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Building Farms In Cities

At the peak of its population, around 1960, Detroit was home to 1.8 million people. But that number has fallen to 713,777 today. So what do you do with all that abandoned land and property the fleeing populous left behind?

“Open space and farms” turns out to be the answer. In fact, locally grown food has become Detroit’s rallying cry for urban renewal. A recent story in the New York Times said “gardens are everywhere.” You can’t drive through the city without seeing them.

Organizations like the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and the Detroit Food Policy Council have made it their goal to eliminate inner-city food deserts and turn abandoned blocks, which were once home to dozens of occupied houses, into productive plots of land.

Jackie Victor is co-owner of the Avalon Bakery, an unofficial meeting place for the Detroit food movement. She told the Times, “Imagine a city, rebuilt block by block, with a gorgeous riverfront, world class museums and fantastic local food. Everyone who wants one has a quarter-acre garden, and every kid lives within bike distance of a farm.”

San Diego has not suffered the kind of population decline that’s seen in Detroit, nor has any other American city. But while Detroit is an extreme case, other places have seen similar trends. Minneapolis, my old hometown, had more than half a million people in the 1950s. Today, it has about 380,000.

Turning vacant lots to agriculture is not unknown in San Diego. I covered the appearance of Michelle Obama last year when she visited an urban garden in City Heights. It was a part of her anti-obesity campaign.

Farming in the city has its hurdles. I have chickens in my San Diego backyard because I have a lot that’s big enough to allow me to have them 50 feet from any house. A woman in North Park was not so fortunate. Neighbors complained that her chicken coup didn’t meet city code (which was true) and her chickens went into hiding… taking up illegal residence in another unnamed part of town.

But we can all wish Detroit luck. They are bringing something new to the vision of what a city is supposed to be. And what have they got to lose? ... aside from crumbling buildings and weed-covered lots.

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