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What Detroit Teaches Us

Urban Roots Trailer from Tree Media on Vimeo.

More than just Urban Agriculture

Economists and politicians have hypothesized for years that Michigan is the canary in the cave for America's well being. What happens in Michigan is a precursor to what awaits the rest of the country. And while the state, and Detroit specifically, have been posterized for its struggles, we look in now on how a place takes charge of its own destiny.

Urban Roots from Tree Media has a clear message: "When everything collapses, plant your field of dreams."A common assessment that we frequently hear is that we should look to Detroit as a model for what to do with our urban centers and distressed neighborhoods. Namely, we should turn to urban agriculture en masse to bring farms or farmlets into the city. And it has its merits. With massive population decline and entire neighborhoods gutted, the disassembling of abandoned neighborhoods inevitably asks what to do next with these tracts of land? And there is no question that the failure to be even moderately self-reliant in our food production has exposed us to huge liabilities in food security and the health of our local economies and bodies. The latter is a natural response to the former. But the real value of learning from Detroit, or even generalizing about what is happening there, should not be boiled down to urban agriculture alone.

The lesson in Detroit is in its attitude and procedure. In particular:

  1. It's small

    Small, incremental development is rarely considered creditable in a Burnham-inspired planning context that still demerits small plans. The certainty that exclusionary zoning and immense master plans bring in efforts to maintain the status quo brings a false quiet to our built environment. We are entering the post-Burnham era of development. It is inevitably going to be vernacular, not monumental.

  2. It's local

    The essence of Detroit's attitude is in its localism. This is a far cry from Detroit's Big Three Robber Barons flying to Washington, DC to beg for handouts from the rest of us. What is happening in Detroit, and what will actually allow Detroit to reincarnate as a more resilient place is not what the Big Three were able to bring home but the self-determinism of those on the ground. In a more uncertain, less capitalized future, we will no longer be able to waste our time or dollars looking to an increasingly incapable federal government. Decisions and financing will be more dependent on local strength and local innovation than ever before.

  3. It's organic

    Yes, a lot of the gardens are organic in Detroit. But that is not the point (although it is certainly a boon to restoring the relationship between farming practice and our health). Detroit's ability to roll up its sleaves is not the result of a master agricultural plan or a vision for how to reshape the city. It is incremental and it is slow, lending it immense credibility and authenticity. And it's messy. We would be mistaken to think that we are going to be able adapt, grow, and once again prosper within our means whilst lying to ourselves trying to maintain the "everything is fine and well" approach. The deconstruction of the over-scaled, monolithic, and unpaid-for urban footprint that we've over-produced will not be organized, it will not be easy, and it will not be done with federal beaurocrats leading the way. It will be done organically, slowly, and thoroughly. 

With all the value that Detroit brings to the rest of us curiously watching, we look on with caution. It is yet to be seen in what form or how Detroit will eventually re-organize its urban fabric. If it is to be an urban center or a constellation of urban centers, it will necessarily embrace village making with the same vigor that it has agriculture. How will the lines be drawn between what is town and what is farm? To re-emerge as a vibrant, dynamic, and resilient place it must it must successfully build on its new agricultural foundation to form its centers of economy, society, and traditions.

If it is true that Michigan is the bell cow of the United States, we will see small, local, organic urban reconfiguration in its earliest iterations in Detroit. What form will it eventually take in your community?


See photos of our recent site visit to Detroit's Rivertown.

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