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Any landscape is a condition of the spirit. --Henri Frederic Amiel

How Urban Agriculture is Transforming Detroit

--by Devita Davison, syndicated from ted.com, May 15, 2018

I'm from Detroit.

(Applause)

A city that in the 1950s was the world's industrial giant, with a population of 1.8 million people and 140 square miles of land and infrastructure, used to support this booming, Midwestern urban center.

And now today, just a half a century later, Detroit is the poster child for urban decay. Currently in Detroit, our population is under 700,000, of which 84 percent are African American, and due to decades of disinvestmentand capital flight from the city into the suburbs, there is a scarcity in Detroit. There is a scarcity of retail, more specifically, fresh food retail, resulting in a city where 70 percent of Detroiters are obese and overweight, and they struggle. They struggle to access nutritious food that they need, that they need to stay healthy, that they need to prevent premature illness and diet-related diseases. Far too many Detroiters live closer to a fast food restaurant or to a convenience store, or to a gas station where they have to shop for food than they do a full-service supermarket. And this is not good news about the city of Detroit, but this is the news and the storythat Detroiters intend to change. No, I'm going to take that back. This is the story that Detroiters are changing, through urban agriculture and food entrepreneurship.

Here's the thing: because of Detroit's recent history, it now finds itself with some very unique assets, open land being one of them. Experts say that the entire cities of Boston, San Francisco, and the borough of Manhattan will fit in the land area of the city of Detroit. They further go on to say that 40 square miles of the city is vacant. That's a quarter to a third of the city, and with that level of emptiness, it creates a landscape unlike any other big city. So Detroit has this -- open land, fertile soil, proximity to water, willing labor and a desperate demand for healthy, fresh food. All of this has created a people-powered grassroots movement of people in Detroit who are transforming this city from what was the capital of American industry into an agrarian paradise.

(Applause)

You know, I think, out of all the cities in the world, Detroit, Michigan, is best positioned to serve as the world's urban exemplar of food security and sustainable development. In Detroit, we have over 1,500, yes, 1,500gardens and farms located all across the city today. And these aren't plots of land where we're just growing tomatoes and carrots either. You understand, urban agriculture in Detroit is all about community, because we grow together. So these spaces are spaces of conviviality. These spaces are places where we're building social cohesion as well as providing healthy, fresh food to our friends, our families and our neighbors.

Come walk with me. I want to take you through a few Detroit neighborhoods, and I want you to see what it looks like when you empower local leadership, and when you support grassroots movements of folks who are moving the needle in low-income communities and people of color.

Our first stop, Oakland Avenue Farms. Oakland Avenue Farms is located in Detroit's North End neighborhood. Oakland Avenue Farms is transforming into a five-acre landscape combining art, architecture, sustainable ecologies and new market practices. In the truest sense of the word, this is what agriculture looks like in the city of Detroit. I've had the opportunity to work with Oakland Avenue Farms in hosting Detroit-grown and made farm-to-table dinners. These are dinners where we bring folks onto the farm, we give them plenty of time and opportunity to meet and greet and talk to the grower, and then they're taken on a farm tour. And then afterwards, they're treated to a farm-to-table meal prepared by a chef who showcases all the produce on the farm right at the peak of its freshness. We do that. We bring people onto the farm, we have folks sitting around a table, because we want to change people's relationship to food. We want them to know exactly where their food comes from that is grown on that farm that's on the plate.

My second stop, I'm going to take you on the west side of Detroit, to the Brightmoor neighborhood. Now, Brightmoor is a lower-income community in Detroit. There's about 13,000 residents in Brightmoor. They decided to take a block-by-block-by-block strategy. So within the neighborhood of Brightmoor, you'll find a 21-block microneighborhood called Brightmoor Farmway. Now, what was a notorious, unsafe, underserved community has transformed into a welcoming, beautiful, safe farmway, lush with parks and gardens and farms and greenhouses. This tight-knit community also came together recently, and they purchased an abandoned building, an abandoned building that was in disrepair and in foreclosure. And with the help of friends and families and volunteers, they were able to take down the bulletproof glass, they were able to clean up the grounds and they transformed that building into a community kitchen, into a cafe, into a storefront. Now the farmers and the food artisans who live in Brightmoor, they have a place where they can make and sell their product. And the people in the community have some place where they can buy healthy, fresh food.

Urban agriculture -- and this is my third example -- can be used as a way to lift up the business cooperative model. The 1,500 farms and gardens I told you about earlier? Keep Growing Detroit is a nonprofit organization that had a lot to do with those farms. They distributed last year 70,000 packets of seeds and a quarter of a million transplants, and as a result of that last year, 550,000 pounds of produce was grown in the city of Detroit.

(Applause)

But aside from all of that, they also manage and operate a cooperative. It's called Grown in Detroit. It consists of about 70 farmers, small farmers. They all grow, and they sell together. They grow fruits, they grow vegetables, they grow flowers, they grow herbs in healthy soil, free of chemicals, pesticides, fertilizers,genetically modified products -- healthy food. And when their product is sold all over the city of Detroit in local markets, they get a hundred percent of the proceeds from the sale.

In a city like Detroit, where far too many, far too many African Americans are dying as a result of diet-related diseases, restaurants, they have a huge role to play in increasing healthy food access in the city of Detroit,culturally appropriate restaurants. Enter Detroit Vegan Soul. Yes, we have a vegan soul food restaurant in the city of Detroit.

(Applause)

Yes, yes. Detroit Vegan Soul is providing Detroiters the opportunity to eat more plant-based meals and they've received an overwhelming response from Detroiters. Detroiters are hungry for culturally appropriate,fresh, delicious food. That's why we built a nonprofit organization called FoodLab Detroit, to help small neighborhood burgeoning food entrepreneurs start and scale healthy food businesses. FoodLab provides these entrepreneurs incubation, hands-on education, workshops, technical assistance, access to industry experts so that they can grow and scale. They're very small businesses, but last year, they had a combined revenue of over 7.5 million dollars, and they provided 252 jobs.

Listen.

(Applause)

These are just a few examples on how you expand opportunities so that everybody can participate and prosper, particularly those who come from neighborhoods that have been historically excluded from these types of opportunities.

I know, I know. My city is a long way from succeeding. We're still struggling, and I'm not going to stand here on this stage and tell you that all of Detroit's problems and all of Detroit's challenges are going to be solved through urban agriculture. I'm not going to do that, but I will tell you this: urban agriculture has Detroit thinking about its city now in a different way, a city that can be both urban and rural. And yes, I know, these stories are small, these stories are neighborhood-based stories, but these stories are powerful. They're powerful because I'm showing you how we're creating a new society left vacant in the places and the spaces that was disintegration from the old. They're powerful stories because they're stories about love, the love that Detroiters have for one another, the love that we have for our community, the love that we have for Mother Earth, but more importantly, these stories are stories on how devastation, despair, decay never ever get the last word in the city of Detroit. When hundreds of thousands of people left Detroit, and they left us for dead, those who stayed had hope. They held on to hope. They never gave up. They always kept fighting. And listen, I know, transforming a big city like Detroit to one that is prosperous, one that's functional, one that's healthy,one that's inclusive, one that provides opportunities for all, I know it's tough, I know it's challenging, I know it's hard. But I just believe that if we start strengthening the social fabric of our communities, and if we kickstart economic opportunities in our most vulnerable neighborhoods, it all starts with healthy, accessible,delicious, culturally appropriate food.

Thank you very much.




This talk originally appeared on TED. TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks. This talk was presented at an official TED conference. 


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