Sunday, November 03, 2013

turning detroit into farms and forest?



financialpost | For Greg Willerer, Detroit’s new urban frontier is a lot like the Wild West: Grow enough food to support your family, make do with what you have and rely on your neighbours when you need help.

“For all intents and purposes, there is no government here,” said Willerer, 43, checking the greens and other crops he is growing on an acre off Rosa Parks Boulevard, across from an abandoned house with broken windows. “If something were to happen we have to handle that ourselves.”

Willerer has had to handle everything from vegetable thieves and lead-poisoned soil to zoning codes as an agricultural pioneer in Detroit, which last month became the biggest U.S. city to file for bankruptcy protection. With automobile jobs gone for good and thousands of abandoned lots blighting the landscape, some in the region are promoting urban farming — small-scale and largely geared toward booming local- and organic-foods markets — as a way toward growing a healthier economy.

Urban agriculture has been embraced by city planners from coast to coast. In New York, the city has invested US$600,000 in expanding Brooklyn Grange, a rooftop farming business that’s planning to open a business incubator. Seattle is breaking ground on a “food forest,” planting seven acres of fresh produce open to the public.

Bankruptcy Filing
Detroit, which filed an US$18-billion bankruptcy July 18, is reeling from the loss of more than 435,000 jobs in its metro area from 2000 to 2010, according to federal data. Michigan ranked last among U.S. states in employment growth in the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States from the first quarter of 1995 through the first quarter of this year.

This has left it with an abundance of underused property. The city is spread over 139 square miles (360 square kilometres), and has an estimated 150,000 vacant and abandoned parcels — an amount of land roughly the size of Manhattan, according to a report this year by Detroit Future City, a planning project created by community leaders.

Converting some of that land to farming could clean up blight and grow jobs, regional officials say. With sufficient consumer demand and the emergence of a local food-processing industry, 4,700 jobs and US$20-million in business taxes could be generated, according to a 2009 study.

“It will help,” said Mike DiBernardo, an economic development specialist with Michigan’s agriculture department. “We have so much blighted land that we can create opportunities for entrepreneurs, and we can give people in the community something to be excited about.”