agrihood” in the United States. The agrihood concept is a type of community development where agriculture and local food is central to land use and life. This form of development has been growing and now counts over 200 communities nationwide, primarily in rural and suburban areas. As Gersh explains, “We see the agrihood as a proof of concept development that has relevance in an urban setting.”

The small-scale agrihood development has also spurred coordination in tandem with city planning that encourages greater density, such as neighborhood light rail. Yet, the housing market doesn’t always support city initiatives and building developers seek to build lower quality apartment complexes. In Detroit’s North End, however, people are motivated to improve construction and lifestyle quality around the farm, which is why MUFI is viewed as a proof of concept that gives planners a new way forward in post-industrial, depopulated areas.

From Vision to Reality

Gersh and his fellow MUFI collaborators took the agrihood vision as inspiration and worked to turn three acres of abandoned land in the North End into a two-acre garden with a 200-tree orchard. Harvests from the entirely volunteer-run farm are substantial, with over 300 kinds of produce, from green beans to turnip greens, and tree fruit, like cherries and apples. The fresh produce is freely available to the community on the “we pick” model and is bountiful enough that they don’t often run out (except for collard greens, the most popular item grown). Around 2,000 nearby households receive produce as well as churches and other community groups.

While Gersh’s goal to get fresh produce onto the plates of neighborhood residents remains, the goals have greatly expanded. This is what chemical company BASF representatives recognized when they toured the farm in 2016: MUFI’s notion of urban agriculture was a paradigm shift for redevelopment that could empower and revitalize the North End neighborhood by modeling a form of community that builds through sustainable farming and the education and jobs it provides.

“We are taking a hyper-local approach rather than one that relies immediately on economies of scale where we integrate the farm and other projects into the neighborhood,” Gersh says.

The tour given to BASF proved fruitful, because MUFI recently announced that in partnership with the chemical company and other businesses, a 3,200-square-foot vacant building will be renovated beside the garden and orchard, which will become a sustainable community resource center. The center will hold two commercial kitchens and a café open to the public. This will all be on display as MUFI hosts part of the Sustainable Brands 2017 Detroit conference with a theme of “Redefining the Good Life.”

“We are taking a hyper-local approach rather than one that relies immediately on economies of scale where we integrate the farm and other projects into the neighborhood,” Gersh says. As with other examples, successful neighborhood redevelopment is often based on an anchor institution that pulls an area together, in this case with urban farming. The hope is that the MUFI agrihood can drive real value through the use of “green space” since it’s more appealing to those who live and work around that core. The attractive agricultural center is a neighborhood draw. In fact, people bought properties with the aim to invest and stay in the community, who, according to a recent MUFI survey, found that neighborhood homeowners have invested $3 million on their homes. Unsurprisingly, they are witnessing rising property values as other similar food and ag-based communities have experienced.

Neighborhood Equity Needed

At the same time, Gersh and MUFI are sensitive to the needs of North End residents who have lived there for many years. MUFI has taken steps to be inclusive and not price people out of the neighborhood. For example, they want food to be affordable for everyone and are creating memberships that incentivize locals to join on a “buyers’ club-style” basis with a sliding scale fee that rises for those outside the community.

This concern extends beyond food. MUFI is not merely a farming demonstration, nor a money-making redevelopment project, but a commitment to support agriculture that enhances the entire neighborhood. Simply put, the agrihood is not just about growing and selling vegetables but about helping the community grow itself through housing and social equity. Since Detroit has vast tracts of abandoned or unused land, the city is the ideal place to innovate with community models that incorporates infrastructure that reinvents the typical deconstruction-to-reconstruction process with smart, cost-effective green and blue (water) building components.

That small seed of an idea actually holds a lush garden. Or as Gersh puts it, “We don’t want to be pigeonholed as just ‘planting cabbage,’ so that we’re limited in what we’re doing.” Instead, MUFI should be understood as pushing the frontiers of urban agriculture to create a new relationship with the surrounding community so that they develop on their own, equitable terms.

Keep up with the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI).

Twitter: @TysonGersh
Twitter @MIUrbanFarm
Facebook: @MichiganUrbanFarmingInitiative

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