Detroit - Turning Red Into Green


Detroit - Turning Red into Green 

Typical urban redevelopment has raised whole neighborhoods for construction of highways and commercial zones, often destroying local neighborhoods and displacing residents. As Detroit looks to their future, the City is building from the ground up: supporting local business and communities, and reusing abandoned spaces to address fundamental human concerns for healthy living.

The Post Industrial Decline of Detroit 

Detroit has gone through a major economic and demographic decline in recent decades. The Motor City, home of the Ford, General Motors and other major car manufacturers was once the fourth largest city in the USA. The relocation of the manufacturing units to other cities and countries as a result of growing labor problems, international competition,the racial segregation characterized by ‘white flight’ and the riots of 1943 and 1967 - all contributed to the downward spiral of the city's social and economic infrastructure.

The Great Recession (2007 – 2009) was the last nail in the coffin. In 2008 alone, some 4,000 homes per month, the most in the nation, went into foreclosure. A 2009 survey documented 91,488 vacant lots, four out of five owned by the City. The City declared municipal bankruptcy in 2013, largest municipal bankruptcy in the history of the country. Population of the City had fallen from 1,850,000 in 1950 to 677,116 in 2015 - a 63% decline. Crime rates are among the highest in the country. Another problem which is more devastating in its impact on residents is food insecurity – a euphemism for hunger or the inability to predict where the next meal is coming from. Gunderson et al. (2013) reports that 18.2% of Michigan residents were food insecure in 2009, the percent much higher among low income households.  

Detroit Entrepreneurs
Shared Work Space

Economic Revival through Entrepreneurship

Detroit is looking to turn this decline around through entrepreneurship – creating small businesses. To support their endeavor, ten foundations, local and national, pitched in to create a $100 million fund. The Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, backed by this fund, started the New Economy Initiative (NEI). The NEI is building a regional network that provides hand-holding support – technical, financial and managerial – for entrepreneurs and small businesses. After 10 years of work, the impact of this project was studied by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

"NEI invested $96.2 million since 2007 into building an entrepreneurial ecosystem in southeast Michigan. The investment has resulted in direct assistance to more than 4,400 companies, the launch of over 1,600 companies, the creation of 17,490 jobs, and the generation of nearly $3 billion in real economic output."

The Fitzgerald Revitalization Project, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, cooperatives and even crowd funding avenues like the Public Equity Detroit are other funding sources for Detroit entrepreneurs. [For a description of 23 best Detroit new businesses, see here.]

Urban Farms and Community Supported Agriculture in Detroit 

Another, possibly unexpected source, is urban agriculture.  Under the Federally funded Community Food Projects Competitive Grants Program (CFPCGP) funds became available for urban farms. In 2015, Detroit Public Schools' initiative to develop gardens in 45 schools was supported by a grant authorized by the federal child nutrition law, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. 

Urban farms and entrepreneurial gardens refer to projects that go beyond home consumption and grow produce for market. While Community Supported Agriculture is a socioeconomic model of agriculture and food distribution that allows the producer and consumer to share the risks of farming. 

Abundant empty land lots and abandoned warehouses, along with hunger and malnutrition, made agriculture the easy choice for an enterprise among City residents. Farms and gardens along empty lots teach residents – many of whom have never seen a melon sprout or lettuce grow -- about fresh produce, while warehouses for hydroponics growers produce food year round. A study by Michigan State University calculated that Detroit growers could supply between 31 and 76 percent of vegetables and 17 and 42 percent of fruits currently consumed by City residents, depending on the methods of production and storage used. 

Moreover, urban agriculture is not new to Detroit dwellers. In 1974, Detroit’s first African-American mayor, Coleman Young, announced his “Farm A Lot” program (1974 - 2002), a citywide gardening program that employed agriculture as a means to clean up the City and help struggling low income families. The land then, was provided by the large scale movement of white families to the suburbs. The program was hugely popular, receiving more than 2,000 applications/year when it could accommodate around 400. 

Some of the thriving farming networks and community farms are the Detroit Agriculture Network (DAN), the Garden Resource Program (GRP), Michigan Urban Farming Initiative,  Growing and Retailing Opportunities in Wayne County (GROW) and many others, that besides undertaking agriculture,  provide capacity building and resources to farmers, including technical assistance, forward and backward linkages. Even large scale commercial farming has found opportunity in Detroit.  Financial services magnet John Hantz started Hantz Woodlands in 2013 on about 140 acres (1500 City owned lots). The common produce sale points (for small farmers) are Grown in Detroit Cooperative, Eastern Market and the Wayne State University Farmers Market . 

Urban Farms
Arial Picture
Urban Foresters

The Impact of Urban Farms

  • Entrepreneurial activity:
    In 2014, Detroit’s entrepreneurial farming community consisted of about 1400 urban or community farms - a 20 fold increase from 2000. Such farms also support other business that serve people who are attracted to the area.
  • Fresh food:
    These farms produced nearly 400,000 pounds (181,000 kilograms) of produce in 2014— enough to feed approximately 600 people year around. The supply from these farms account for more than 75% of vegetable and 40% of fruit needs of  Detroiters.  This is a huge impact for a community that has been facing food security issues.  
  • Competitive prices:
    When factoring in transportation costs, urban farmers can deliver food to groceries at competitive prices. In peak growing season, produce is even cheaper. 
  • Environmental benefits: 
    The lower transportation, packaging and refrigeration requirements reduce the carbon emissions associated with farming. The addition of green spaces in cities reduces carbon associated with buildings, while creating ‘carbon sinks’ that absorb the carbon needed by growing plants.  They also make cities attractive to residents, providing places to meet and islands that are beautiful.
  • In emergencies:
    Such a steady supply from local hydroponics can be critically important in inclement weather such as floods, blizzards and hurricanes.   

The Challenges

  • Legal Infrastructure: 
    Until recently, the zoning code did not permit agriculture in Detroit.  
  • Higher Land Costs:
    As urban farms and other amenities bring Detroit back, land prices are likely to rise, making farming zones unrealistic. However, a ‘green farming belt’ would both preserve the progress while keeping the attraction that brings new residents in the first place. Such land use policies, like zoning ordinances, are part of how cities manage to plan growth.
  • Environmental Costs:
    All human activity has environmental costs. Indoor gardens use lights, heating and cooling, while urban farms require soil management to control the overuse or incorrect use of fertilizers and pesticides. Moving food from source to market is another environmental cost. Educating farmers, along with helping consumer understand the value of locally produced food, are part of the ongoing efforts needed to balance those costs against the benefits.
  • Competition: 
    Urban farms producing food, especially in significant quantities, could be seen as a threat to nearby suburban and rural small farms. However, the likelihood that urban farms, always constricted by the land, will displace those providing the large quantities of squash, potatoes, onions and other goods that residents use for their daily meals.
  • Animals:
    Currently, most cities are not supportive of chickens and goats. While a natural extension of agriculture, the odors, sounds and general messiness of animals seem to make less sense in an urban environment than a quietly growing head of chard.


For Detroit, the Greening of Detroit has created an image of a future that is inclusive and healthier. As important, it is a diversified future, with many small businesses as well as room for medium sized enterprises. As jobs come back, this more diversified future has a safety net that can help the City be resilient in the face of the economic ups and downs that destroyed it in the past.