Study: Scattered Strategy Best Approach to Scaling Up Urban Agriculture in Detroit

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Despite scattering urban gardens being the optimal strategy, they occupy less than 1 percent of the vacant land in Detroit's lower eastside. // Courtesy of Dave Brenner/University of Michigan, from Newell et al. in the journal Cities, 2022
Despite scattering urban gardens being the optimal strategy, they occupy less than 1 percent of the vacant land in Detroit’s lower eastside. // Courtesy of Dave Brenner/University of Michigan, from Newell et al. in the journal Cities, 2022

A new University of Michigan-led analysis of Detroit’s lower eastside — which encompasses 15 square miles and has one of the city’s highest vacancy levels — shows community and private gardens occupy less than 1 percent of the vacant land.

At the same time, the greenspaces play an important role in reducing neighborhood blight and have the potential to provide other significant benefits to residents in the future.

“Despite the abundance of vacant land and Detroit’s media image as a hub of urban agriculture, we were surprised to find a relatively low level of private and community gardens in the Lower Eastside,” says Joshua Newell, lead author of the study and an urban geographer at U-M’s School for Environment and Sustainability.

“As urban agricultural production scales up, our modeling recommends dispersing rather than clustering these gardens. This strategy would provide more benefits to more people, while countering the gentrification effects that may occur when cities expand green space.”

The benefits of the strategy include improved access to fresh food, increased community cohesion, and reduced stormwater runoff.

Detroit’s lower eastside borders the Detroit River and includes the Indian Village, Jefferson Chalmers, and East Village neighborhoods. It represents about 10 percent of Detroit’s land area, and 95 percent of the residents are minorities, according to the new study.

To map and document urban agriculture sites in the area, the researchers used Google Earth Pro in conjunction with geographic information systems (GIS) analysis and site visits. In addition, lower eastside residents were interviewed to gain insights about their motivations for gardening.

The information was used to generate a future land-use scenario that would maximize the benefits of urban agriculture in the study area. Specifically, the researchers used spatial multicriteria evaluation modeling to identify parcels where planting gardens and growing crops would be especially beneficial.

Each location — 38,541 parcels were analyzed — was given a suitability score based on 11 criteria, including proximity to: blight, grocery stores, existing gardens, and parks.

The modeling results led the team to recommend a spatially dispersed strategy, in contrast to centralized urban agriculture-type developments such as Detroit’s Hantz Woodlands, which is in the study area. That project, originally conceived as the world’s largest urban farm and named Hantz Farms, was later scaled back, renamed, and refocused on growing hardwood trees.

For their study, the researchers collected data from two years, 2010 and 2016, and measured the changes that occurred over time. They identified 53 gardens, totaling 4.8 acres, in Detroit’s lower eastside in 2010. Just over one-third of the gardens were communally managed.

By 2016, the number of gardens in the study area increased to 89, expanding to 6.2 acres. But even with this expansion, the 2016 acreage total represented less than 1 percent of the estimated vacant land (1,747 acres) in the area, according to the study.

Comparing the two years also highlighted the ephemeral nature of urban agriculture in Detroit. Between 2010 and 2016, 14 of the 53 gardens were lost, but 50 new gardens were added. In a study of 2019 that is under review and is expected to be published later this year, Newell and his colleagues found an additional 13 gardens in the study area that year, raising the total to 102.

Obstacles to scaling up urban agriculture in Detroit include uncertainties about future land access, ineffective government policies, lack of capital investment, and legacy contaminants, according to the study.

“Access to permanent land tenure is the primary obstacle to the expansion of urban agriculture in Detroit and many other cities,” says study co-author Alec Foster of Illinois State University. “Urban gardens on vacant lots are often thought of as temporary solutions until traditional redevelopment options arise.”

In 15 interviews, lower eastside residents said they planted gardens primarily to help build community, foster social cohesion, and reduce blight, rather than for food production. Vacant lots are frequently used as dumping grounds.

“An urban farm really becomes a platform for reconnecting the broken pieces that make up Detroit,” says one unnamed resident.

“Instead of blight, we’re looking at beautiful trees and a garden and flowers, and something that’s sustainable, that people can actually look at and say, ‘Wow, that’s beautiful,’” says another unnamed resident.

By some estimates, Detroit has more than 100,000 vacant lots, and vacant land in the city totals 23 square miles — roughly equivalent in size to Manhattan. One 2010 study estimated that Detroit has the potential to produce about 75 percent of its annual vegetable consumption and 40 percent of its fruit consumption by farming on publicly owned vacant lots using conventional methods.

But empirical research that documents the composition, spatial extent, and motivations for urban agriculture in Detroit is relatively scarce. The authors of the new paper say their study addresses many of the knowledge gaps.

A similar study of urban agriculture across the entire city of Detroit would provide a comprehensive picture of urban agriculture’s current footprint and enable a citywide plan for equitably scaling up, the researchers suggest.

“Studies indicate that UA benefits are often localized, and some evidence suggests that it can lead to gentrification, so scaling up will need to be implemented in a manner that does not exacerbate environmental injustice,” the researchers wrote.

The study appeared online March 25 in the journal Cities. Co-authors are from Illinois State University, Michigan State University and Arizona State University.

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