Jeff McMahon Contributor
Detroit’s Lower East Side, which makes up about a quarter of the city, lost 40 percent of its population between 2000 and 2010, leaving what could have been a wasteland of vacant lots and boarded up homes. But almost simultaneously, the number of community gardens in Detroit blossomed from less than 100 to more than 1,400.
The people of Detroit suffer the effects of blight—only 19 percent of food stores carry the mix of foods recommended by the USDA, 56 percent of recipients redeem food stamps at liquor stores, one in five high school students is obese, and the number one cause of death is heart disease.
a combined fence, recycled-tire trellis and clothesline at the Earth Works
community garden in Detroit. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
But Detroit’s community gardens now produce 200 tons of fresh fruits and vegetables per year, residents who work those gardens eat 2.5 more servings per day of fruits of vegetables than their neighbors, and property values near the gardens are rising by up to 20 percent.
These numbers represent preliminary results from a network of organizations trying to leverage Detroit’s vacant land against its social ills.
“We have a resource to attend to these issues, which is our vacant land,” said Ashley Atkinson, co-director of Keep Growing Detroit, a non-profit organization whose goal is to cultivate a food-sovereign Detroit that grows the majority of its fruits and vegetables within city limits.
Keep Growing Detroit is one of a number of organizations featured in a webinar Wednesday hosted by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Sustainable Communities, which hopes that Detroit’s “steps to broadly transform vacant properties may be applicable in other Legacy Cities that have neighborhood challenges similar to Detroit’s.”
“Even though the land is vacant there still is an opportunity to create a place and to create that nexus for some sort of sense of community,” said Jon Grosshans, an EPA community planner.
The webinar explored many uses beyond food production. Vacant land is being repurposed for storm water runoff, environmental remediation, wetlands, woodlands, cut-flower growing, orchards, nurseries, market gardens, greenways, open space, parks.
“Arguably our community has the largest concentration of vacant land and city-owned vacant land,” said Maggie Desantis, president of the Warren/Conner Development Coalition, which is working on a Lower East Side Action Plan.
“We faced the reality that we were looking at a lot of open space and we could not assume that we would regain that population for the foreseeable future, so how could that land be reused?”
Although Detroit does not expect its population to rebound, officials there expect the greening of its vacant land to be a draw for anyone considering Detroit.
“We know we need to make a better appeal to folks to be here overall,” said Dan Kinkead, director of projects for Detroit Future City, a philanthropically-financed planning initiative to green Detroit.
While Detroit has made significant enough strides to serve as an EPA-endorsed model for other cities, challenges remain. The city has its own processes for handling vacant land, for example, in the form of the newly created
Detroit Landbank Authority, which is charged with collecting and softly disposing of vacant land.
“Right now it’s not clear how the community can access city-owned vacant land in order to work on these projects, in order to actually prove that it makes sense for us to repurpose all the vacant land that we have in front of us,” Desantis said. “That is currently one of our major obstacles.”