Detroit, from factories to farmsitfr

29 October 2010, by Giulia Merlin, Federico Witula
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Until few years ago nobody could have thought that US car-industry capital could become what is now. Detroit was the American dream poster-city and one of the main pillars of US economy. Multinational giants as Chrysler, General Motors, Ford flourished in Detroit, giving jobs to thousands of people in the city’s metropolitan area. Most of the region’s economy was based on the productive chain of a mean of transportation that radically changed mass transport: cars.

The satellite view of Detroit clearly shows the traditional American urban pattern, made of single houses, private gardens, a network of streets and connections that help people’s movement – by car, of course - and a massive industrial areas. However, as time passes, you can notice more and more green spots in the urban landscape. This is not the result of urban policies aimed at containing land usage. Rather, the economic crisis that hit automobile industry caused a chain effect that forced many small and medium firms to stop their business, leaving thousands of people unemployed. Due to such a socio-economic catastrophe many were forced to leave Detroit and urban population dropped from 1,800,00o during 1950s industrial boom to 900,000 nowadays. An exodus of these proportions caused several serious consequences, as for instance the radicalization of racial segregation [1] and sharp increase of malnutrition. Residents left from the city center and entire blocks of Detroit became abandoned areas.

Despite this tragic situation, the local administration together with some active citizens decided to react in quite an original way: taking advantage of de-urbanization in favor of urban agriculture. In practice, this meant that most degraded buildings have been demolished, with the aim of gaining more surface for urban farming projects. Several cooperative organizations, independent from the local government, have already started to cultivate this areas [2] .

Few people started to work on urban vegetable gardens to provide access to food to the most disadvantaged categories of population – especially homeless people and unemployed residents – and to have quality food to eat. After a while, many others followed this example. Positive outcomes of urban farming are various: kids can have a firsthand experience of nature and agriculture, local food is accessible to residents with a very low environmental impact and the cooperatives created many new (green economy) jobs in areas with extremely high rates of unemployment.

Detroit is going through a very peculiar and open-ended time of transition. According to the press [3], a number of businessmen are considering to invest in large-scale urban agriculture project. When time comes, Detroit’s citizens will be the only ones to decide whether to accept the offer.

Giulia Merlin

Giulia Merlin

Master’s degree in Geografia e Processi Territoriali at the University of Bologna. Member of the Mapping the World team.

Federico Witula

He hold a MD in Geografia e Processi Territoriali at the Faculty of Letters and Philosophy of Bologna University. He participated in the workshop created within the Mapping the World project of the Bologna International Committee for the Cartography and the Analysis of Contemporary World in 2007/2008.


[1] For a cartographic representation of the racial divide in Detroit, see this map

[2] See also this video by Guardian

[3] Paul Harris, "Detroit gets growing", The Observer, 07/11/2010.

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Bologna International Committee for the Cartography and the Analyses of Contemporary World

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