The Grass Won’t Get Much Greener

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Detroit’s unique opportunity to save itself naturally through urban farming.

It seems hard to believe the era of large industrial farms dominating our food chain could ever be challenged. Yet, as one dedicated urban farmer demonstrated — much to the chagrin of Oak Park city officials — the relationship between man (or woman) and the soil is unique, and worth fighting for.

Urban farming isn’t always pretty — or easy — but the concept can do for the city of Detroit what countless past initiatives have thus far failed to deliver: a multi-tiered benefit that is sustainable and good for the environment while enriching the lives of average citizens.

But to truly understand its potential, citizens need to be informed beyond just contentious headlines. Detroit’s electorate has a rare chance to employ urban farming as a tool for building a more sustainable, more secure food system and helping impart positive environmental, social and cultural changes to its neighborhoods.

This opportunity hasn’t presented solely due to the city’s enormous amount of vacant land. It has come, in large measure, thanks to the work of visionaries, community leaders and relentless, active and determined citizens.

The presence of urban farming, while newly en vogue, has been a part of Detroit’s history since Mayor Hazen Pingree’s potato patch farms of the 1890s and, more recently, Mayor Coleman Young’s Farm-A-Lot program in the 1970s.

Right now, Detroit’s government and citizens alike are perfectly positioned to vigorously support a new urbanism where appropriately scaled urban farms are a critical and permanent piece of the plan to rebuild a healthy urban core.

Currently, our national food system encourages monoculture industrial farming and the industrial transport of food, which degrades the quality of our food before it even arrives on our tables and fosters a disconnect between consumers and the food they eat. (And the land it was produced on.)

Whether called urban farms, community gardens, market gardens or school and family gardens, the concept has demonstrated there are ancillary benefits beyond availing fresh, healthy food to those Detroit residents.

These practices have also helped connect people to the land and with each other through shared interests and common goals around food, the environment and social welfare. It also transcends racial and cultural barriers, providing many with an outlet for self-determination, self-reliance and empowerment.

The gardens, farms and people involved in this movement stand in defiance of the pervasive malnutrition plaguing many of our city’s undernourished communities. Urban farming and its machinations represent networks for change, hope, pride and solace.

Last month, the Detroit Agriculture Network celebrated its 14th annual tour of urban gardens and farms. The network — made up of more than 17,000 gardeners, farmers, educators, activists and entrepreneurs living in Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park — rallied behind a common cause: making a difference in our community.

Last year, urban gardeners improved access to food in Detroit by producing more than 170 tons of fresh, healthy, local food. Urban gardeners helped unite our community of different races and religions by providing common ground for people to meet and work in achieving common goals.

The tour showcased how gardening can provide our youth with learning opportunities, a chance to demonstrate leadership skills and the demand for respect of both their neighborhoods as well as their own bodies.

Local restaurants prepared dishes using food from our city gardens, and farms revealed insight into how a healthy local economy is created. The tour also celebrated the work and people who have helped put Detroit on the map for its innovative, grass-roots urban farming initiatives and practices.

Detroit is at a crossroad, and its elected officials have a rare window to employ urban farming as a tool for positive change. Let’s hope they act before the window closes.

Jeff Klein earned his degree in landscape architecture from Michigan State University’s School of Planning, Design and Construction. He is founder of the Detroit-based concern Classic Landscape Ltd. and is a board member of the Detroit Agriculture Network.

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