by Faye Brown
Detroiters share their stories about the environmental work they’re doing in the city, unearthing the growing number of urban gardens and mom-and-pop farms sprouting up in the city. Detroit urban farming is inspiring city-grown fresh food, supporting environmental stewardship and bringing together community members.
When Malik Yakini hungers for fresh fruits and veggies, the nearest grocery store doesn’t cross his mind. He’s more likely to head a few miles from his Detroit home to D-Town Farm where 30 different crops grow, including carrots, beets, peas, various herbs, a variety of greens and more.
The farm, started by Yakini in 2006 on a quarter acre of land in a Detroit neighborhood, has grown to cover seven acres in the city’s Rouge Park. Tons of organic fresh fruit and vegetables from the farm are sold June through October to local restaurants, farmers markets and anyone who stops by the farm on market days (usually Saturdays and Sundays during prime growing season).
“We need all kinds of development,” said Yakini, who dreamed up D-Town Farm as a way to increase inner-city residents’ access to quality fresh produce. “Detroit may be a leader in urban agriculture, but it and other greening initiatives are one piece of a larger puzzle. There are all kinds of studies that show working, walking and playing in green spaces can have a positive impact on the health of children and adults.”
D-Town Farm is one of a growing number of farms and gardens blossoming in and around Detroit — at least 1,400 and counting. All are part of a celebrated movement generally referred to as the greening of Detroit. It includes a rising collection of pedestrian-friendly greenways to encourage biking and walking; tree plantings that are turning vacant, overgrown lots into lush green forests; and developments along the city’s riverfront that have transformed it from a concrete corridor to an aesthetically pleasing, family-friendly destination.
Buzz about the greening of the city has even helped set plans in motion to bring world-class garden designers to Detroit. Some 1,000 award-winning garden artists from England, South Africa, Italy, Japan and other places around the world have confirmed plans to visit the city for an industry gathering in 2015. This meeting of minds will set the stage for the World Cup of Gardening — scheduled to be held on Detroit’s Belle Isle in summer 2016 — which is expected to draw crowds of more than 100,000.
“We believe this could be transformative for the city of Detroit,” said Dexter, Michigan, native John Cullen, the international designer who’s leading the effort to bring the World Cup of Gardening to Detroit. “It’s the most beautiful flower show in the world. It’s somewhat magical.”
Most important for the city, Cullen said, is that this will not be a “helicopter show” that flies in and out, leaving no trace of its impact at the event’s end. Quite the contrary, as Cullen’s team will work with neighborhood groups to move large swaths of the World Cup’s installations to parks and gardens throughout the city after the event exits.
If you look around, you’ll see there’s already a bounty of great green spaces and events cropping up all over the city as enthusiasts, resident “farmers” and volunteers work to make Detroit a more attractive, healthier and safer place to play, work and live.
“It’s really taking what could be lemons and making lemonade,” said Rebecca Salminen Witt, president of Greening of Detroit, one of the primary organizations promoting exactly what its name says. “The fact is, people feel better in green space; they respect themselves more. People want to live in a place that has beauty and is healthy. Greening supports that from the ground up.”
The growth of nonprofit Greening of Detroit itself speaks volumes about the increased interest and demand for greening in Detroit. It started 25 years ago with one part-time volunteer and now has a full-time staff of 30 people. Once known only as “those people who plant trees” in the neighborhoods, their projects include farms and gardens, nutrition and environmental education programs, and a workforce training initiative that builds careers in landscaping, horticulture and urban agriculture. Last summer, 80 youths worked as apprentices in locations all over Detroit. Witt said one of the most rewarding outcomes is knowing there are Detroiters now studying urban agriculture and related subjects at places such as Michigan State University.
“And even if they’re not planning on careers in this area,” said Witt, “they leave us as environmental stewards.”
Another positive sign of Detroit’s greening is on its pavement. In 2006, the city had a total of six miles of bike lanes. Now, there are more than 150 miles of bike lanes and marked shared lanes, according to Todd Scott, executive director of the Detroit Greenways Coalition, another nonprofit that supports and encourages greenways in the city. And more are planned for this summer, including some with first-ever stationary tool kits so cyclists can repair bike breakdowns en route.
Scott sees an advantage of promoting activity outdoors that isn’t immediately evident. He notes that greenways encouraging cycling and walking connect people of diverse backgrounds, thus promoting friendlier, more neighborly communities. He notes, for example, that bike rides such as Thursday-night weekly rides from Palmer Park and Monday nights’ Slow Rolls attract hundreds of people who are diverse in age, race and socioeconomic background.
“It’s not only healthy for people and the environment, but it also gets diverse people mingling in ways they wouldn’t otherwise,” said Scott. “When people are on foot or on bike and not in their own metal, steel cocoon, they’re meeting and engaging. That’s important in this region. The more people meeting and mingling, the better.”
Photo Credit: Fresh Cut Flower Farm by EE Berger
Hungry for a sampling of places and events where you can see, taste or otherwise meet and mingle with green Detroit? Here are our Top 10 green spaces and events.
1. Eastern Market
2. Green Garage
3. The Detroit Riverfront
4. Dequindre Cut Greenway
4. Lafayette Greens
6. Farm To Fork Bike Tours
7. Fresh Cut Flower Farm
8. D-Town Farm
9. Hantz Woodlands
10. Keep Growing Detroit’s Annual Bus and Bike Tour
Another type of urban farming taking root in The D: commercial aquaponic operations, aka fish farms. Last summer, Central Detroit Christian (CDC) Farm and Fishery harvested its first scaled “crop” of tilapia. Located in Detroit’s Boston Edison neighborhood, the fishery also grows herbs and veggies. No pesticides or chemicals are used. The fish provide the fertilizer. Following in the same vein is Food Field, also known as Peck Produce, which has an up-and-running commercial aquaponics operation in central Detroit.
Buy a hat at Henry the Hatter in Detroit and join a wildly eclectic customer base that once included President Dwight D. Eisenhower and still includes celebrity rocker Kid Rock.
Book a dinner cruise or go for a late-night moonlight party aboard the Detroit Princess. The five-story riverboat is back in action for the season.
Fall is in full swing and that means Detroit Red Wings hockey at The Joe. No ticket? Cobo Joe's is a surefire hot spot on game days.
Watch Discover the D TV to learn all about the hidden gems and history that our city has to offer.