This is possibly not as crazy as it sounds. Granted, the notion of devoting valuable city land to agriculture would be unfathomable in New York, London, or Tokyo. But Detroit is a special case. The city that was once the fourth largest in the country and served as a symbol of America’s industrial might has lately assumed a new role: North American poster child for the global phenomenon of shrinking postindustrial cities.
Nearly 2 million people used to live in Detroit. Fewer than 900,000 remain. Even if, unlikely as it seems, the auto industry were to rebound dramatically and the U.S. economy were to come roaring back tomorrow, no one — not even the proudest civic boosters — imagines that the worst is over. “Detroit will probably be a city of 700,000 people when it’s all said and done,” says Doug Rothwell, CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan. “The big challenge is, What do you do with a population of 700,000 in a geography that can accommodate three times that much?”
Whatever the answer is, whenever it comes, it won’t be predicated on a return to past glory. “We have to be realistic,” says George Jackson, CEO of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. (DEGC). “This is not about trying to re-create something. We’re not a world-class city.”
If not world class, then what? A regional financial center? That’s already Chicago, and to a lesser extent Minneapolis. A biotech hub? Boston and San Diego are way out in front. Some think Detroit has a future in TV and movies, but Hollywood is skeptical. (“Best incentives in the country,” one producer says. “Worst crew.”) How about high tech and green manufacturing? Possibly, given the engineering and manufacturing talent that remains.
But still there’s the problem of what to do with the city’s enormous amount of abandoned land, conservatively estimated at 40 square miles in a sprawling metropolis whose 139-square-mile footprint is easily bigger than San Francisco, Boston, and Manhattan combined. If you let it revert to nature, you abandon all hope of productive use. If you turn it over to parks and recreation, you add costs to an overburdened city government that can’t afford to teach its children, police its streets, or maintain the infrastructure it already has.
Faced with those facts, a growing number of policymakers and urban planners have begun to endorse farming as a solution. Former HUD secretary Henry Cisneros, now chairman of CityView, a private equity firm that invests in urban development, is familiar with Detroit’s land problem. He says he’s in favor of “other uses that engage human beings in their maintenance, such as urban agriculture.” After studying the city’s options at the request of civic leaders, the American Institute of Architects came to this conclusion in a recent report: “Detroit is particularly well suited to become a pioneer in urban agriculture at a commercial scale.”
And I would add, this is a great opportunity to explore the potential of vertical hydroponic farming models – even though they point out that there is plenty of land – horizontally speaking. But that shouldn’t be a reason to ignore future tech.