October 29, 2010

Detroit Reassembled?

Yesterday I was passing some time at a local shop, and ended up taking a look at Andrew Moore's new book, Detroit Disassembled, which beautifully surveys the incredible state of dilapidation that the city has fallen into since the decline of the American auto
industry after the Second World War. Most of us already know of Detroit's struggles, especially in the last five or ten years, but somehow these large-format, full-color photographs bring those realities a little closer to home.

Detroit comparison diagram by the University of Detroit

At 138 square miles, Detroit's area is larger than that of Manhattan, San Francisco, and Boston combined, relative to its much smaller population. One third of all land in Detroit is vacant, which itself is an area larger than any one of the three cities mentioned above. Entire sections of the city look like war zones - hundreds of buildings of all scales are abandoned and crumbling. The old assembly-lines are mostly shut down, and a once-great architectural majesty lays crumbling, reminiscent of an older era.

Every major city has its share of abandoned buildings - shuttered schools, hospitals, and the like - but there is something here in Detroit that is different from anywhere else in the country. Perhaps it's just the shear quantity of empty large-scale buildings and vacant land, but I think it's more than that. It's because Detroit and the region are themselves quite different from other major cities. The incredible tradition of American industry and production is unique to the area, as are the people, culture, and architecture that developed around it. The old factory buildings that housed the assembly lines were beautiful and mighty structures that spoke to efficiency and function and represented a promising future for the country.

Rouge, Detroit. From Andrew Moore's Detroit Disassembled
Manchester Plant, Highland Park. From Andrew Moore's Detroit Disassembled
Peacock Alley, Detroit. From Andrew Moore's Detroit Disassembled
Ballroom, Lee Plaza Hotel. From Andrew Moore's Detroit Disassembled
Cass Tech Courtyard, Detroit. From Andrew Moore's Detroit Disassembled

While Moore's Detroit Disassembled offers unique views of our dilapidated past, we see a unique opportunity to push towards a truly new future for Detroit. Most of the old industrial structures were built quite solidly, are well day lit, and offer large spaces that can easily adapt to many uses. There is a golden opportunity here for new sustainable industries, community centers, and public spaces, but better yet, a network of new spaces that together help to bring new hope to city residents for a better future.

Of course, re-use of industrial buildings is not a new idea, and there are already some great built examples, such as Sweetwater Organics in Milwaukee. There are also some great urban farms already operating in Detroit, such as Earthworks Urban Farm and Greening of Detroit, as well as some proposals for future Detroit farms. One such proposal is Hantz Farms, a plan for what would be the world's largest urban farm - 20,000 acres spread out over hundreds of pieces of land throughout Detroit that are currently abandoned. Sounds pretty good, right? 

Well, sort of... except that 20,000 acres is an absolutely massive amount of land at just over 31 square miles. In fact, the entire island of Manhattan is only 23 square miles. In 2007, the average size of all US farms was 420 acres, putting Hantz Farm way above the mean, and at the same time raising some red flags. Even if this number has been exaggerated, a proposed urban farm of, say, only 100 acres would be somewhat astonishing for its grand scope.

When 'Hantz Farm' is searched on google images, the first image in the results is a digital rendering depicting a future Detroit covered in farm land. Some sections of the image look like typical farmland, but most of it seems to use advanced agricultural technologies, including large-scale vertical tray systems, protective geodesic domes, and sophisticated energy-collection systems. As I looked at this image, no matter how I tried (and despite the impressive amount of the color green used), it just seemed rather bleak to me. Maybe it had to do with the blown-out, white background and the quality of the rendering, but it was more than just that. Look hard at all of the visible farmland and you might notice it is a landscape entirely of monoculture. You might also notice that there is very little bright color in the image, meaning there are no fruits or vegetables. These are cash crops.

Rendering of Kantz Farm (allegedly), by illustrator Bryan Christie

The second google image from the search results is a bucolic photograph of corn fields, typical of what you might expect to see on the front page of Monsanto's website, further allowing us to perceive Hantz Farms as a monoculture model operating in the city. What need could there possibly be for Detroit to grow acres of corn, soy, or any other cash crop, especially with the country's heartland so near? More importantly, assuming that land value will eventually rise in Detroit, could city land really sustain the production of corn (valued at roughly 12 cents per ear)?

An example of Hantz Farm advertising

Furthermore, Hantz Farms goes on to state on the image, that "Detroit is about to redefine urban growth." With what, corn? Typically, corn farmers in the US can't even make back the money that they invested in growing the corn, and rely heavily on government grants for survival. Of course Hantz Farms will grow other crops aside from just corn, but it sure seems like an awkward way to advertise for urban agriculture - far more corporate looking then the imagery that we usually associate with the urban food movement.

Well there's a reason for that. John Hantz, CEO of Hantz Farms LLC, hopes to operate the largest for-profit urban farm in the world. In case you are wondering Hantz's intentions with the farm, his original plan was to grow a commercial non-food crop, such as (believe it or not) Christmas trees.... in Detroit... one of the country's most drastic food deserts (half of the city's residents struggle to find sources for fresh food). Likely due to criticism, Hantz moved to food production, and though the farm's website claims that fresh produce will be grown for Detroit residents, many signs point to Hantz's desire to grow mass quantities of cash crops.

To be honest, the Hantz Farm website doesn't have very much useful information at all. While there are scores of inspirational sayings - such as "Detroit is going to return to its roots" - as well as some unsubstantiated promises to fix the city in every way, there is absolutely no technical information about the plan for the farm and no mention of Hantz's long term goals. Much of the information about the farm in this article comes from various conferences that Hantz and other Hantz Farm officers have spoken at, and despite the lack of definitive facts about the farm, it is pretty obvious that Mr. Hantz is thinking in large-scale, corporate terms.

However, the Hantz Farm proposal is pushing the mono-agenda beyond just the crops. He plans to use 30 million dollars of his own money as the initial investment to built a 20,000 acre farm, which would create something of an urban farming monopoly in Detroit, a city that desperately needs the participation of its residents to breath new life through its bellows. Grassroots organizations and small start-up farms couldn't possibly compete with Hantz's buying power for vacant land, etc., and inevitably, the massive corporate farm would steam-roll much of its "mom-and-pop" competition.

The funny thing is, building the largest urban farm in the world is (perhaps) inherently contrary to many key values of the urban food movement, which generally encourages community building through the networking of many different organizations that work together to mend the broken food system and reconnect urban residents to the natural cycles of plants, food, and our ecological systems. Could it really be a good idea for one single millionaire to have so much control over the food production of an entire city? What if Hantz were instead to develop a model for community ownership of 10,000 two-acre farms or 5,000 four-acre farms? Imagine the potential for this model to rebuild communities, connect individuals and groups with similar interests, and employ thousands of new business owners.

It is also important to note that Hantz is very quick to say that he will "clear away the garbage, the blight, and the debris," but he makes no mention (that I have read) of re-use. Perhaps I am being too harsh too soon. Perhaps Hantz Farms will create thousands of jobs and help pull Detroit out of its deep rut. But it sure seems like Hantz is hoping to employ the fairly traditional big farming business model of greater "efficiency" through streamlined technologies and massive land conglomeration.

We need to push away from this model, and instead approach the issues of food and urban space from a diversity of angles and expertise. There is an incredible opportunity here to really empower Detroit's residents, and it's not going to come from one single farm that employs 100,000 people or more.

Detroit is special, and its full regeneration is going to take more than just urban farming. The great industrial hulks of Detroit's past are still physically strong, and have the potential to represent a strong new future for the city. Imagine a city-wide network of new public spaces, community centers, parks, farms, and other new sustainable industries that might occupy these mighty pavilions. Think of all the different ways that these old relics could be transformed into vibrant urban centers full of people, business, natural light, and fresh air. The old assembly-line factory pictured on the front of Detroit Disassembled, with both ends chopped off, would become a great open-air hall - natural light streaming in from the continuous clerestory and lush plant life able to infiltrate the interior.

These would be parks like we've never seen before - an entire urban landscape that we've never seen before. Detroit cannot afford to let these titans fall.

Rouge, Detroit. From Andrew Moore's Detroit Disassembled

Based on Andrew Moore's photo, growingCities looks at the old factory as a new type of urban space

Check out our previous article: Hidden Variables - Local and Organic Produce