Detroit: Adaptation to Climate Change Through Urban Farming
Updated: Sep 17
I am trying to say his neighborhood
is as tattered and feathered as anything else
but they won’t stop saying how lovely the ruins how ruined the lovely
children must be in that birdless city.
(Jamaal May, 2016)
In his poem, Jamaal May describes Detroit as a place containing a multitude of qualities (1) (2). It is reflected in Detroit as a place marked by industrial decline, poverty, segregation and lack of access to fresh, healthy food (3). These factors lead to an increased vulnerability of the residents to the impacts of climate change on food security, i.e., in the form of price shocks due to crop failures and increasing food prices due to decreased agricultural productivity (4) (5) (6). Yet, both urban decline and climate change also hold a potential for the development of transformational ideas and actions, as well as environmental and social justice movements that challenge norms and structures which increase vulnerabilities.
One such movement is the urban farming movement in Detroit. While first and foremost aimed at food justice and black empowerment rather than being formulated explicitly in terms of climate change adaptation, urban gardens and non-profit community farms can fulfil an important function in reducing vulnerability and building resilience in the context of climate change-related food insecurities (3).
Vulnerability in the context of climate change is defined as the likelihood of being negatively implicated by climate change related events or trends both regarding the physical exposure to these events, and economic, political and social contextual factors making certain (marginalized) groups or individuals more susceptible and less able to respond to climate change. Underlying differences in vulnerability are factors such as inequalities related to i.e., race and class, and access to infrastructure and public services (4) (6) (7).
Whereas adaptation can be broadly defined as response strategies to new (climate) conditions, critical adaptation perspectives recognize the social context in which climate change and adaptation take place and seek to address root causes such as existing inequalities (6). Vital to adaptation, and avoiding maladaptation, is a focus on justice and equality as well as the combination of technical solutions with socio-cultural, political and economic measures (7) (8) (9). To increase acceptance of, and better include aspects of justice and equality in adaptation measures, community involvement is fundamental (10). Through community-based projects, adaptation strategies can be adjusted to local contexts and make decision-making more inclusive and democratic (11).
Resilience, too, may reduce the risk of maladaptation by highlighting means of increasing a system’s or community’s capacity to recover from negative climate impacts as well as by reducing risks through incorporating mitigation in adaptation strategies (6). Resilience can be strengthened by tailoring adaptation to the multidimensional factors which increase risk and vulnerability, and by creating systems whose functions overlap, so that the adaptation strategy or system remains in place even if an individual part of it fails (12).
Neoliberal environmentalism, which relies on market mechanisms and thus often neglects issues of inequality, has become a mainstream approach (13). Climate justice and alter-globalist movements challenge these neoliberal strategies with the commons, or commoning – since the practice of the commons can be understood as the shared use and collective ownership of resources as an activity rather than a resource in itself – as one of their key concepts. As such, commoning describes a continuous process of negotiating access, use and responsibility of resources such as land. It is often a response to the dispossession of marginalized groups of these resources and involves establishing rules and protocols for the activities mentioned above (14) (15). The tragedy of the commons suggests that resources are best managed by the state or market mechanisms as the uncontrolled use of them by many individuals leads to overexploitation (16) Yet, this perspective omits both rules and regulations as part of commoning practices, and the existence of successful resource governance excluding state and market institutions (15).
Climate Change and Food Security
Global temperatures have already risen approximately 1°C above pre-industrial levels, and the more they increase the more intense and frequent weather extremes are likely to be, leading to increased costs and diminished predictability for most industries (5) (6). Food production, including the agricultural sector, is not only an important driver of climate change, but also one of the sectors most affected by it, i.e., due to the spread of new pests and diseases and decreased crop productivity and quality (4) (6) (17).
The impact of climate change on agriculture and thus food security is further amplified by the unsustainability of the current industrial agricultural model. It contributes to i.a. biodiversity loss, nutrient depletion in soils and desertification (18) (19) (20). It is mostly overproducing farms that benefit from subsidies as policies so far seek to increase productivity by strengthening agricultural practices that heavily rely on fertilizers, pesticides and commercial seeds of only a few crops. Yet, food insecurity is often not due to lack of food but to distribution inequalities which highlights the negative socio-economic and health-related impacts resulting from the neo-liberal food system and industrial agricultural practices (18) (21).
One of the effects is the risk of food networks breaking down and the likelihood of food prices increasing. Consequently, food insecurity increases in particular for poor populations and other marginalized groups in all countries, including the USA (6). In cities, climate-related risks may be amplified by lack of infrastructure and access to public services (4). Since climate change does not affect everyone equally, issues such as equality and justice are decisive factors to consider.
Food Deserts in Context
Regarding the prospect of increased food prices and insecurities, people living in food deserts experience increased vulnerability. The term food desert is used to describe urban areas, often black neighborhoods, in which people lack access to healthy food. Detroit is one of the better-known examples of such a food desert resulting from grocery food chains pulling out of the city leaving its inhabitants mostly relying on processed foods from corner shops and petrol stations. This development took place in the context of the former center of the automobile industry experiencing decline for several decades. The city is marked by ongoing infrastructural problems and a disempowered, largely indebted city government. The decline of industry and the ‘white flight’ of the 1980s led to Detroit being one of the most segregated US cities with 83% of the population being African American and 38% living under the poverty line (3) (18). The case of the food desert Detroit highlights the increased vulnerability of a through racism and poverty marginalized community.
Urban Farming and Detroit
It is in this context of a shrinking, racially segregated, poverty-stricken city, that urban farming developed in Detroit to create affordable healthy food alternatives (18). Urban farming, whether it is seen as a means to create a more resilient food system or as resistance to food insecurity, can increase the resilience of communities to climate change related events and trends in multiple ways. Not only does it have health benefits as healthy food becomes an affordable alternative to processed foods from corner shops, but it often also has a positive impact on the environment itself. Through the use of urban farming for education, and knowledge and skill transfer as well as the inclusion of participative decision-making, communities' resilience can be further improved (3) (22).
Detroit is estimated to contain 350 to 1600 neighborhood, community, school and institutional gardens and farms ranging from 15m2 allotments shared by several families to up to seven-acre farms run commercially or by non-profit organizations (3) (12). Together they produce approximately 165 tons of food per year which is sold on farmers markets, in healthy corner shops or directly to restaurants, and soup kitchens. While neighborhood gardeners are often discussing socio-political issues such as food inequality, justice and environmentalism, and commercial farms can be linked to philanthropic projects.
Earthworks Urban Farm
One of these farms is the Capuchin Soup Kitchen’s Earthworks Urban Farm. It is Detroit’s only certified organic farm, although most other community farms grow organic fruits and vegetables, too, without being certified (3) (23). The farm covers 2.5 acres spread out over seven locations in the city where around 6000 volunteers and up to twelve interns grow 3175 kg of food a year (23) (24). Transplants are grown for the Garden Resource Program to which Detroit gardeners can sign up to receive resources such as seeds and transplants (25). Most of the farm’s produce is used for the Capuchin Soup Kitchen itself. Yet any additional fruits and vegetables are sold at a weekly market or taken home for free by volunteers on volunteer days.
Left: Earthworks Urban Farm, Detroit (Patek, 2014). Right: Earthworks Urban Farm, Detroit (A Healthier Michigan, 2009).
As an organic farm, Earthworks does not make use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Instead, their farming practices include the use of cover crops and row covers, water management, rotations and proper spacing, as well as compost which serves to improve soils (24). The latter includes the composting of approximately 136 077kg food waste which would have otherwise ended up in landfills (23). To ensure that their produce will not be contaminated by toxic residues from previous industrial productions, soils are tested before sowing and planting.
Besides farming, Earthworks offers workshops and other projects including a nine-months intensive training program, an educational partnership with a school aimed at teaching gardening skills, running a community bike shop, providing technical support for Detroit gardeners, mobile markets and discussion groups (23) (24). The Capuchin Soup Kitchen state on their website that the purpose of their farm and related projects is to ‘to build a just, beautiful food system through education, inspiration, and community development’ and ‘to restore our connection to the environment and community’. Their projects, described above, and collaborations – i.e., with Uprooting Racism Planting Justice, The Greening of Detroit, and Detroit Black Community Food Security – illustrates the multiple ways in which urban farming has a potential to decrease vulnerabilities and improve resilience in the face of climate change.
To prevent maladaptation by merely shifting environmental damage and socio-economic repercussions rather than solving these issues, it is essential to acknowledge the socio-political nature of and contexts that contribute to vulnerabilities and adaptation strategies (26). For effective adaptation it is necessary to address root causes of inequalities (6). While urban farming in Detroit is not primarily framed as climate change adaptation, it nonetheless increases the adaptive capacity of Detroit residents, and in particular marginalized communities, to climate change-related risks of food insecurity.
The motivation behind many projects, including Earthworks Urban Farm, is centered around food and racial justice and thus aimed at root causes (racial and socio-economic marginalization in a food desert) of heightened vulnerability (3). Climate change vulnerabilities in Detroit are marked by the residents’ exposure to food insecurity through an overall reliance on the industrial, commercial food system which is likely to experience severe climate change related impacts (17) (27). Detroit’s sensitivity to these effects as a food desert with high poverty levels further adds to vulnerability.
Lastly, the city’s initial adaptive capacity is limited by Detroit being a highly segregated shrinking city, its disempowered city government and 38% of the population living in poverty. Urban farming thus presents a community-based approach to adaptation that can reduce vulnerability in an inclusive way which incorporates local needs and knowledge in three ways: 1) by acting against food injustice and increasing food security; 2) by providing economic and education opportunities; 3) by tackling racial injustice.
Urban farming makes available healthy food which is sold for affordable prices or given away for free by non-profit farms like Earthworks. Most of Earthworks’ produce is used for the Capuchin Soup Kitchen thereby benefiting the poorest in society, and the farm provides support for urban gardeners enabling them to grow their own fruit and vegetables. Overall Detroit farmers and gardeners have the capacity to supply 76 and 42% of the city’s vegetable and fruit consumption respectively which would largely decrease their reliance on commercial industrial farming (23).
Combined with the availability of affordable fresh produce, the revitalization of capital through initiatives such as the D-Town shop can reduce residents’ vulnerability to potentially increasing food prices and food prices shocks with negative economic and health impacts (18). Education programs and skill sharing including gardening workshops and internships provide opportunities to strengthen community, empower community members and teach them the skills necessary for scaling up Detroit’s urban farming and gardening projects.
Connected to this potential of empowerment are issues of racial justice. Structural and institutional injustices and inequalities link these questions to issues of income and food justice making them the combined core of Detroit’s urban farming (3). In particular when community farms are combined with projects such as discussion groups and racial justice activism, they have an empowering potential and can contribute to transformations towards a more just and egalitarian, non-hierarchical society (8) (18). Detroit’s community farms thus take action against root causes that underlie present vulnerabilities.
Resilience building through i.e., skills and knowledge transfer, and participative decision-making processes, can further reduce the risk of maladaptation by increasing communities’ capacity to respond to and recover from climate change impacts (6) (22). Resilience ensures that if one part of the adaptation measures put in place fails, the strategy as a whole continues to function (12).
By challenging the unsustainability of the industrial agricultural model, Detroit’s urban farming creates a resilient alternative through its use of more sustainable farming practices (4) (6) (19). Most of Detroit’s urban farms and gardens are organic and use alternative farming practices which creates resilience through improving soils (17) (20). In that sense, alternative food systems and farming practices can not only improve the adaptive capacity of individual communities but contribute to a greater shift away from the current unsustainable food system (28). Beside these effects, urban farming has beneficial impacts on cities and their adaptive capacity such as improved air quality and green spaces allowing water from heavy rains to run off more easily (29).
Analyzing the use of the commons during the Middle Ages, Silvia Federici notes that the communal farming of fields provided a safety net for peasants in the case of harvest failures due to the variety present in the commons (30). This variety simultaneously allowed for more manageable work schedules, encouraged democratic processes and functioned as a social meeting place. The latter function can be seen to be echoed in Detroit’s Eastern Market, where food from urban farms is sold. It is also one of the city’s few public meeting spaces (31). Likewise, it can be argued that farms such as Earthworks who grow a wide variety of crops on multiple sites are more resilient to harvest failures. The community aspect which includes projects and collaborations aimed at education, skill sharing, discussion groups and support i.e., through making available transplants and seeds for other gardeners and farms contains a democratic potential and improves resilience by (re)producing knowledge and cooperation structures that make it possible to maintain and expand urban farming.
Legalization and the Commons
The concept of food sovereignty in connection to food security can be applied to urban farming and is frequently evoked by Detroit urban farmers (18). Food sovereignty refers to the right of people to healthy food that is produced with ecologically sustainable methods, as well as their right to influence the food and agricultural system based on their values and needs. It resembles processes of commoning in regard to people’s rights to use and management of land and other resources and the reshaping of social relations to challenge oppressive structures and inequalities. Framing food security in terms of food sovereignty further reflects the struggle over land and resource management that is part of commoning.
As the state – or municipal and city governments – tend to seek to assert their dominance over communities, communities’ sovereignty is usually limited if not merely symbolic which implies that urban farming in Detroit, particularly in light of its legalization in 2012, incorporates a struggle over land management rights (3) (18). Central to this struggle is the question of who is best left in charge over resources to guarantee their socially and environmentally sustainable use. While some argue that either state involvement or privatization is necessary to protect resources such as land from depletion by the masses, others argue that privatization, commercialization and state involvement for the ‘public good’ are neither necessary nor beneficial (16) (18). Rather than protecting the environment and increasing efficiency, privatization and commercialization merely lead to increased socio-economic inequalities (30).
Legalization of urban farming protects farms and gardens from destruction and introduces beneficial regulations such as the mandatory testing of soils for contamination in Detroit. Yet, it does not necessarily solve questions related to land management (3). Developing in a context of urban decline, social inequalities, food injustice and a disempowered city government, Detroit’s urban farming movement can be argued to have ensured the provision of services and infrastructures which ‘the state’, or rather the city, failed to provide. The process of urban farmers and gardeners squatting on land to grow food, and thereby challenging unjust structures, can be described as a process of commoning which is still ongoing as access to and use of farming land is still contested and continuously negotiated (14). And while municipalities increasingly accept and welcome urban farming initiatives, and movements such as urban farming projects in Detroit may contribute to policy shifts and reforms, there remains a risk of backlash (11) (29).
While the legalization of urban farming in Detroit protects neighborhood gardens and community farms from destruction, it also presents an opportunity for commercial farms, in part also because farms are not limited in size, leading to a set of justice and equality-related concerns. Areas with a high amount of vacant land are at risk of being used for commercial projects that, unlike non- profit farms like Earthworks, do not seek to operate based on principles of ecological sustainability and racial and socio-economic justice. This risk is further amplified, as the city does not have the authority to regulate the use of chemicals and GMO beyond the recommendations of the State Environmental Protection Agency. An example of these issues is the case of the city of Detroit selling land to Hantz, a business financial services conglomerate, for a large-scale commercial farming venture partnering with high-end restaurants in the city. The project was justified with the creation of jobs in the food industry but criticized by non-profit urban farmers on the basis that intensive farming neither creates many jobs nor benefits communities and is more likely to use chemical fertilizers and pesticides (3).
Hantz’s project does not only exemplify sustainability and justice issues regarding commercial farming once a project has been launched but also points towards inequalities in how land for urban farming is distributed. Although legalized, many farmers and gardeners still grow food on squatted city land as getting access to authorized land use for urban farming and gardening is a slow process. Meanwhile, Hantz was able to avoid long waiting lists by directly communicating with city officials in order to acquire the necessary land and permission for his business (3). The described case is representative of a context of contested space and structural inequalities in which individual small projects are at risk of being cast aside and repressed in favor of larger, more profitable projects with greater access to legal and financial resources (18).
To pose a challenge to the development of a commercialization of urban farming, alliance building within communities and networking beyond may be essential. However, Detroit’s urban farming projects are often inefficient due to its dependence on volunteers, and a lack of coordination and cooperation between initiatives (12). A reliance on volunteers, as well as a lack of access to land, can limit urban farming's potential (22). While a Michigan State University study suggests that a large part of Detroit’s fruit and vegetable consumption could be covered by urban farming, coordination with the city and region, as well as links to the dominant food network would still need to be considered to cover the remaining needs (23) (31).
Beyond these logistic concerns, networking and coalition building may be necessary for the urban farming movement to persist (11) (18). There are two purposes these forms of cooperation may serve. Firstly, urban farmers and gardeners may seek to gain support from local or national authorities based on an agreement of shared norms such as urban and economic development or health issues (18). Secondly, coordination and partnerships among initiatives, projects and organizations have the potential to increase their ability to challenge dominant food networks and farming practices, and to withstand possible resistance from the state (11) (28).
Imagining the Future of Detroit’s Urban Farms and Gardens
So, what can possible solutions to these problems be? What does a possible future look like? As discussed above, the legalization of urban farming in Detroit has made those projects more realizable not only for neighborhood gardeners and non-profit farmers, but also for commercial ventures. We can imagine an increasing commercialization of urban farming threatening to push out non-profit farms and thereby reversing a process of commoning linked to aims of creating a sustainable and socio- economically and racially just alternative food network. We can imagine that this development leads to resistance from non-profit urban gardeners and farmers. Their resistance takes shape in the form of protests and appeals to the city to support non-profit initiatives as they, in contrast to commercial farms, are less likely to use unsustainable industrial farming practices leading to sustainable and socially equitable development in addition to maxing out the declining city’s potential. All over the city, vacant lots are occupied. People roam the streets armed with shovels and seedlings until the city government gives in.
At the moment, Detroit does not have a size limit for urban farms, unlike cities such as Chicago where farms can be limited to three acres (3). Introducing such a size limit in Detroit may make the city less attractive for large-scale industrial farming and thereby leave more opportunities and space for smaller non-profit farms. The bureaucratic complications of obtaining access to land for urban farming may be alleviated by reserving waiting lists for permissions to community farms and creating designated areas for urban gardening. Simultaneously, such an arrangement resolves the concern that the users of gardening patches might change too often leading to the space being dug up on a frequent basis (29).
While it can be assumed that non-profit community farms plan for their projects to last a long time, the irregularity of land use by individual gardeners can be dealt with by adopting methods such as online sign-up platforms as is the case in Seattle (29). There, residents can sign up online for a plot which is leased through a non- profit land trust. Based on the available land and population size of the respective neighborhoods, two solutions are imaginable.
Firstly, plot size is determined based on the number of households. Using an online platform as described above, each household which wishes to garden can sign up for a plot in their neighborhood. The former urban garden Vintergatan in Malmö, Sweden where I used to have access to a plot makes use of such a method. Due to the smaller scale of the project, the number of plots did not need to be calculated based on the number of gardeners and an elaborate online tool was not necessary for the distribution. However, Vintergatan illustrates how a surplus of plots can be dealt with as it is likely that not all households in Detroit might want to take up gardening. At Vintergatan, each gardener had the right to one plot to begin with, however, all unused plots were distributed at a later point on a first-come-first-serve basis. The same can be applied to urban gardens in Detroit, either adopting the first-come-first-serve principle, or giving priority to large households due to their greater food consumption. Using this method, it may be desirable to limit the length of availability to one year to avoid plots becoming unused but providing the option of being assigned the same plot at the following sign up.
Secondly, an alternative and arguably a more flexible method is to provide shared patches to several households. Thereby, agreements can be made among neighbors leaving greater parts of the assigned patch to households with a higher food consumption. This method allows for the introduction of rotation patterns for the use of the specific section of the patch avoiding the same crops being planted in the same spot each year and thereby protecting soils.
Depending on arrangements made with the landowners it may not be possible to make gardening plots available for free. This does not mean that principles of equitability and socio-economic justice need to be thrown overboard. Solidarity prices are without doubt more complicated to implement than charging everyone the same and are not void of conflict potential. Yet, to ensure that socio-economic circumstances are taken into consideration and to prevent gentrification, garden rents can be based on income with low-income households paying less than households with a bigger income. These mechanisms can be complemented with initiatives such as the possibility to borrow gardening tools from community farms.
As a former industrial capital, certain areas in Detroit are marked by contaminated soils making them unsuitable for food production. Mandatory soil testing for site approval already is a mechanism which has been established to deal with the issue, and community farms such as Earthworks highlight the importance of these procedures and provide advice to Detroit gardeners where to get their gardens’ soil tested (3) (24). However, where soil testing may not be possible or where soils are contaminated, solutions exist. Vertical farming structures and raised beds, which has proved a successful method in Cuba, are an option to protect crops, and ultimately the consumers’ health, from contamination (31).
Cooperation, albeit sporadic, already exists and provides an opportunity for skill and resource sharing, empowerment and democratization especially if cooperation is expanded. Discussion groups strengthen community engagement. Farmers’ markets and mobile markets are not only places where produce is sold but can also provide opportunities for gardeners who may not have a permission to sell their produce, to swap surplus food, transplants and seeds. This may lead to a greater diversity of grown crops and serves to avoid food waste.
In regard to food waste, solutions already exist. While the Capuchin Soup Kitchen created their urban farm to produce food for their soup kitchen, partnerships aimed at using surplus produce by giving it away through food banks or as meals in food kitchens are yet another way of decreasing food waste while at the same time increasing food security (24). Likewise, Earthworks’ project of composting food waste can be expanded so that the city’s food waste is composted on multiple urban farms with composting capacities (23). The resulting soil improvement, as well as the overlap of various farms fulfilling the same function is a contributing factor to the creation of a resilient alternative food system (12).
To effectively challenge the current unjust and unsustainable food system, it is necessary to develop cooperation beyond the community level (12). Urban farming existing in other cities, i.e. Seattle and Chicago, holds the potential for alliance-building beyond city limits. The creation of a common seed bank can improve the resilience of urban farming projects through a greater diversity of available seeds and by establishing safety nets for crop failures. Establishing a common website with event calendars and an ‘online library’ can contribute to empowerment through knowledge and skill sharing, ultimately proving that cooperation is a more powerful force than competition (8).
Written by Merle Emrich.
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