Can farming save Detroit?

Detroit was once the fourth-biggest city in the US, and one of the country's leading manufacturing centres. Now it's a post-industrial wasteland. But some people believe it has a future – as a huge urban farm. Simon Wilson finds out whether that is a feasible option for the former Motor City.

Detroit was one of the US's leading industrial cities. Now it's a wasteland. Some believe it has a future though as a huge urban farm. Simon Wilson reports.

Why is Detroit in such a mess?

Detroit was once the fourth-biggest city in the US, a symbol of the nation's industrial might. But now it's the country's most glaring example of a rapidly shrinking, post-industrial city. The one-time bastion of car manufacturing, its 139 square-mile footprint is bigger than that of Boston, San Francisco and Manhattan combined. But with its traditional heavy industries in terminal decline, the population has slumped from two million to less than 900,000. Unemployment is officially 27%, but unofficially anything up to 50%. The average house price has slid from $98,000 in 2003 to just $15,000, because so many houses are empty and no one is buying.

What's the solution?

Simply put, Detroit is too big. About a third of the city's entire land area about 40 square miles is made up of either vacant lots or abandoned buildings. Arson is endemic. A half-empty city is not a sustainable proposition, especially when that city's tax base has crumbled and it's running a $300m deficit. Rather than allow the empty land to return to nature (abandoning any chance of future productive use), or develop it for recreation (adding to the city's cost base), a growing number of voices say that the solution is obvious: farming.

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How feasible is that?

Small-scale urban farming is already a feature of several US cities. Large gardens and small farms, usually ten acres or less, have sprung up both in thriving cities where land is scarce, such as Berkeley, and decaying Rust Belt cities such as Flint, Michigan. These are often welfare projects set up to provide employment for homeless people or ex-prisoners. They provide cheap, locally produced, healthy food to communities where there are often few grocery stores selling fresh produce. The plan for Detroit is similar, but on a bigger, commercial scale.

Who's behind the scheme?

The prime mover is an ex-stockbroker and money manager from Detroit, John Hantz, the subject of a recent profile in Fortune magazine. For the past two years, Hantz Farms has been buying up abandoned sections of the city. The aim is to create a series of farming 'pods' covering up to 5,000 acres nothing less than the world's largest urban farm. Hantz's motivation is partly philanthropic: returning blighted urban land into productive, tax-generating use, growing fresh produce to local people, stimulating development and creating jobs. But Hantz isn't just in it for the charity. He points out that the only way to push up land prices in Detroit is to "create scarcity". He hopes that developments will spring up around his farming 'pods', "as the local land market tilts from stultifying abundance to something more like scarcity and investors move in," says Fortune. And he's putting his money where his mouth is, stumping up $30m of his own cash.

How far advanced is it?

The pilot stage, due to start operations this spring, involves farming a site comprising 50 acres on the east side of the city. That would already make it the largest urban farm in the world, according to Hantz. Assuming his ambitious plans are realised, Hantz Farms plans to grow everything from organic lettuces to trees for biofuel to tomatoes and fruits: peaches, berries, plums, nectarines and apples. Its business plan uses agricultural technology designed to maximise productivity and use of space, including compost-heated greenhouses, hydroponic (water and nutrients only) and aeroponic (nutrient-rich mist) growing systems (see below).

Does he have much support?

Community activists aren't keen. They see Hantz as a capitalist land-grabber muscling in on their territory. And there's already a thriving small-scale farming sector in Detroit: hundreds of small community gardens help feed hundreds of families and students in at least 40 schools, although they don't make any money. There are several other entrepreneurs who are also eager to start up larger-scale agricultural ventures in Detroit, especially if free land can be negotiated from the city authorities. For example, a non-profit drug rehab group, SHAR, is proposing to takeover and farm 2,000 acres of vacant land.

So will it happen?

Frankly, the city is desperate enough to try anything, and this looks a good option. Planning rules have been revised to allow large-scale urban farms, and the mayor has welcomed the prospect as part of the solution to Detroit's problems. There are issues to overcome to do with who pays for removing utility infrastructure; who pays for cleaning up the soil; and how much (if anything) commercial farmers should pay for land and in tax. But in one form or another, Motown looks set to lead the development of farming in US cities.

Vertical farms: the answer to food shortages?

The amount of arable farm land available per person to feed the world's population fell from about an acre per head in 1970 to about half that by 2000, and is projected to slump to just a third of an acre by 2050, according to the UN. The solution, according to some academics, is vertical farming. This involves year-round, high-rise indoor farms using aeroponic and hydroponic technologies which deliver fresh food to urban communities, cut food miles to the bare minimum, and are not susceptible to floods or drought. According to advocates, they would have the added benefit of helping cities breathe more easily literally, by absorbing CO2 and producing oxygen.

Simon Wilson’s first career was in book publishing, as an economics editor at Routledge, and as a publisher of non-fiction at Random House, specialising in popular business and management books. While there, he published, a bestselling classic of the early days of e-commerce, and The Money or Your Life: Reuniting Work and Joy, an inspirational book that helped inspire its publisher towards a post-corporate, portfolio life.   

Since 2001, he has been a writer for MoneyWeek, a financial copywriter, and a long-time contributing editor at The Week. Simon also works as an actor and corporate trainer; current and past clients include investment banks, the Bank of England, the UK government, several Magic Circle law firms and all of the Big Four accountancy firms. He has a degree in languages (German and Spanish) and social and political sciences from the University of Cambridge.