Farming the city: who is it for?

Detroit has lost over 60% of its population since 1950. A 2010 estimate put the amount of vacant publicly-owned land (specifically, vacant lots formerly used for housing) at 4,800 acres – or around 3,200 football pitches of empty space. In areas of high levels of vacancy, the depopulation is clearly visible on Google Earth.

Detroit has in for many years been a spectacle for global media attention from narratives of decay, violence and decline; and in the past decade stories of hope have appeared alongside this, looking at community regeneration, urban farming, and the growth of art and culture in the city’s most deprived areas. The importance of narratives of hope coming out of stories of urban agriculture in Detroit should not be downplayed. There are now over 1400 urban farms in the city. Projects such as The Michigan Urban Farming initiative demonstrate that real benefits can be made in communities by engaging people in urban agriculture and providing a source of fresh and nutritious food in areas where fruit and vegetables are inaccessible geographically or financially.

Many articles, videos and blogs have already told the stories of these initiatives and I would recommend seeking them out. There are some truly inspiring stories out there.

bd3e63_c7313a4d1d2b42b9b073edc47bf2cc4a(Source: Michigan Urban Farming Initiative)

However, all is not rosy. Telling a tale of communities coming back from dereliction and growing vegetables leaves a pleasant taste in the mouth, and for those of us far from its location, provides some easy lunchtime reading and we can go back to work happy that people are growing vegetables in Detroit. It’s not the end of the story.

The ‘improvement’ of urban areas often runs into issues as places become more successful, less dangerous and a more desirable place to live. One of the founders of the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative has recently spoken in an interview about the changing attitude of Detroit City to their project; ‘from overnight we went from being genuinely appreciated to treated like criminals… they’ve been trying everything they can, short of bulldozing, to get rid of us’. The city’s attitude to the farmed land has changed as the municipality have decided the area is ripe for ‘development’, and herein lies the problem facing many urban food projects across the developed world.

Andrew Herscher has neatly summarised the problem: deprived, vacant lot areas are “constantly susceptible not only to further deterioration, but also to further ‘betterment’ as defined by a value regime that equates improvement with profitability”. Attempts by communities to make life a bit better, for example through urban agriculture projects, can also draw unwanted attention from people who think only in terms of profit, leaving neighbourhoods ripe for gentrification.

It’s a key problem, especially for urban agriculture, a blanket term that covers both gardening on empty lots in the most deprived areas as a form of community survival and social resistance – to expensive, shiny, tech-y, hydroponics schemes run as for-profit companies. There is nothing inherently wrong with the latter. The problem lies in the way landlords, developers and planners both view and portray the different forms of urban agriculture.

Vacant lot gardening of the form that has been the source of so many community benefits in Detroit doesn’t look shiny – and doesn’t look profitable for landlords. Indeed, in the same interview linked above, the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative founder posits that urban farming of this sort is often viewed by developers as a transition state for land. Land is vacant or derelict -> communities begin growing food to improve their local area -> the area becomes attractive, and profiteers move in.

farm18n-3-web(Source: NY Daily News)

In contrast, hydroponics, rooftop farms, vertical farming, Zfarming – all the stuff of the narratives of ‘resilience’, tech-driven, urban sustainability (not that any of them are inherently bad ideas) tend to be more situated in capitalist narratives, entrepreneurship, racism and gentrification.

It’s something to think about when urban farming is discussed, and a reason to side with communities against the landlords and developers pushing gentrification. Nothing exists in an apolitical void in cities, and no matter who is using urban land and for what purpose, you can be sure that somewhere there is somebody wondering how to make personal profit at the end of the day, often at the expense of the people who live there.

The question, at the end of the day, must be: who is urban farming for, and what is its purpose? Is it to deliver expensive fruit and vegetables to people who have never had to worry about their own food security? Or is it to try and ensure more sustainable, accessible and affordable healthy food for communities cut off geographically or financially from fruit and vegetables? Your answer to the question will determine who you side with when the inevitable conflict over urban land use arises. I would recommend considering the latter.

Published by

Miriam Dobson

PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield. Soil, urban food, allotments, ecosystem services.

2 thoughts on “Farming the city: who is it for?”

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