Urban Agriculture is Environmentally Revitalizing Neighborhoods but is it Restoring Dignity?

Antonio Rafael grew up in Detroit, where the median household income is about $26,000, and according to City-Data.com even lower in his neighborhood in the 48210 zip code, situated between Midtown Detroit and Dearborn. After graduating from Michigan State University in 2012, Rafael moved back home to the neighborhood and realized that doing freelance and political organization, he would not be able to afford paying for the healthy eating habits he’d developed at school—the same way he would avoid skin irritation conditions such as alopecia, eczema and acne breakouts. To continue eating well, Rafael decided that he would begin farming in his own backyard in his spare time, joining many others in Detroit.


Urban agriculture shows promise for economic, social, and environmental benefits globally and for these reasons it has been one of the most publicised ‘green strategies’ for shrinking cities in the north American ‘Rust Belt’, according to Flaminia Paddeu in her paper that was published in the Town Planning Review earlier this year. It explores the drawbacks and advantages of the legalization of urban farming in Detroit following zoning legislation that was adopted in 2012. Detroit presents a unique opportunity for urban agriculture because the city limits of Detroit are home to less than 700,000 people and there is a 30% vacancy rate for homes, according to the World Population Review. In anticipation of climate changes, Popular Science put Michigan among its list for best places to live in America in 2100 as a result of climate change in an online video posted this past December.


Following the final steep decline in Detroit’s population that ended in 2010, multiple news publications reported figures close to 40 square miles of vacant land in Detroit. Further research conducted by Dan Kinkhead with the Detroit Works technical team and Rob Linn of Data Driven Detroit, found estimates closer to 25 and 21 square miles, respectively. Nonetheless, this is an enormous amount of space that is still awaiting redevelopment. The documentary released in December 2016, “Farming Detroit, estimates that there are between 1,500 and 2,000 active gardens in Detroit.


Since Rafael began farming, he has been learning and perfecting the cultivation of  fresh fruits and vegetables, affording himself and some of his neighbors access to this fresh produce. Unfortunately, he cannot sustain his whole community with just the food that he’s been cultivating on his property and he is looking into acquiring some of the demolished and leveled lots near his home. He hopes that he may eventually farm enough food to sustain the community and even sell organic produce from his plots. The difficulty lies in actually acquiring that land which he believes to be easier with non-profit status.


Rafael isn’t the only person or group interested in obtaining these lots for agriculture though; urban farm groups like Buckets of Rain are exploring their options and opportunities to obtain vacant lots in sequence to expand their farms with plans for more gardens and eventually maybe even a greenhouse on the horizon. Even with a non-profit status though, Chris Skellenger, the founder of Buckets of Rain, is finding it very difficult to write grants to obtain land in Detroit. Skellenger explained that repossessed lots on each block could be owned by a number of government agencies and other vacant and unoccupied lots could be held by private owners who might be holding out for property values to increase. With uncertainty about which specific lots he can procure, it is harder to give a clear picture of his development plan in applications for the grants.


Some people are concerned though, that the larger development projects and especially urban agriculture projects aren’t empowering the community. Rafael said that many outsiders are looking at Detroit with a “blank slate mentality,” coming in and starting projects as they please because there is a lot of space and they can afford to do it. While many people have good intentions, Rafael, a puerto rican male, is worried that it might reinforce power structures we’ve seen all too often, where white men hold the power. Samantha Hobson, a PhD student at the University of Michigan, is studying the social and cultural implications of food insecurity and believes that there are two different sects within the urban agriculture movement. One that is empowering low-income and minority neighborhoods through community building initiatives by people within the community that are related to production and consumption of food and another, the movement being led by white men like Skellenger who are outsiders coming into the community and trying to help by providing as many meals as possible to underserved communities. If the local Detroiters aren’t able to access this land and be the ones to make it productive, the urban agriculture movement could reinforce some unequal structures.


 But the monetary expense involved in starting and maintaining urban gardens is a challenge for the folks in these low-income communities. Even if a resident just wanted to start digging in a vacant lot, Skellenger asks “well are you going to dig up a shovel full of lead?” alluding to the idea that we really don’t know what could be in the dirt beneath the city or whether it may be fertile or not. That’s why Skellenger tries to coordinate places in the city that excess compost can be dumped to make it available to community residents.


Skellenger and Buckets of Rain were able to provide 80,000 meals to six different shelters that they were connected with through the Detroit Rescue Mission. Their mission is to serve and work with the community. “It’s great to see community members out here in the gardens, even in the same clothes that they are wearing to church,” says Skellenger, “I think it rekindles our agricultural heritage.”


Rafael hopes to encourage many of his community members to join him as well. He is trying to develop more of the land in his neighborhood toward a productive organic farm. He’d eventually like to sustain his community and sell organic produce at the local farmer’s market. “Farming has provided me refuge from some of the heavier political organizing I do,” says Rafael, “I hope it can provide some mental healing for my neighbors too.”



Rafael’s neighbor carrying tomatoes that they harvested from their backyard garden.


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