Urban Farming

By Chris Horney

Similar to the conversation we have been having about Masdar and Tianjin, where each city is attempting to accomplish something different, I think it is worthwhile to understand that cities across the world are not all feeling the urbanization push quite the same. Prior to business school I lived in Royal Oak, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. Detroit is experiencing the exact opposite of what Mumbai, Beijing, Lagos, and many other cities across the world are experiencing, as they have lost 25% of their population in the last decade. Many people have left for the suburbs of the city or left the state entirely, either for living condition reasons or economic reasons, or most likely a combination of both. Regardless of why it happened, Detroit City government now is faced with a challenge of having nearly 40 square miles (half the size of the city of Boston) out of 139 vacant in the city, with much of the vacant land owned by the city through foreclosure of properties and abandonment.

Because of this issue, an already cash strapped city who has lost a large base of taxpayers, Detroit now has not only a safety liability with abandoned homes (fire, drugs, etc.) but they also have a monetary issue that comes with attempting to maintain municipal services (fire, water, power, police, street cleaning, etc.) to large empty swaths of the city. Unable to afford to provide these services, blight has taken over the city and become a major issue. Unlike most cities, the challenge now becomes what to do in light of this new challenge.

In order to address the municipal services while also making the land more contiguous, the city has been consolidating neighborhoods and condensing people together, removing the old homes and reducing part of the blight. The next major challenge is what to do with the land. A company called Hantz Farms believes they have the answer. They just recently were approved to purchase 200 acres (1500 lots) from the City, with the plan of initially planting trees within each lot, but the end game for Hantz is urban agriculture. They have been working with the City and Michigan State University to study ways to take advantage of the land available, but also will look to pioneer indoor farming on a commercial scale, something they believe will ultimately be a large part of our urbanized culture in the future. Detroit, Hantz Farms, and many non-profits and investors alike see a great opportunity for Detroit to become a hot-bed for innovation in this space, so that as our cities become increasingly urbanized, we are able to find ways to sustainably and locally provide food to our citizens. They believe that while the empty land in Detroit certainly won’t be common throughout the country or world, they believe that with that opportunity comes the chance to help provide the world a better way or even just a different way to grow and deliver food to our cities.

While still in its infancy (Hantz is just now planting trees on their first plot of land), I think the concept of urban farming, vertical farming, and indoor farming is one that will become increasingly important in an age of urbanization and decreasing arable land throughout the world. The companies and cities that can figure it out first will certainly have much to gain both economically as well as society-wide.


One thought on “Urban Farming

  1. Urban farming has the potential to put Detroit’s vacant land to use. However, I fear it will not be able to compete with the industrialized farming of the plains states, and it will not provide enough economic activity to revive Detroit. Furthermore, urban farming will not solve the underlying problem of why they city has become vacant: the decline of automotive manufacturing in America.

    Cities around the world all have a backstory. They landed in a particular place at a particular time due to access to certain bodies of water, natural resources, industries, or proximity to other cities. Detroit raises the question, how can a city be sustained when its primary reason for existence has been depleted?

    While in South Africa, I was working with Anglo Gold Ashanti on this question for the municipality of Merafong, a small city of 250,000 residents an hour outside of Johannesburg. The city had been built around mines and questions remained of what would exist in twenty years when the mines were depleted. Would there be enough economic activity to fuel the local businesses that had popped up to service mine employees? Commercial farming, mine tourism, hydropower, and mineral extraction from mine tailings were all considered options to keep the town alive. Because of South Africa’s unique structure, mining companies were responsible for local economic development. These companies however had only begun to think about how to plant the seeds for a city without mining.

    This poses the question, how could have the depletion of Detroit been prevented and how can cities take an active role in ensuring their vibrancy post industry? I used to live in Durham, N.C., another city of 250,000. Durham is an old tobacco town that’s primary industry has declined. However, Durham today is vibrant due in large part to Duke University and the development of technology and life science businesses in the area. Empty Tobacco warehouses have been converted to restaurants, offices, stores, and apartments.

    Revitalization is possible, but cities need to take an active role in diversification, seeding new industries and universities even while the primary industry of a city is hot. The auto industry will always be part of Detroit’s landscape, but its ability to seed new industries and not just use space will determine its future.

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