Agriculture no image

Published on January 22nd, 2010 | by Christopher DeMorro

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Detroit: From Motor City To Urban Farm?

This is car news, and it isn’t. But it is definitely…interesting.

Detroit was once the 4th largest city in America and it held the title of Motor City because most of America’s cars came from there. Flash forward 40 years, and Detroit’s population has dwindled from a high of 2 million people to just over 800,000. The average price for a home in Detroit is $15,000, the lowest in the country. With so many empty spaces, criminals have no shortage of hideouts and drug factories. And with America’s auto industry still reeling from the recession, as well as having outsourced many jobs to other states (or countries), the future looks bleak for Detroit’s long-deferred recovery.

Unless one millionaire gets his way, and turns the city into farms. Yes, farms.

John Hantz is one of the few remaining millionaires in Detroit, where the median family income is under $30,000. And the urban sprawl that Detroit encompasses is larger than Boston, Manhatten, and San Francisco combined. There is a lot of unused land in Detroit. This John Hantz thinking about how to use all of that vacant land. He is pitching a proposal to turn Detroit into a modern farming community. I think he might be on to something.

Cities have a lot of “green cred” going for them when it comes to public transportation, walkability, and making the most out of very limited space. But despite all of this, they still need to import all of their food, usually from hundreds or even thousands of miles away. It isn’t green, but it is necessary. Detroit is the perfect candidate for attempting urban farming on a massive scale because all that vacant land means plenty of planting opportunities.

Not only would it make use of otherwise blighted land, it would also offer employment opportunities for a city that desperately needs them. The jobless rate in Detroit stands at a whopping 27%. I’ve been to Detroit, many years ago, and what I saw then was sad; I can’t imagine what it looks like today (although pushing a dump truck out of  the top floor of a factory seems pretty cool).

Hantz’s idea calls for creating farm “pods”, each with its own residential frontage, placed strategically around the city. The pods will utilize the latest in green farming technology like compost-heated greenhouses and hydroponic systems. Hantz is willing to put up the $30 million himself to get the project started, once he gets a few concessions from the Detroit city government which includes new agricultural tax regulations, and access to non-delinquent land.

Will it work? I hope so, because if this happens (and I can convince my girlfriend to put up with Michigan’s bitter winters) I am heading out to Detroit to be an urban farmer. No joke. Sounds like the kind of city this country boy could enjoy. Plus, I could finally attend the Woodward Dream Cruise.

Source: Fortune | Image: Bryan Christie




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About the Author

A writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs, can be found wrenching or writing- or esle, he's running, because he's one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.



  • Carbon Buildup

    In some respects this is happening in Detroit already, based on what I’ve read. Many people are now active in community gardens. This has become an important food source for a lot of city people, because there are few grocery stores in the poorer parts of the city The only ‘food’ stores nearby are places like Seven/Eleven. For many people in Detroit, growing their own vegetables is just about the only way they’re going to get any.

  • Carbon Buildup

    In some respects this is happening in Detroit already, based on what I’ve read. Many people are now active in community gardens. This has become an important food source for a lot of city people, because there are few grocery stores in the poorer parts of the city The only ‘food’ stores nearby are places like Seven/Eleven. For many people in Detroit, growing their own vegetables is just about the only way they’re going to get any.

  • http://www.openlybalanced.com Jess @OpenlyBalanced

    This is a phenomenal initiative. I would love to see the tragedy that is Detroit transform into a bright green story of what the future could look like.

  • http://www.openlybalanced.com Jess @OpenlyBalanced

    This is a phenomenal initiative. I would love to see the tragedy that is Detroit transform into a bright green story of what the future could look like.

  • Christine Danner

    I got to tour some of Detroit’s urban gardens/farms last summer – amazing! Check out http://www.greeningofdetroit.com/ to see what individuals and community activists are doing to bring back the city.

  • Christine Danner

    I got to tour some of Detroit’s urban gardens/farms last summer – amazing! Check out http://www.greeningofdetroit.com/ to see what individuals and community activists are doing to bring back the city.

  • Cara Massey

    I think this is an excellent idea. After all, Detroit is in the midwest. Also, it would lower some of the costs of groceries in this area.

  • Cara Massey

    I think this is an excellent idea. After all, Detroit is in the midwest. Also, it would lower some of the costs of groceries in this area.

  • http://www.gas2.org Jo

    I agree – if this happens (and, surely, it must!) I’ll be sorely tempted to leave Oberlin.

  • http://www.gas2.org Jo

    I agree – if this happens (and, surely, it must!) I’ll be sorely tempted to leave Oberlin.

  • Don

    Detroit is definitely NOT in the midwest. Colorado is in the midwest.

  • Don

    Detroit is definitely NOT in the midwest. Colorado is in the midwest.

  • mikec

    I don’t think that the posters understand the situation. The reason that Detroit has become a waste land is the crime. Suppose that someone assembles 100 acres, which would not be difficult given the empty spaces in Detroit, and begins farming it. Then one day while out with his mini tractor, a couple of thugs beat him up for the $20 they think is in his pocket. Maybe they beat him more when he doesn’t have even $20. Then he’s in rehab for life.

    It would sure discourage the whole idea of farming in Detroit.

  • mikec

    I don’t think that the posters understand the situation. The reason that Detroit has become a waste land is the crime. Suppose that someone assembles 100 acres, which would not be difficult given the empty spaces in Detroit, and begins farming it. Then one day while out with his mini tractor, a couple of thugs beat him up for the $20 they think is in his pocket. Maybe they beat him more when he doesn’t have even $20. Then he’s in rehab for life.

    It would sure discourage the whole idea of farming in Detroit.

  • buzz

    Detroit is in the midwest the same as Ohio is in the midwest. Ignore everything west of the Mississippi. Still, there is a lot of now wasted space there, this I think has possibilities.

  • buzz

    Detroit is in the midwest the same as Ohio is in the midwest. Ignore everything west of the Mississippi. Still, there is a lot of now wasted space there, this I think has possibilities.

  • Capacit

    Hope someone is testing the soil that is being considered for use – I imagine the existing soil is laden with a lot of heavy metals and other chemicals.

  • Capacit

    Hope someone is testing the soil that is being considered for use – I imagine the existing soil is laden with a lot of heavy metals and other chemicals.

  • Amused Observers

    Well Mike it all depends on the mindset of the farmer. Our forefathers weren’t afraid to defend their farms on the edge of the wilderness from marauding savages. It didn’t always work out but in the end the west was won.

  • Amused Observers

    Well Mike it all depends on the mindset of the farmer. Our forefathers weren’t afraid to defend their farms on the edge of the wilderness from marauding savages. It didn’t always work out but in the end the west was won.

  • Tom

    The illustration for this article is preposterous. Why would anyone build an expensive, futuristic tiered structure and then plant crops on it? There is plenty of farmland in America. Why farm in a corrupt, disfunctional, crime-ridden city? Farming is complex, difficult, risky, and capital-intensive. What it is about Detroit that makes it attractive for such enterprise? Nothing!

  • Tom

    The illustration for this article is preposterous. Why would anyone build an expensive, futuristic tiered structure and then plant crops on it? There is plenty of farmland in America. Why farm in a corrupt, disfunctional, crime-ridden city? Farming is complex, difficult, risky, and capital-intensive. What it is about Detroit that makes it attractive for such enterprise? Nothing!

  • sestamibi

    They unpaved the parking lot and put up paradise.

  • jgreene

    This is an absolute “pie in the sky” boondoggle. I’ll bet they’ll expect the Federal Government and YOUR tax dollars to pay for it.

  • sestamibi

    They unpaved the parking lot and put up paradise.

  • jgreene

    This is an absolute “pie in the sky” boondoggle. I’ll bet they’ll expect the Federal Government and YOUR tax dollars to pay for it.

  • ElamBend

    If this were an efficient way to farm, it’d be done like this already. When it comes to farmng in Detroit, smaller is better

  • ElamBend

    If this were an efficient way to farm, it’d be done like this already. When it comes to farmng in Detroit, smaller is better

  • Grzegorz

    What is NOT being discussed is WHY Detroit ended up in the situation that it now finds itself in the first place.

  • Grzegorz

    What is NOT being discussed is WHY Detroit ended up in the situation that it now finds itself in the first place.

  • Insufficiently Sensitive

    Nowhere in this article are we told that every parcel in the City has an owner, and nowhere are we told how the oh-so-collective “we” are going to secure permission from those owners for our oh-so-enlightened farming.

    Communism must be fun, when you have a millionaire to finance it, but perhaps said millionaire shouldn’t forget that our Fifth Amendment is rather protective of private property. The diligent little writer should do some more research and inform us how the use of that property is to be acquired – or is that detail just too bothersome for someone who can see the future and is telling us that it works?

  • Insufficiently Sensitive

    Nowhere in this article are we told that every parcel in the City has an owner, and nowhere are we told how the oh-so-collective “we” are going to secure permission from those owners for our oh-so-enlightened farming.

    Communism must be fun, when you have a millionaire to finance it, but perhaps said millionaire shouldn’t forget that our Fifth Amendment is rather protective of private property. The diligent little writer should do some more research and inform us how the use of that property is to be acquired – or is that detail just too bothersome for someone who can see the future and is telling us that it works?

  • dr kill

    What do I think? I think you, or him or both are crazy. Certifiable. Although there is a certain satisfaction listening to people who should know better considering an anti-industrial revolution. Hahahaha

  • dr kill

    What do I think? I think you, or him or both are crazy. Certifiable. Although there is a certain satisfaction listening to people who should know better considering an anti-industrial revolution. Hahahaha

  • http://frmartinfox.blogspot.com Fr Martin Fox

    I’m not clear from the article why such a “pod farm” in Detroit would be more economically feasible than a traditional farm out in the hinterlands?

    One of the problems with using land in old cities–for anything–is the cost of dealing with “environmental” issues.

    For example, my church went to buy a neighboring, delapidated house, with the intent of tearing it down for parking. But first we had to make sure there was no underground oil tank or asbestos in the house. The costs of dealing with such things would have been steep. Thankfully, no problem. We acquired the property for about $28 k, spent about $10 for demolition and hauling. $38 k, one lot, with few issues; plenty of properties would have serious issues, with more cost. Hard to see how an urban farmer, dealing with these costs, competes with someone in rural areas who don’t have such costs.

    I’m not saying it can’t work, just wondering how all these things are accounted for. Not to mention that once someone starts buying the land for this, the cost of the land will rise significantly–unless the city uses “eminent domain,” which isn’t fair, when done for a private concern, in my opinion (remember the Kelo case?). If the city can’t or won’t do that, the land-acquisition costs will be far higher than the current, depressed, average price.

  • http://frmartinfox.blogspot.com Fr Martin Fox

    I’m not clear from the article why such a “pod farm” in Detroit would be more economically feasible than a traditional farm out in the hinterlands?

    One of the problems with using land in old cities–for anything–is the cost of dealing with “environmental” issues.

    For example, my church went to buy a neighboring, delapidated house, with the intent of tearing it down for parking. But first we had to make sure there was no underground oil tank or asbestos in the house. The costs of dealing with such things would have been steep. Thankfully, no problem. We acquired the property for about $28 k, spent about $10 for demolition and hauling. $38 k, one lot, with few issues; plenty of properties would have serious issues, with more cost. Hard to see how an urban farmer, dealing with these costs, competes with someone in rural areas who don’t have such costs.

    I’m not saying it can’t work, just wondering how all these things are accounted for. Not to mention that once someone starts buying the land for this, the cost of the land will rise significantly–unless the city uses “eminent domain,” which isn’t fair, when done for a private concern, in my opinion (remember the Kelo case?). If the city can’t or won’t do that, the land-acquisition costs will be far higher than the current, depressed, average price.

  • Josef K.

    I have questions

    1.) Who is responsible for determining whether the newly-opened up lands are free of contamination? Is the city of Detroit competent to keep brownfields and grayfields out of the program? I think not.

    2.) Are America’s taxpayers going to end up on the hook for bailing out a bunch of amateurs who decide to re-enact the old TV show Green Acres in Detroit? There’s a huge potential for failure when a bunch of non-farmers take their dreams – and their lack of experience, skills and knowledge – and try their hand at a very unforgiving business.

    3.) I had an uncle who was a farmer; if I decide to go to Detroit and set up a farm, will I be allowed to carry firearms to defend myself against the (often rabid) foxes, wolves, bears and gang members I might encounter? A 1911 and an AR 15 in 7.62 MM would seem to be a must.

  • Josef K.

    I have questions

    1.) Who is responsible for determining whether the newly-opened up lands are free of contamination? Is the city of Detroit competent to keep brownfields and grayfields out of the program? I think not.

    2.) Are America’s taxpayers going to end up on the hook for bailing out a bunch of amateurs who decide to re-enact the old TV show Green Acres in Detroit? There’s a huge potential for failure when a bunch of non-farmers take their dreams – and their lack of experience, skills and knowledge – and try their hand at a very unforgiving business.

    3.) I had an uncle who was a farmer; if I decide to go to Detroit and set up a farm, will I be allowed to carry firearms to defend myself against the (often rabid) foxes, wolves, bears and gang members I might encounter? A 1911 and an AR 15 in 7.62 MM would seem to be a must.

  • Paul

    Yeah, Detroit can make it farming. If they farm pot.

  • Paul

    Yeah, Detroit can make it farming. If they farm pot.

  • KTWO

    The term Northwest came into use two centuries ago to designate the US territory North of the Ohio River and East of the Mississippi. It made sense then.

    Hence Northwestern University in Illinois.

    The Big 10 schools used to be called the Western Conference. That made sense if you viewed them from Haavard.

    It causes confusion now. So does “Midwest.” In school I learned that was roughly Ohio to Wisconsin. That didn’t seem to make sense then or now.

    I think there is no reason why Detroit will or should a big city. An orderly transition back to farmland, dairies, light industry, etc. is probably best for most of the land.

  • KTWO

    The term Northwest came into use two centuries ago to designate the US territory North of the Ohio River and East of the Mississippi. It made sense then.

    Hence Northwestern University in Illinois.

    The Big 10 schools used to be called the Western Conference. That made sense if you viewed them from Haavard.

    It causes confusion now. So does “Midwest.” In school I learned that was roughly Ohio to Wisconsin. That didn’t seem to make sense then or now.

    I think there is no reason why Detroit will or should a big city. An orderly transition back to farmland, dairies, light industry, etc. is probably best for most of the land.

  • el polacko

    is a short, blisteringly hot summer followed by a return to a deep-freeze the rest of the year really such a great environment for farming?? not to mention the contaminated soil, the extremely high crime rate, the lack of services …have these folks ever actually SEEN detroit ?!

  • el polacko

    is a short, blisteringly hot summer followed by a return to a deep-freeze the rest of the year really such a great environment for farming?? not to mention the contaminated soil, the extremely high crime rate, the lack of services …have these folks ever actually SEEN detroit ?!

  • Subotai Bahadur

    In the discussion above, there is the question as to who the owners of the property are. I do suspect that many of those lots are property of the government due to tax liens. When people bail on property it eventually can end up seized by the government. So that would take care of that problem in theory.

    But there is another problem with it being owned by the Detroit government. The problem is that it is owned by the Detroit government. I do not know the ancestry of Mr. Hantz, but I suspect that it is not black. Nor, I suspect, will be most of the wanna-be farmers. I have seen the Detroit City Council turn down hundreds of millions of free dollars being brought in to redevelop part of downtown; because they got it into their heads that it would benefit whites because the skilled trades needed to build the buildings would largely be white. And they were downright nasty about it. The Detroit City Council would rather the whole city be abandoned rather than do anything that could be conceived of benefiting whites, even if it at the same time brought jobs in for blacks. Such is the nature of the beast. You are not going to get any cooperation from the Detroit city government in this matter, making it moot.

    Then, there is the matter of the two-legged predators. In the old West, if you defended your homestead from outlaws, you were in the clear. Today, if you defend yourself; aside from the fact that the police will not protect you from the predators, they will arrest you if you do defend yourself.

    Even if they do not go for the farmer themselves, how long do you think that the farm itself will avoid being vandalized and destroyed?

    Detroit is a failed city. It is dying. And things will have no chance of getting better until after it has been dead for a safe interval of time and someone can come in and start from scratch.

    Subotai Bahadur

  • Subotai Bahadur

    In the discussion above, there is the question as to who the owners of the property are. I do suspect that many of those lots are property of the government due to tax liens. When people bail on property it eventually can end up seized by the government. So that would take care of that problem in theory.

    But there is another problem with it being owned by the Detroit government. The problem is that it is owned by the Detroit government. I do not know the ancestry of Mr. Hantz, but I suspect that it is not black. Nor, I suspect, will be most of the wanna-be farmers. I have seen the Detroit City Council turn down hundreds of millions of free dollars being brought in to redevelop part of downtown; because they got it into their heads that it would benefit whites because the skilled trades needed to build the buildings would largely be white. And they were downright nasty about it. The Detroit City Council would rather the whole city be abandoned rather than do anything that could be conceived of benefiting whites, even if it at the same time brought jobs in for blacks. Such is the nature of the beast. You are not going to get any cooperation from the Detroit city government in this matter, making it moot.

    Then, there is the matter of the two-legged predators. In the old West, if you defended your homestead from outlaws, you were in the clear. Today, if you defend yourself; aside from the fact that the police will not protect you from the predators, they will arrest you if you do defend yourself.

    Even if they do not go for the farmer themselves, how long do you think that the farm itself will avoid being vandalized and destroyed?

    Detroit is a failed city. It is dying. And things will have no chance of getting better until after it has been dead for a safe interval of time and someone can come in and start from scratch.

    Subotai Bahadur

  • Chiburbian

    I think the idea is great in theory, but what we should be looking towards is “permaculture” not the same old ways of doing things. Look up “Greening the Desert” and Jules Dervaes’ “Homegrown revolution” on you-tube.

    Yes Jules is a bit hippy’ish, but the concepts are sound and its inspirational.

  • Chiburbian

    I think the idea is great in theory, but what we should be looking towards is “permaculture” not the same old ways of doing things. Look up “Greening the Desert” and Jules Dervaes’ “Homegrown revolution” on you-tube.

    Yes Jules is a bit hippy’ish, but the concepts are sound and its inspirational.

  • http://Web Wendy

    I am shocked!!! The worlds most ‘patriotic’ country… Patriotic my ASS!!!
    I realy cannot believe that you could all be so pessimistic! This is ONE man trying to make a diffrence. Why is it only ONE? Where are the rest of them? Why should it an entire country turn its back and say ‘its not my problem’? That is exactly what has been said here… You are saying that Detroit is a run down slum…
    Its sad really…that you have got so little faith in someone trying to make a future for generations to come.
    And before anyone tries the ‘what would you know’ line on me… I would know a lot. I am in South Africa, I happened across this article and you know what, America NEEDS more people like this! John Hantz isn’t doing this for himself! Someone asked ‘have you seen Detroit’. Well, have YOU seen Bishop Lavis? Have you seen Lavender Hill? We may not have as many states or be as big as the US, but, we sure do have our slums… How about you stop complaining and SUPPORT the change..? Unless of course, you don’t have the guts to do it…

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