Detroit’s Greener Side

March 20, 2017  |   Story 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 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.

 

Planting the Seed

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.”

 

Nothing Fishy About Fish Farming

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.

 

Top 10 Green Spaces and Events in Detroit

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.

1. Eastern Market

It goes without saying that going to Eastern Market is one of the best ways to spend a Saturday in the city. There’s an abundance of fresh produce from farmers throughout Michigan, fresh-cut flowers and delicious food from trucks and popular eateries. Saturday is the Big Kahuna of market days, but Eastern Market is now open on some Tuesdays and Sundays, too.
INSIDER DIRT: Other popular city markets exist, including Wayne State University Farmers Market, which runs Wednesdays, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. June-October, along Cass Avenue between Putnam and Kirby. The Northwest Detroit Farmers Market is in the North Rosedale Park Community Club House on Thursdays from 4-8 p.m. June-October. Visit detroitmarkets.org for more farmers markets.

2. Green Garage

Tom and Peggy Brennan of the Detroit suburb Troy are convinced that being green is not just a trend; it is a way of living well. So, the couple opened up Green Garage in 2011. This address is several things in one. It’s green showcase is an old warehouse renovated with recycled materials that uses almost zero energy. It’s also an incubation center – a business hub that encourages and supports startups that are environmentally friendly and socially conscious. But it’s also an office building, offering space for newly established, environmentally aware businesses (currently 51 of them), whether the need is one desk or an office suite for six.
INSIDER DIRT: Green Garage has a rooftop garden and supplies fresh ingredients to Motor City Brewing Works. On most Fridays at noon, there is a brown-bag community lunchtime and 30-minute public building tour.

3. The Detroit Riverfront

The Detroit RiverFront Conservancy has done a magnificent job of transforming Detroit’s riverfront into a fun, attractive, healthy place adorned with pathways, parks, playgrounds, yoga classes and spectacular views. Another beauty along the riverfront is Belle Isle Park. Don’t overlook the park’s Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory. Admission to this tropical oasis is free (There is a fee to get on the island for those who drive).
INSIDER DIRT: Rent a bike from Wheelhouse Detroit on Atwater Street on the Detroit RiverWalk, and pedal your way along the riverfront. You’ll pass several parks, including the William G. Milliken State Park and Harbor and the newly renovated Mt. Elliott Park, plus Detroit RiverWalk West.

4. Dequindre Cut Greenway

Operated by the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, this former railroad line is now a 1.35-mile recreational pathway that links the riverfront to Eastern Market and neighborhoods along the way. A portion of the greenway takes people directly from the riverfront to Eastern Market.
INSIDER DIRT: As you walk, run or bike the Dequindre Cut Greenway, notice the public art, including murals from local artists as well as reproductions of works hanging in the galleries of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

5. Lafayette Greens

Located smack-dab in the heart of downtown Detroit, in the midst of courthouses and office buildings, this raised-bed organic garden truly exemplifies how a concrete site can sprout into a beautiful green space. It’s on a site left vacant by the razing of an office building, at the corner where West Lafayette, Shelby and Michigan Avenue intersect. See the children’s garden, heirloom apple orchard and a variety of produce.
INSIDER DIRT: A public market runs from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Thursdays, June-October. Yoga, hula-hoop™ and other classes are offered in the garden, too.

6. Farm to Fork Bike Tours

Keep Growing Detroit, in conjunction with Wheelhouse Detroit, offers bicycle tours to local farms, gardens and food-focused businesses. The approximately 10-mile round-trip tours occur at least monthly from June-September. After the tour, cyclists are encouraged to dine at local restaurants that rely on nearby farms’ fresh produce.
INSIDER DIRT: In addition to scheduled events, special tours can be arranged through Wheelhouse Detroit and Keep Growing Detroit. Just ask.

7. Fresh Cut Flower Farm

Sarah Pappas long dreamed of being a farmer. The idea took shape when she and her husband bought an 1890s house and its three adjoining vacant lots on the edge of Detroit’s Woodbridge neighborhood. She decided on raising flowers because they’re a beautiful way to fill in a niche in Detroit’s growing greenscape, she said. “Flowers make people feel special,” said Pappas, who grows zinnias, poppies, marigolds, snapdragons and more. “When you get flowers, it makes people feel happy.”
INSIDER DIRT: Fresh Cut is run from Sarah Pappas’ home (1760 W. Forest Ave. at Rosa Parks Blvd.). You can preorder weekly bouquets or stop by the flower farm on Tuesdays or Thursdays from late May-October.

8. D-Town Farm

From June-October, you’ll see rows and rows of organic fruits, vegetables and herbs. The farm’s mission is to model self-determination, said Malik Yakini, who helped start the farm at a much smaller location in 2006. “We’re growing people’s consciousness and awareness of the potential to address their own problems at the same time that we’re growing vegetables,” said Yakini. Foods from the garden are sold at local markets, but also at the farm from 9 a.m.-noon Saturdays and Sundays, June-October.
INSIDER DIRT: D-Town Farm hosts an annual harvest festival in September that features foods from the garden and vendors from throughout metro Detroit. Mark your fall calendar for Sept. 19-20.

9. Hantz Woodlands

Just east of Detroit’s stately Indian Village, a forgotten section of the city’s east side is being rebuilt one tree at a time. Actually, make that hundreds at a time. Led by Detroit business leader John Hantz, the Hantz Woodlands is a 150-acre tree farm. In May 2014, thousands of volunteers helped plant 15,000 hardwood maple and oak saplings. Last October, another 500 sugar maples went in the ground, with more trees to come.
INSIDER DIRT: Visit the tree farm on your own, or make arrangements for a group tour.

10. Keep Growing Detroit’s Annual Bus and Bike Tour

Each year on the first Wednesday of August, Keep Growing Detroit arranges bus and bike tours of some of the city’s gardens. Last year, 38 gardens were on tour. There are at least four different buses, plus four different bike routes. At each garden, a leader or volunteer meets tourists to talk about special offerings and unique features of the garden. Frequently, the proud gardeners offer a sampling of food from their beds. To cap off the tour, a sumptuous meal is prepared using just-plucked ingredients and is served at Eastern Market, the tour’s start and end point.
INSIDER DIRT: The bus tour is popular and seats fill fast. Register early.

 

Other Markets, Gardens, Gifts Showing Off Detroit’s Greener Side:

  • Plum Street Market Garden Downtown has fruits and veggies
  • North Cass Community Garden is resident-planned and -constructed
  • Earthworks Urban Farm has a self-guided tour
  • Edible Hut Community’s gathering space is in east-side Detroit’s Calimera Park
  • Georgia St. Community Collective Gardens covers five lots with a fruit orchard
  • Brother Nature Produce Corktown is an urban farm with produce often found on local restaurant menus
  • Firmly Planted Downtown garden and gift center on Woodward Avenue

 

Restaurants That Get Their Fresh Ingredients From the City’s Farmers.

  • Astro Coffee
  • Brooklyn Street Local
  • Cliff Bell’s
  • Colors Restaurant
  • Grand Trunk Pub
  • Mudgie’s Deli
  • Rose’s Fine Foods
  • Russell Street Deli
  • Supino Pizzeria
Mentioned Attractions And Venues
  1. Eastern Market
    Russell Street between Mack Avenue and Gratiot Avenue, 2934 Russell St., Detroit, MI 48207313-833-9300 Highlight on map | More Details
  2. Central Detroit Christian Farm and Fishery
    313-444-6734
  3. Green Garage
    313-444-4054
  4. Lafayette Greens
    132 W Lafayette Blvd, Detroit, MI 48226, United States313-227-5555 Highlight on map
  5. Fresh Cut Flower Farm
    1764 W Forest Ave, Detroit, MI 48208, United States Highlight on map | More Details
  6. D-Town Farm
    3800 Puritan Ave, Detroit, MI 48238, United States313-345-3663 Highlight on map | More Details
  7. Hantz Woodlands
    17403 Mt Elliott St, Hamtramck, MI 48212, United States313-893-1937 Highlight on map | More Details