Turn a quarter of Detroit into "semi-rural" farms?

The city of Detroit is proposing to give over a quarter of its land to be turned into "semi-rural" fields and farms, with the surviving neighborhoods standing in "pockets in expanses of green." The proposal is politically charged (serving a death-sentence on a whole neighborhood is bound to be controversial) but the idea of "downsizing" Detroit seems to have wide acceptance.

And yes, this entire thing was predicted by David Byrne in 1988 in the song "(Nothing But) Flowers" on the final Talking Heads album Naked.

Operating on a scale never before attempted in this country, the city would demolish houses in some of the most desolate sections of Detroit and move residents into stronger neighborhoods. Roughly a quarter of the 139-square-mile city could go from urban to semi-rural.

Near downtown, fruit trees and vegetable farms would replace neighborhoods that are an eerie landscape of empty buildings and vacant lots. Suburban commuters heading into the city center might pass through what looks like the countryside to get there. Surviving neighborhoods in the birthplace of the auto industry would become pockets in expanses of green.

Detroit looks at downsizing to save city (Thanks, Rigel!)

(Image: Garden grows, a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike image from Payton Chung's photostream)


  1. What about all the contamination? It will take many years and millions of dollars to clean everything up before it can be used as farm land.

  2. Didn’t you just post an article berating people for storing seeds for the likely or not econopocalypse and now you’re in support of this fine plan to turn an urban area back to the soil after what should be done everywhere has been done there: stopping growth. We don’t have to wait for oil to peak or nuclear war, we can stop now.

    1. Yes, you can stop growing now. And the next generation will be made up of people who chose not to stop growing. Selection’s a real ball-breaker that way.

      1. And the generation after that will be screwed. Unless a substantial number of them move off-planet.

  3. I wonder if a century of urban human habitation has left trace elements of heavy metals in the soil. Detroit was the home to some heavy manufacturing so there may be some residual ickyness (the technical term)

    1. I wonder if a century of urban human habitation has left trace elements of heavy metals in the soil

      Our local council started a green composting scheme in the 1980s. Unfortunately the compost produced had to be treated as industrial waste due to its heavy metal content.

      It will take many years and millions of dollars to clean everything up before it can be used as farm land

      Contaminated land remediation is now an established industry- urban planners are well used to having to deal with this. The easiest way is just to rip out contaminated topsoil and replace with good soil- the land can be used immediately afterwards if this is done properly.

  4. This is just too fascinating. I wouldn’t have expected any US city to go for something this radical (especially since its similar to what happened in Cuba, which would normally rule out support in the US on principal alone).

    But then I guess that Detroit has more to lose than almost anyone other city right now. Just goes to show what you can do _while_you_still_have_cheap_oil_available_. Let the economy cycle down through a few more crashes (sorry, “corrections”) and we may find that the energy isn’t even available to tear down all of these wasteland suburbs.

    There’s a very small chance that Detroit’s misfortune may turn out to be a lucky break …

  5. I don’t know the details, but this idea really appeals to me. I’d love to see desolate parts of my city turned into meadows. Unfortunately people tend to dump rubbish in those areas so they would need to be monitored and maintained by the city.

  6. It’s interesting that American history has been one of such explosive (literally) growth that the notion of cities evolving and yes, shrinking, is just now coming up.

    The idea of the “dying small town” has been a trope for nearly a century, but that was often in the loss of populations to the city. This is just another shift, and considering the alternatives, it’s a good one.

    It’s not failure to become a smaller city. Infinite growth and expansion relies on the false premise of infinite resources. Better to make the best use of the land, beautify the city, perhaps even feed some people.

    As for the contamination, I think that’s a really good point, but one that I’m sure any number of university chemists, botanists and biologist would just be chomping at the bit to investigate. Good use of human resources too.

  7. if the decline of Detroit needs to be managed fine but a top down scheme that uses eminent domain to force people out of their homes and costs millions that Detroit doesn’t have just sounds disastrous…

  8. I live in an “reclaimed industrial area” and yes indeedy – three years were spent shifting 6 feet of soil… somewhere, and replacing it with “clean” topsoil (alarming, while i lived next door).

    It’s a task, but if the tracts of l;and are enough it’s not that delicate a process – rip and tear. Done well, there may even be some recyclable materials pulled from the wreckage.

  9. An excellent idea. There are in fact already some initiatives that are related to this. I watched a pretty interesting documentary on Dutch tv a while ago about an organization that setup a farm in the middle of the city where teenage mothers could work and learn about farming and sustainable living.

    Should still be available to watch online. (don’t know if this works outside of Holland). Some of the commentary is in dutch, but the interviews are all in English. Should be pretty watchable for non-Dutch speakers. Here’s a google translation of the documentary’s page


  10. I grew up in New York City and I spent a few months in Stuttgart Germany in the 1990’s. The thing that struck me most as about Stuttgart was that it was a largish city surrounded by smaller towns, not suburban sprawl, all tied together with trains and bike paths as well as roads. In between was farmland and woods. In parts of the urban areas there were vineyards in between city buildings. I found it very pleasant and charming. Detroit might be nice with some farms between the buildings.

  11. The rather obvious problem is that if you demolish half a city, you generate half a city of waste, which has to be disposed of. Remidiating the environment generates half a city’s worth of topsoil, and needs half a city’s worth of good soil to replace it.

    Obviously you can compress the half-city of waste into a smaller crap-mountain, but it’s going to be an enormously expensive project. Considering the article seems to claim that the reason to demolish stuff is to save money on police patrols and other amenity services, I don’t think it’s going to happen.

    1. They should take all that rubble and bad topsoil and turn it into a city wall. Then Detroit will officially be the best-prepared city for post-apocolyptic America.

  12. To be fair, this city is at this point over 50% vacant. I don’t want to oversimplify, but it’s kind of a matter of kicking people out of one house and moving them to another one as opposed to just kicking them out. In fact, the abandonment is so bad that if you kicked someone out of a house, you could probably move them into a better one. Now I know people get all attached to their houses, but I think this may be easier than it sounds.

  13. In terms of soil quality, I can only offer my own anecdotal evidence: I lived in Detroit (Woodbridge neighborhood) for just under 5 years and kept a garden for 3 of them. It was good soil that turned up fat tomatoes and great leafy greens. As for the presence of heavy metals and toxins, I have no idea. I didn’t feel my brain getting damaged…

  14. @Beanolini
    Contaminated land remediation is now an established industry- urban planners are well used to having to deal with this. The easiest way is just to rip out contaminated topsoil and replace with good soil- the land can be used immediately afterwards if this is done properly.

    I agree that people are used to dealing with it, but at this scale it seems prohibitively expensive. Especially when compared to just using land somewhere else for food production. There is _plenty_ of farm land in the state that could be used more intensively.

    I’m all for local foods and food security, but this seems like a slightly crazy way to do it. Of course, some remediation will be required anyway (if for no other reason than to contain all the lead paint dust in the demolished homes) but still…

    1. That CC-licensed image is not Detroit, but of City Farm Chicago near the currently-being-demolished Cabrini Green project section of Chicago.


      To the best of my knowledge, City Farm doesn’t farm existing soil because they can’t do it safely–it’s far too contaminated. In order to start one farm that yields safe, organic vegetables requires removing the existing topsoil and laying a non-leeching clay layer that is then topped with compost. The cost of this process is a huge limitation to the amount of farms they can start across the city’s many vacant lots.

      If Detroit does implement this, City Farm Chicago is sure to be a leading example. These “semi-rural” areas, though, will not come without some massive expenses.

  15. A lot of people don’t realize that Detroit is situated on the best farmland in Michigan, and that Michigan is some of the best farmland in the US. More varieties of produce are grown in Michigan than any other state except for California, and Detroit has a milder, warmer climate and better soil than the rest of the state. People are making unfounded assumptions about contamination of soil in the neighborhoods being demolished. There’s no reason to believe that there is such severe contamination as to require topsoil replacement on a large scale. They are talking about doing this with residential neighborhoods, not industrial sites.

    There are many, many neighborhoods in detroit that are completely empty except for drug houses and squatters. Few people would be inconvenienced by this plan, and in fact the only reason the city has demolished thousands and thousands of abandoned houses already is that they are broke. The only reason that this is a controversial or political issue in Detroit is because it is a failed city and the government is corrupt and dysfunctional, so no one trusts it.

  16. I run a community garden in a formerly vacant stretch of land in Washington, DC. We’ve had the soil tested and you wouldn’t believe the amount of heavy metals and arsenic found in there. Soil remediation is very expensive, takes a lot of time (unless you rip out the soil itself), and doesn’t always work. I think they could certainly create some pretty meadows, but I’d echo the sentiment that their soil cannot be safe for vegetables.

  17. I’d move to Detroit and start a farm on this land if they subsides me! I think having a farm that close to an urban center would be very profitable and fun.

  18. They’re touting reducing police patrols as an advantage of creating this green space, but I doubt that’s true. People will go wherever they think they are least likely to be observed to commit illegal acts, and if the cops stop patrolling green spaces, they’ll go there.

    If you try to move the sole person or family in neighborhoods so you can demolish it, the local news is going to be flooded with tearful interviews with the grandmother who spent the past 50 years in that house with her recently deceased husband, and the house is all she has left. Rightfully so, I might add. On top of that, a lot of Detroit residents feel like they’ve had a lot taken away from them already by both government and industry. Taking away individual’s homes and demolishing neighborhoods may well be the last straw for a lot of residents, unless there is significant buy-in from the residents, and unless it’s an idea that comes organically from the residents.

    There’s a lot more to Detroit history than the auto industry.

    1. Scuba SM – what illegal acts do you expect people will get up to on farmland? Grand Theft Tractor? Cattle Rustling? Interfering with a Legume?

  19. HEMP.

    Govt. grew alot of it there during WWII. We used to find it growing wild when I was there as a kid.


    Use vacant auto plants to manufacture hemp based products, provide jobs.


  20. As much a fan as I am of turning those vacant lots in Detroit into something useful and beautiful its not going to be an easy process. As earlier posters have stated, cleaning out the heavy metals and other contaminates in the soil is going to take some time and effort (granted soil reclamation could become a cottage industry here and we could become the leaders in pollution clean up).

    The biggest ripple I can see coming out of this move to farmitize Detroit, would be the farmers markets, namely Eastern Market (in detroit proper) but also Western Market (in Ferndale). 150+ farmers from all over Michigan, from parts of Ohio and Canada come to sell their goods at Eastern Market every saturday. Suddenly having several large farms able to undercut their prices (due to fewer shipping costs) forces them to go elsewhere, screwing them out of sales and possibly the best place to sell their goods. Before we go jumping in, we need to look at what these new farms would affect as well as what contaminates in the ground would effect what is grown on these new urban farms.

  21. Technical nitpicking issues such as the ones mentioned above put aside, I absolutely LOVE this idea. We should be doing more of this, nationwide. I’ve always fantasized about, if I was rich, being a “reverse developer.” I would buy up land that was being used for strip malls and McMansions, tear it all down, and plant a bunch of trees on it, or lease it out to farmers or gardeners.

  22. So first we sanction a massive eminent domain initiative, confiscating people’s homes, forcibly relocating them, no doubt destroying some historic architecture, and setting all kinds of horrible legal precedents. Then we spend ungodly amounts of money – from a state and city drowning in so much debt – to demolish and clear a quarter of a major city, and reclaim/replace all the soil for agricultural purposes. So that we can give the land to unspecified and hitherto nonexistent “semi-rural” farmers?

    Thus turning a failed, crime-ridden city into a failed, crime-ridden urban sprawl? And this will all be executed by the same incompetent and corrupt people who helped ruin the city in the first place.

    This idea does not make any sense at all. Assuming any sort of intervention is necessary, it’d be vastly less expensive to just rehab or rebuild the vacant buildings and arrange some sort of urban homesteading project.

  23. An easy solution to contaminated or uncertain topsoil is to build raised bed gardens with imported topsoil in safe containers (non-arsenic treated wood, etc). Another step is to use fungal remediation to rapidly break down hydrocarbon contamination. Heavy metals from old house paint is the worst issue, however fruit trees don’t take up much compared to ground crops.

  24. I spent a year working for an urban farm in Detroit, 2003-2004. Our main plot was right next to one of the original Model T factories. We tested our soil and it came up clean enough to eat the produce. That was 5 years ago, and at that time there was enough vacant land around that was covered with weeds and scrub trees that people could have grown a tremendous amount of food without even having to demolish any of the abandoned buildings around, let alone evict inhabited buildings.

    Oddly there was a Dutch documentary made about that farm while I was there. It compared urban agriculture in two post industrial cities: Detroit and St. Petersburg, Russia. Pretty interesting. Couldn’t find anything online except this clip. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TI1-4SdDSzg

  25. As mentioned above, there is hemp. There is also flax, which can be grown for making canvas. Fiber crops in general, whichever will grow in Detroit’s climate (hybrid poplar?) will 1. not be eaten and 2. help with the whole remediation issue.

  26. Neighborhoods don’t just die spontaneously or randomly; they die because of the people living in them. This is where I see a potential problem with the plan:

    …the city would demolish houses in some of the most desolate sections of Detroit and move residents into stronger neighborhoods.

    So the people who’ve screwed up their own neighborhoods will now be moved into the “stronger” neighborhoods? This seems to offer the potential for disaster, or at least some really wacky sitcoms.

    1. My understanding of Detroit is that mostly the neighbourhoods in question are screwed up, not because of the people who live in them, but because almost all the people who used to live in them have spent the past 40 years moving out of state to where they could get jobs.

      Even if you end up with one or two neighbourhoods with a high unemployment rate and vacancy rates under 5%, that might well be a big improvement over 20 neighbourhoods with the same unemployment rate and 95% stripped vacant houses, every one a disastrous fire waiting to happen, the few remaining residents far from any useful services, and without neighbours to notice their plight if they had a fall or a medical emergency…

    2. Nice, way to blame the victims. The majority of these people didn’t screw up their own neighborhoods. They were fucked by a failed economy and the greedy dinosaurs in charge of running it, with their unsustainable and bankrupt business models. People don’t choose to be poor and live in shitholes, it isn’t particularly cool or fun.

    3. Neighborhoods don’t just die spontaneously or randomly; they die because of the people living in them.

      Yes, in this case, they died because the people living in them left – they either decided to leave a decaying city or lost their jobs and couldn’t afford to stay. I don’t see what that has to do with the people still living there.

      You suggest that living in a desolate neighborhood is suggestive of some kind of personal failing. This would be laughable if it weren’t so close to a very serious social darwinist argument used to blame poor people for being poor.

  27. Regarding growing crops here, it’s going to be an issue. Perhaps the best crop to plant is some sort of bio-fuel crop that leaches heavy metals from the soil, then deal with the contamination in the processing of the crop for fuel.

  28. Before you talk about demolition take a look at Detroit on Google Earth. They’ve been demolishing areas of it for decades. There’s so much open land Detroit supports large populations of rabbits, grouse, pheasants, raccoons and even predators like coyotes. Growing crops here is not that challenging. Agriculture is among the top industries in MI, above auto manufacturing. SE MI has good soil and climate for a number of lucrative crops. I even grow cactus in my garden, with no more care than sticking it in the ground and walking away.
    Something’s gotta happen for Detroit, and I’m glad the land has value for something other than weeds. Although it is nice running into a pheasant now and then.

  29. While I can see the aesthetic and narrative appeal of “returning the city to nature”, on a practical level this is disgusting. The forces of free market industry built up a city over hundreds of years, organizing jobs and profits into a seemingly stable infrastructure. The city became a framework for culture, identity, family cohesion. A real place, like major cities in other parts of the world.

    And now when the winds of commerce change direction, suddenly it’s to be razed. Imagine this happening to Paris or St. Petersburg or London, or even Calcutta. Real cities have been through true catastrophes and come out strong, but all it takes here in America is a bit of trouble for capitalism, and what seemed like our real city turns cannibalistic.

    Our response to economic difficulty is to destroy the resources available to us. In a time when access to housing is especially needed. It reminds me of the perversity of a general shooting his own soldiers when they try to retreat. Something’s seriously wrong here.

    1. Dude, it’s already too late. Detroiters voted with their feet, reducing the city from over 2 million to 950,000 residents. It’s not a matter of someone deciding to tear it down, just finding good uses for the abandoned parts. There’s plenty left in Detroit that’s vital. It will just be a different place in a generation, and never what it once was.

  30. It seems to me that a lot of these problems can be removed by combining the solution with another problem.

    First problem, Detroit: Lots of abandoned lots, but the top soil is possibly too contaminated for most agriculture. Also, crime is a concern if police presence is diminished in the proposed new farm areas.

    Second problem: Overcrowded prisons.

    Solution: Raze the abandoned lots of Destroit and build Thunderdomes. These can be simple, pre-fab structures manufactured in China, keeping costs down.

    Then sit back and reap the savings all around.

    1. With all the unemployment in Detroit I can’t believe you’d advocate Chinese built Thunderdomes. That is exactly the thinking that got us into this situation.

  31. DragonFrog: Thanks for the clarification. The article wasn’t terribly clear on what happened to these neighborhoods.

    seyo: You say, “People don’t choose to be poor and live in shitholes, it isn’t particularly cool or fun.” But the article says:

    “I like the way things are right here,” said David Hardin, 60, whose bungalow is one of three occupied homes on a block with dozens of empty lots near what is commonly known as City Airport. He has lived there since 1976, when every home on the street was occupied, and said he enjoys the peace and quiet.

    zikzak: You disparage “social darwinism” but praise “free market industry.” These seem to be two applications of the same principle, unless I’m totally misunderstanding what you mean.

  32. It seems like a lot of people are missing the point here. I know urban farming is a trendy topic right now, but what’s really going on is that the city wants to shrink the boundaries of Detroit so they don’t have to cover such a huge area with services like police, snow removal, and 911. The city is broke as it is, and can barely afford to keep up with burned out streetlights, road repair, etc so they are trying to downsize. The project would be about redrawing the boundaries and then figuring out what to do with the stuff outside the boundaries. The areas they are referring to are almost empty as it is, just a few occupied houses on a street full of vacant lots and burned out shells. The idea that the resulting vacant land could be used for farming is just sort of tacked on to make it seem more appealing.

    As a former Detroiter I think this is probably inevitable and they should get on with it, although it’s true that Detroit has a long and sordid history of questionable eminent domain practices.

  33. Like RossInDetroit said, no need for consolidated demolition. There are already tens of thousands of abandoned, vacant or condemned homes that can be razed right now. So many that the city can’t keep up with them.

  34. I like this idea in theory, and I would love to see it put into practice. There are so many issues involved, primarily with eminent domain and environmental clean-up that will make it a long process. The bottom line is that the city is running out of money, so something cost efficient has to be done. There’s no way around that. Sometimes the most radical decisions can have the best turnout.

  35. ummm?
    …not predicted by David Byrne in 1988…
    …predicted by makers of the film RoboCop in 1987.

  36. It’s a great idea – much of the Lower East Side looks like a fricken war zone, and around 7 Mile and Van Dyke there are blocks and blocks which have only one or two occupied homes – but I just don’t see it happening. I see millions spent on consulting firms, millions more spent drawing up plans, and then, pffft – nothing.

    This city is incapable of demolishing hyper-dangerous buildings, and is also incapable of restoring and preserving good ones. We even neglect one of the biggest and best public parks in the country!

  37. While it is a shame to think of so many turn of the century houses getting bulldozed, Detroit needs it. With half of the city empty, and so many old homes already gone, Detroit needs to radically change to survive.

    I spent my summers in Detroit. I picked fresh peaches off of my grandmother’s trees in the heart of the city. Her house is one of the few on her block still standing. I could probably buy it for the price of a postage stamp. I will miss that house….but Detroit is dead.

    They can’t afford the services they are needing to provide, so it doesn’t matter if it is about reducing 9/11, police coverage, snow removal… if they can’t afford it, they are going to find a way to cut these services regardless. At least this offers a responsible way to do something with all that land.

    It is either that…or let them build Robocop.

  38. Detroit already tried that whole “relocate and revitalize” strategy in the 50s and 60s and then in the 80s. They just failed to actually successfully relocate any of the displaced residents and ended up just pushing the poverty of the inner city to its ever-expanding borders. And pretty much everyone in the world has heard about the aftermath of that brilliant plan.

  39. I read hundreds of posts on forums for off-the-gridders and urban farm enthusiasts and people looking to downsize. Why don’t they all move to Detroit and buy an acre of land each and live their dreams? Off course you’d have to focus on plants that aren’t for eating (as been mentioned above) and flowers. It’d also be perfect for large scale hydroponics (what’s up with the soil fixation here?). Livestock would be pretty good to. Horses and sheep, llama, alpaca etc.

    Or get one of those carbon negative self replicating gizmos, a tree! Yeah, a couple of hundred thousands of those and you have made a good sized dent in your carbon emissions. That’s how Russia halved theirs in twenty years time!

    I’d be on the first train to Detroit this instant if I could get a green card, a few acres of land and some nice neighbors. Here were I live even the cheapest one acre plots are hundreds of thousands of dollars. Detroit is a bargain waiting to happen.

  40. what should be done everywhere has been done there: stopping growth.

    This seems to be a gross mischaracterization of the situation. The people of Detroit did not all decide to reproduce less or stop consuming resources, they left the city and moved elsewhere. The lesson of Detroit is how to deal with a shrinking population, not how to make a population shrink.

  41. So who owns all this property that is going to be taken? Do they have plans for it? Why did they buy it in the first place?

    The farming plan sounds more like the central planners are at it again. They already have driven most of the people away from the city and now they’ve come up with come cockamamie scheme to be green and have farms.

    Whoever actually owns the property should decide what to do with it.

  42. It would be nice to have more options on places to murder people and dump bodies in Detroit…

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