"Homesteading" in Detroit, MI ?!
Farming in the remains of the city?
I recently heard a piece on NPR's “Marketplace” that I thought was pretty interesting, and got me thinking about some different future scenarios and outcomes for the many Americans who are increasingly finding themselves trapped in a dying city, and experiencing the reality of living in both an economy and a country on the decline.
In the city of Detroit people have started farming and raising small gardens in the many vacant lots throughout the city. In the Detroit inner city, where it is not uncommon for an entire block to be empty but for one or two families, there is an excess of space. Much of it has been cleared, leaving only empty lots behind. Where entire rows of houses and neighborhoods once stood, there now only remains bare concrete pads, overgrown lots and the odd utility hookup.
With the decline of the American steel, manufacturing, and automobile industries; once the lifeblood of cities like Detroit, the city has fallen on hard times. Detroit has been slowly dying for decades, but the current economic conditions here on the cusp of the year 2010 have left the city in a state of almost total and abject depression. In a city where the crime rate is nine times the national average, over a third of the residents are unemployed, and entire areas lie vacant and abandoned, community farming seems to be a viable option. Expanding upon the old American tradition of backyard gardens, remaining families have started farming the vacant lots around them. Due to the heavily polluted soil of post-industrial Detroit, raised beds are almost exclusively used for gardening, with soil and amendments trucked in from other areas.
Residents have varying degrees of involvement and organization. There are single families growing small gardens on adjacent lots for household consumption, and there are budding farming “collaboratives” organized and run by volunteer groups and community members. This perked up my ears a bit, as “farming collaborative” sounds an awful lot like “farming collective”. From a casual reading of history, it has been my understanding that “farming collectives” have been tried on a nationwide scale by a handful of rather well known countries, to less than spectacular results. This is a mild understatement, of course. Collectivized farming under communist rule has a large track record of being a complete disaster, from both a logistic and humanitarian point of view. But despite the vaguely sticky smack of communism that this story on “National Peoples Radio” gave off, I think it's an interesting story nonetheless, that deserves consideration of the implications it providers.
Some residents grow fruits and vegetables solely for the purpose of selling them at local farmers markets to make some extra money. In a city where not a single national grocery chain will maintain a store location due to crime, and above 30% unemployment is normal, there are a more than a few people doing this full time to make a living. Most people however, are simply growing produce for the table, or as a supplement to their normal income. NPR had several interviews with local residents who had positive stories to relate about how this money generated through their collective farming efforts was allowing people to raise their standard of living, improve their diets, and provide money for young adults to go to college. It would seem that this apparently bottom-up effort by the people of Detroit has been largely beneficial.
As Detroit dies, and massive depopulation coupled with the loss of industry leaves the inner city a largely empty waste of razed neighborhoods and weedy, abandoned factory lots will a slow re-greening of the city take place? Will the remaining residents of Detroit come to embrace a sort of rural inner-city living, where tending small farm lots is a way of life and a livelihood?
In many ways, the idea has the potential to prove itself to be logistically and financially sound. Cleared inner city lots and blocks would seem to present a surprisingly usable platform for agriculture. Services, such as water and electricity are available and abundant. Transportation for goods produced, equipment needed, and farm labor is readily provided by existing roadways. Labor is in good supply, due to the economic hardships encountered within the blighted inner city. Abandoned city blocks turned into intensive farming units could very well prove to be a productive and worthwhile endeavor.
Modern agricultural technology can do surprisingly much with limited space though the application of new techniques such as high-yield greenhouses, aquaculture, and improved fertilizers. The nations of Israel and Holland are both net exporters of fruits and vegetables, despite their lack of abundant, arable land. These two nations have become, out of necessity, experts on these new agricultural techniques.