By Peggy O’Connor with photos by Jay Hurtgen



Outcomes like that are important in Detroit’s fight to succeed as the (unofficial) center of the urban agriculture movement in the country. An even more crucial outcome is developing a system that can successfully meet the community’s underlying needs. These include access to quality, healthy food grown locally, as well as educating the community in the sustainable urban farming and gardening skills necessary for successful food production.

This movement isn’t merely about creating boutique farms to keep local restaurants supplied with spinach and rolling in romaine. It’s a much bigger job and far more important than that. Then again, Detroit isn’t just a Farmer-Johnny-come-lately to the idea of feeding the community through successful urban agriculture programs.


Hazen S. Pingree, Detroit’s mayor from 1889-1897, saw an abundance of both vacant land and unemployed laborers during the city’s economic crisis of 1893 and decided to come up with a plan to put the two together (a tale that sounds eerily familiar to Detroiters of today). “In Pingree’s eyes, it seemed to be the perfect way to occupy idle lands and idle hands, all while saving taxpayers the cost of aiding the poor through direct charity,” writes the Community Gardens Team in the Smithsonian Gardens Community of Gardens publication.

Pingree’s plan wasn’t a popular one; he was the subject of ridicule in the newspapers of the era. Some people worried about infestations of potato bugs, others about whether the unemployed were up to the task of growing their own food, and still others saw it as a “free land scheme” that might make Pingree rich.

Yet Pingree pressed on and in the first year, the mayor was able to acquire 430 acres of land to temporarily use for cultivation. More than 3,000 families applied to the program but finances only allowed 945 to receive plots. Newspapers noted that people literally fought for the chance to plant potatoes as well as beans, squash, pumpkins, cabbage, cucumbers, corn and beets. The cash value of the food raised by the vacant lot farmers in 1894 was $14,000. The number of farmers and cash crops grew each year and by 1896, the cash value of produce grown by 1,701 participating families (or 46.8 percent of Detroiters on public relief at the time) was $30,998.

The potato patch effort faded away by 1901 when economic conditions improved, but Pingree’s idea was adopted by such cities as New York, Boston, Seattle, Denver, Buffalo and Minneapolis. And, some 70 years later, by Coleman A. Young, mayor of the city of Detroit.

Young, faced with his own problem of a growing inventory of vacant land coupled with the increasing needs of economically distressed Detroiters, created the Farm-A-Lot program in 1975, providing gardeners with seeds, tilling assistance, fertilizer and even canning equipment and instructions. The program grew quickly – some of the city’s older community gardens were born out of Farm-A-Lot – and lasted for nearly 25 years before succumbing to city budget cuts around the year 2000.

Yet as Dr. Kami Pothukuchi, director of SEED Wayne and associate professor, urban planning, notes in her 2015 research-based article, “Five Decades of Community Food Planning in Detroit: City and Grassroots, Growth and Equity,” Young’s Farm-A-Lot program was an important contributor to future food planning in Detroit and nationally.

“It should be credited with fostering the idea of urban agriculture as a formal city response to land vacancy stemming from neighborhood abandonment,” Pothukuchi writes. “Second, Farm-A-Lot offered a framework for later conceptualizing support for urban agriculture as a citywide project, in contrast to the more neighborhood-specific ways typical of the later generation of nonprofit organizations formed nationwide to support urban agriculture.”


Fast forward to 2015, where there is an estimated 40 square miles (25,000 acres) of vacant property – an area almost the size of the entire city of San Francisco. Today, Detroit is home to more than 1,000 community gardens where food is grown by volunteers and is often given away free of charge. Additionally, more than 20,000 residents cultivate a garden or a farm on their own property and/or on vacant lots. According to Forbes magazine, Detroit’s community gardens now produce 200 tons of fresh fruits and vegetables per year, residents who work those gardens eat 2.5 more servings per day of fruits or vegetables than their neighbors, and property values near the gardens are rising by up to 20 percent.

There are also larger commercial agriculture ventures planned or in the developmental stages such as RecoveryPark, a recently launched commercial farming effort that will lease and eventually buy and farm 40 acres of city-owned land near Eastern Market with profits to be used to support SHAR, a drug addiction recovery organization. RecoveryPark’s plan is to put recovering addicts and ex-offenders to work on the farm.

Detroit is grabbing headlines around the world for its progress in urban agriculture. John Gallagher’s June 1 Detroit Free Press article noted that “Detroit is known worldwide as a leader in the community gardening movement. Nonprofits such as Earthworks on the east side and D-Town Farms on the west side are among the best-run examples of urban agriculture in the nation,” Gallagher wrote.

Then there’s Wayne State, which has played a major role in the urban agriculture movement since the founding of SEED Wayne in 2008. SEED Wayne is “dedicated to collaboratively building sustainable food systems on the campus of Wayne State University and in Detroit neighborhoods. SEED Wayne works in partnership with community-based organizations to promote access to healthy foods, urban agriculture, farm-to-institution, healthy eating, and food planning and policy development. SEED Wayne integrates core university functions in teaching, research, engagement and operations.”

SEED Wayne projects include three campus gardens; the 22-week Wayne State University Farmers Market; a 4,000 square foot passive solar greenhouse at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen for year round production of vegetables for the soup kitchen, and the Healthy Eats community nutrition project.


As SEED Wayne’s founder, Pothukuchi has a unique perspective on urban agriculture – and more importantly – on food planning in Detroit.

She came to WSU in 1998 because she wanted to explore that issue further at Wayne State in its urban setting. When Pothukuchi founded SEED Wayne, it marked Wayne State’s biggest systematic involvement in the community food system at the time. “We were responding to the Ford Motor Company Fund's Campus-Community Challenge Grant, which had these requirements: it had to meet an urgent community need, it needed to have community partners, it had to be sustainable and student involvement was a must. I knew it was easy to meet them,” she says.

“To my knowledge, the WSU Farmers Market is the first of its kind offered by a university-based program. To top that off, we made it possible for people to shop for our produce using food stamps, through a partnership with Eastern Market,” Pothukuchi says.

Another substantive Wayne State effort to support urban agriculture is that led by researchers from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Larry Lemke, associate professor of geology and co-principal investigator with Yifan Zhang, assistant professor of nutrition and food science, recently launched a study to determine the prevalence of contaminants in urban agriculture soil in Detroit, establish linkages among the contaminants and identify the agricultural risk factors for the contamination.

They were recently awarded more than $293,000 from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the project, "An integrated approach to ensuring food safety and sustainability in urban agriculture in the greater Detroit area." Their goal is to provide urgently needed information on physical, chemical and biological contamination in urban agricultural environments.

“Metals have long been a safety issue in urban farming,” Zhang says. “We wanted to see if chemicals, pesticides and bacterial contaminants were also in the soil – and perhaps the garden produce – as well.”

Because urban farms in Detroit, like other postindustrial cities, are planted on land that previously held factories and homes, Detroit’s farmers know that they must test their soil for metals and pollutants before planting and many do (although it can be an expensive process and often only identifies lead in the soil). The Wayne State study is unique because it employs more detailed testing and analysis. “Soil sampling has traditionally been limited to small areas on each piece of land,” Lemke explains. “We know that heavy metals are present in urban soils and that their distribution is typically not uniform across the areas sampled. In this study, we sampled soil from many more spots within each farm,” he adds.

The research group has already found some toxins on farms they tested this summer and also found many variations in the soil they tested in each location. Zhang says she thinks the sampling methodology will make available more data about different types of toxins such as chemicals and bacteria.

“Not many urban agriculture studies have been done on identifying chemicals and bacteria – it is important data to have,” she explains, “especially in terms of ensuring food safety."

Lemke believes this work is on the cutting edge and findings may challenge the Environmental Protection Agency’s current soil sampling guidelines for residential sites, which recommend as few as two composite samples taken. The work done in the study may lead to a faster, less expensive and more effective way to sample city soil for farming. “We may be able to then provide tha methodology to local farms through outreach,” Lemke says.

“This is unprecedented work and Wayne State can use its unique perspective and location to play a major role in helping the city establish safe and successful urban farming techniques and food production.”


Food is what the urban agriculture movement is about: feeding the people; better yet, helping people feed themselves with healthy, fresh food. More than 40 percent of Detroit residents use food stamps but many lack consistent access to healthy food choices. Shopping sources are extremely limited and often, party stores can’t or won’t carry produce because of its cost. There’s a definite disconnect in the food system – one that has lasted for decades.

With that in mind, SEED Wayne applied for and received a planning grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to develop and pilot a new Community Food Studies Certificate Program. The program will enable student and community leaders to gain systematic knowledge about the Detroit area's food system as well as the skills to strengthen it.

“Kellogg had identified the potential for jobs in food sales and entrepreneurship in Detroit (via the urban agriculture movement) but at the same time, identified a lack of a prepared work force to meet the need in the city. What is great for Wayne State is that Kellogg identified a need and saw that this program that we are developing will build on existing campus and community partnerships that exist through SEED Wayne,” Pothukuchi says.

“At present, there is no organic type of connection that would link students to jobs in the community food system. This grant helps us integrate our academic and engagement activities in a coherent package…that will be of benefit to both students and the community.” The popularity of urban farming and Detroit being a “hot-bed of food system activities,” as Pothukuchi puts it, is the cause of some concern, however.

There are many questions about land access for urban agriculture. There are community groups and individuals and others all chasing after the same funding from foundations and corporations, she adds. “There needs to be some entity that pulls it all together,” she says. The Detroit Food Policy Council has been designated by the city to do this, but they need an increased capacity to handle such a task, she explains.

Wayne State is in an excellent position to help. “We have academic programs related to urban planning, soil science, business, policy studies, public health, law, and nutrition and food science,” Pothukuchi adds. “There is such a great opportunity to start linking these assets and going after the big dollar grants. And the university’s strategic plan calls for us to collaborate more and be a greater resource for our urban community."

“The work in Detroit is showing a new model of urban agriculture,” Pothukuchi says. “It offers a vision for a more sustainable and just food system.”


Working to help increase this capacity in Detroit is how attorney Nick Leonard spends much of his time. He’s an Equal Justice Works Law Fellow at the Great Lakes Law Center. He became interested in urban farming as a teenager when he realized the vacant lots that existed when he was younger were still there when he entered college. He, like so many others, felt that the land should be used to help feed people.

“Urban farming is a public health benefit, especially in Detroit where many people suffer from diabetes and heart disease related to diet. They don’t have access to good food or the money to buy it – something like 42 percent of Detroiters live closer to a liquor store or fast food place than to a full service grocer,” Leonard says.

“Farming increases likelihood that they can access and eat fresh fruits and veggies. There’s an economic benefit – turning vacant lots into productive spaces and increasing property values. There are environmental benefits like improving filtration of land and reducing runoff and flooding,” he adds. “There’s also the benefit of creating and empowering social spaces for communities – turning bad spaces into good spaces.”

Doing that in Detroit is an extra challenge, Leonard says, because most organizations don’t have a secure interest in the land they are operating on. “It’s a tough go getting land from the city and much of that has to do with the city trying to figure out how to manage all this land they have. What’s the master plan for the city? Who will manage it?” Leonard asks.

The challenge of land acquisition is the biggest obstacle to urban agriculture in Detroit, he says. “There needs to be a solid, comprehensive land use plan from city of Detroit that lays out where and how urban agriculture will happen as a land use.”

“It’s essential to establish an effective plan for putting more land into farmers’ hands,” Leonard adds. “Detroit is far ahead in terms of actual farming and use of available spaces, but struggles because the issue of managing land use is very underdeveloped on the city policy level. There’s no land use policy. No financial incentives. No support in terms of irrigation in the city. These are things that other cities – like Cleveland – have developed much better than Detroit.”

It will happen, says Leonard, who spends a great deal of time submitting and tracking land use applications for local farmers and families – a process that often moves glacially through city offices. “It’s a matter of getting on the agenda, getting in front of the appropriate actors in the city. And of urban farmers to figure out what they want to ask for.”


Sooner or later, city governments will fully embrace the idea of urban agriculture as the best way to feed the community and create sustainable spaces. The Greening of Detroit’s Rushdan says it’ll likely be sooner.

“We need to localize our food systems in terms of environmental reasons, our precious natural resources can no longer go solely into commercial agriculture,” she explains. “I went back to Wayne to pursue a degree in environmental studies 5-6 years ago…even then the professors were telling us ‘hey we are at peak oil consumption’ on our planet. And there’s climate change, as well.

“We know we have to begin again to return to growing our own food. We took a quick break from doing that 50 years or so ago, but we really have no other choice,” Rushdan says.

The Greening of Detroit continues to support community gardens, she adds, but “we’re now really opening up programming with family gardens, aiming more resources at family gardens. Making sure they have established places to grow their own food,” Rushdan explains.

“For people who want to grow for market, Greening has apprenticeship programs where we invite community members and local leadership who live in Detroit, target that audience, and invite folks to spend a year or two with our farmers to get into the nitty-gritty in terms of how we manage agriculture production space on our farms.”

As they were seven decades ago planting potatoes in Pingree’s potato patches, hungry families will be key to Detroit developing sustainable farms and improving the food security in Detroit.

“It won’t be easy; at the end of the day, there are some skills that do not transfer easily. So that’s where we are aiming our work — our programming is really shifting to really focus on the family,” Rushdan says. “Families are essential to the success of urban farming – they will make it happen.”