Can arugula save bankrupt Detroit?

One plan envisions turning blighted lots into urban farms and creating thousands of jobs and millions in business taxes.

By Aimee Picchi Aug 9, 2013 12:10PM

Kate Cramer-Herbst cleans out a vegetable box in Detroit (Carlos Osorio/AP)Among Detroit's myriad woes are the roughly 150,000 vacant and abandoned lots scattered throughout the bankrupt city's 139 square miles. 

But where some people see blight, others see opportunity, Bloomberg reports. Turning some of the vacant lots into urban farms could result in as many as 4,700 jobs and $20 million in business taxes, a 2009 study projected. 

The idea is being buoyed by Detroit Future City, a planning project created in 2010 to help boost the downtrodden city's fortunes. One of its goals is to encourage new land uses, such as community gardens and urban farming. 

"Urban farms like large greenhouses offer a local, year-round source of fresh food, which allows a system-wide shift to local food procurement in Detroit," according to a report from the group. Local universities and hospitals, it notes, don't buy local food, because of its current unavailability. 

The question is whether harvests of arugula and heirloom tomatoes can save Detroit, which filed an $18 billion bankruptcy last month. It lost more than 435,000 jobs in the metropolitan area from 2000 to 2010, Bloomberg notes. As automakers cut jobs, the region has also been hit hard by store closures from the likes of Starbucks (SBUX) and Borders.

The realities of urban farming, however, may squash Detroit's dream of getting bailed out by locally grown kale. Farming in a northern climate often includes higher costs because greenhouses are needed in the shorter growing season, Bruce Bugbee, as professor in the plants, soils and climate department in Utah State University in Logan, told Bloomberg. 

Still, some people in Detroit look at urban farming as a way to create self-sufficiency, given the lack of city services

"For all intents and purposes, there is no government here," Greg Willerer, the owner of Brother Earth Farms, told Bloomberg. He grows greens in a spot across from an abandoned house. "If something were to happen, we have to handle that ourselves."

Follow Aimee Picchi on Twitter at @aimeepicchi.

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Aug 9, 2013 1:30PM
What a great project for Liberals all over the USA. Move to Detroit and save it with small farms. I give this idea a BIG thumbs up.
Aug 9, 2013 1:47PM
I grew produce for years in Michigan. Try apple, peach and cherry trees. Try blueberries. Canada exports tomatoes to the US. Try elbow grease. Tomatoes are in season in Michigan when other parts of the country are too hot and dry. 
Aug 9, 2013 1:58PM
Great idea, level all the housing projects so they don't cast shadows on that fine garden. This could displace Detroit as the Auto Capital. Imagine Detroit, Veggie Capital of America.
Aug 9, 2013 2:31PM
Rip down large sections of the city, rip out the roads and put in some real farms.
Aug 9, 2013 1:52PM
If / when the financial system collapses, this will be us too.
Aug 9, 2013 1:30PM
ROFL.  Are these people serious?  This is a "feel good" story, with a "fails hardcore" solution.
Aug 9, 2013 2:08PM
Urban farming is a great idea, but as far as saving a city from bankruptcy, that is a foolish illusion.  The urban farms can be used to fill the gap in food banks and grow food for the poor which can cut down on some benefits.  Few are going to get off Welfare that way.  If the people had their way, they would sell the produce under the table and still collect welfare.  No taxes would be paid on any of it.  Personally, I would grow food on an open lot on my block for myself, but paying cash money for that food is a different story.  If I am buying food, I would prefer that it came from a cleaner environment where the soil has been tested.  I grow a lot of my own food now, but I take my chances with what I am consuming without testing my soil.  If I paying for it, I want to make sure Meth hasn't been cooked on the site or chemicals poured into the ground. 
Aug 9, 2013 3:53PM
What could have "saved" Detroit in the past would have been leaders without their own personal agendas of greed. People like Kwame Kilpatrick was a clear example of how one person can bring in his own army of crooks and destroy a city.
Aug 9, 2013 2:04PM

Maybe they can raise some pigs too........ Then they can "show theirselves the bacon".


Quid Pro GROW...........

Aug 9, 2013 2:20PM
I think Microsoft, NBC, and THE NATION should relocate to the workers paradise that is Detroit. They can grow corn in the ruins of the former great city. For every ear of corn the grower gets, two shall go to the idled union member. 
Aug 9, 2013 2:07PM
You can't save billions of dollars of unfunded liabilities.
Aug 9, 2013 2:12PM
Aimee, since you authored this article, how in heck is growing raised-bed gardens on empty lots going to make pension payments and purchase health insurance for the City of Detroit?  Can you give us the name of the person who submitted this plan, or did you make the whole thing up?  Certainly if the plan was submitted, it has been rejected as complete and utter nonsense presented by a person or group with no connection to reality.  Did you get paid for this article?
Aug 9, 2013 1:31PM
By the way, it sounds like the Soviet communes. Someone refresh my memory. How did that turn out?
Aug 9, 2013 2:48PM

Nothing can save Detroit! I could see it coming in 1961 when I moved out.

I was born there and lived there 31 years,

Aug 9, 2013 3:16PM
Maybe they can grow money to pay off all the public pensions that are sucking up all the tax money.
Aug 9, 2013 3:39PM
Seriously? has anyone been to Detroit? Its winter 9 months out of the year will cost more in utilities to keep these green houses running then crops they produce!
Aug 9, 2013 3:09PM
There are a Many problems with this, I'll list just a Few. One is that in order for these farms to be viable they'd have to keep the cost per acre and property and business taxes comparable to rural farming communities so they can compete, there are two kinds of farms Real farms that turn a profit and Gentleman's farms that are more of a hobby or Status symbol and can't survive without outside employment to subsidize the farm. Two is that Farms need to be fairly large in order to justify the necessary equipment and to actually provide full time Employment for the Owner and any Workers. Three Being a Farmer is hard work and long hours and unless you inherit 20,000 acres of crop land with all the equipment you're not going to make a lot of money. But there are some Perks that make the Struggle and Hard Labor worth it - Country living, Clean Air, Safe streets, Small Town Community, Clean Rivers and Lakes and Forests for Outdoor Activities, and LOW CRIME RATES. It's hard to put a price tag on these Perks but they are Perks you will not find in Detroit that's for sure.
Aug 9, 2013 3:42PM

Good Start but what we need is a 1000 years or so for the toxins to settle a few inches


Aug 9, 2013 3:00PM
Farming land is shrinking in the Midwest (America's breadbasket).  Detroit is in the breadbasket but before its unused and under-used land can be farmed, the city of Detroit needs to unincorporate it and turn it into agricultural land.  Sale from that land could truly get Detroit out of bankruptcy and it would also provide sources of food which are close by urban dwellers in need of fresh food.
Aug 9, 2013 4:48PM
Are you sure the soil is safe to grow food????
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