Urban Farms Sprout Across the Country
Gray asphalt and abandoned lots in cities are being turned into farms as city dwellers grow fruits and vegetables in the shadow of skyscrapers.
In Detroit, a city ravaged by the economic decline, the trend is proving vital to the city's slow recovery. Ashley Atkinson, director of project development and urban agriculture for The Greening of Detroit, a nonprofit, supports the growing network of farms in the city, where 30 percent to 40 percent of the land lies vacant. The Garden Resource Program (GRP), coordinated by The Greening of Detroit and in collaboration with hundreds of residents and community-based organizations, began in 2003 with 80 gardens. Now the GRP partners with 1,234 family, community, school, and market gardens and farms, and it grew 41 percent last year. The Greening of Detroit's urban agriculture department connects landowners with aspiring gardeners--including many former autoworkers--and teaches them how to plant and grow produce. Participants also have the option of selling their harvest directly at farmers' markets. About 10 percent of the crops overall are sold there or to restaurants.
"I don't think I could have really predicted the kind of rapid growth that we've experienced," says Atkinson, a native of neighboring Flint. She wanted to find a positive use for the abandoned lots left after auto plants closed their doors. When asked what she attributes the groundswell to, she lists a variety of factors: media exposure; Michelle Obama's organic garden at the White House; the health scares from E. coli bacteria on spinach and salmonella in eggs; and hard work by urban farmers who see the environmental and community benefits of bringing a bit of the bucolic life into city confines. "There's virtually no neighborhood, no block that's not affected in some positive way by the gardens residents and other community-based organizations are creating," she says.
In addition to nonprofits like The Greening of Detroit, city governments hit hard by dying industry and the Great Recession are starting to embrace urban farms as worthwhile investments. Cleveland officials recently announced that the city will be funding a $1.1 million, three-year project to train 20 Kinsman neighborhood residents to grow crops on a quarter-acre of land each. Those novice farmers, who currently earn an average annual income of just over $9,500, will then be able to sell their produce to schools, restaurants, and at farmers' markets for a profit. The project could expand from six acres to 20 if successful. The first seeds may sprout this spring. That new life represents a fresh start for the farmers and symbolizes the deeper connection to nature that is taking root in metropolises around the nation.
This story originally ran in the March-April 2011 issue as "Urban Planting."