Urban Agriculture: Detroit

By: Lydia Whitbeck

Urban agriculture is the practice of cultivating, processing, and distributing food in or around a town or city. It can be used to meet a community’s need for jobs, a use for vacant lots, educational opportunities, or access to fresh produce. The current local food movement stemmed from shifting farm policy in the 1970s when Nixon promised to cut food prices. He made good on his promise by cutting the farmers’ federal dollars. This led to big business farms purchasing smaller farms which turned into mega farms that mass produced commodity items such as soy and corn. The large influx of corn and soy into the economy led to America’s diet shift from a variety of vegetables to a market of processed soy and corn goods. The shift of America’s grocery stores created food deserts: areas where fresh produce was not readily available to the community members at a reasonable price. These deserts became common in inner city areas where child obesity rates were skyrocketing and family diets were dependent on what the local convenience store had in stock. The realization of this growing issue led to the idea to have these communities grow their own food and urban agriculture was born as we know it today.

Despite these recent realizations, urban agriculture has been utilized many a time in history, especially in Detroit to bring the city out of economic depressions and stressful times. Urban agriculture began in the 1700s when Detroit was a French outpost. The settlers at this time utilized ribbon farming along the Detroit River to allow residents to farm and grow food for their families and communities. Later, in 1893, an economic depression struck the United States. To combat the increasing unemployment rate in Detroit, the mayor started Pingree’s Potato Patches: a movement that turned vacant lots into gardens,

Pingree’s Potato patches in Detroit during the 1893 economic depression.

providing both jobs and food. A similar program was created in 1931 during the Great Depression called Thrift Gardens which was a top-down approached project by the government. Similar initiatives were created during World War I, the Great Migration, and today’s local food movement.


Currently, there are 70,000 unemployed individuals in Detroit. Of those 70,000, 30,000 could pass the GED exam. This means there are 40,000 people that need jobs. This is where urban agriculture comes in by providing jobs. Not only will it provide work, but it also creates community centers, educational opportunities for kids and adults, and a fresh supply of produce to eat and sell. Urban farms have the potential to level the playing field between socioeconomic groups in an area. Wealthy neighborhoods also do not have immediate access to healthy foods, but they have the transportation to easily gain access. These neighborhoods have access to community and education centers that inner city neighborhoods often lack. Urban agriculture can create these spaces for a community, therefore leveling out some of the disparities. Community gardens have the potential to transform an otherwise unused vacant area to a beneficial space for the community that lives there.

Today there are more than 1,300 community gardens within city limits. Non-profits such as Keep Growing Detroit, Greening Detroit, and The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative are working to create more green space and to create a food sovereign city. They work to meet these goals by providing farming education opportunities throughout the city, repurposing vacant land, increasing bike paths, working to foster communities and developing a strategy to meet the food needs of the city.

To learn more about urban agriculture in Detroit today, check out any of the links listed below. There are many opportunities to volunteer and donate to the urban farming movement in Detroit. There are also events throughout Detroit that offer urban farm tours via bike and bus every couple of months. Check out our events page for the next urban farm tour event!