Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A Tree Grows in Detroit

I found myself writing a paper on urban farming in Detroit and attempts to incorporate these initiatives into a comprehensive land-use plan.  What appears to have started out as good intentions is morphing into a land grab as a company that calls itself Hantz Farms recently acquired approximately 170 acres of former residential property for $500,000, ostensibly to create a tree farm.

John Hantz is a Detroit resident who made his money off hedge funds and is now looking to invest some of that money back into the city.  He got a nice write-up in Fortune magazine about his long range vision for the city including elaborate urban farming centers.  He said he was willing to put down $30 million of his own money to attract investors, but it is going to take awhile for his "pilot project" to come to fruition.

When Dave Bing became mayor in 2009, he promised to work with the people to bring back the city from one of the worst municipal fiscal crises in American history.  Detroit's infamous bankruptcy made headlines around the world.  The automakers got bailouts, but the city was left to struggle on its own to pull itself out of the red.  Bing was notably frustrated, as there wasn't much he could do except strike deals with local businessmen, which led to projects like Hantz Woodlands.

Bing called it "repurposing," as he tried to consolidate residents in the city, so that land development groups like Hantz could buy up large swathes of property.  This should have been a red flag for anyone, and many of the city residents weren't buying the "Detroit Works" program that Bing initiated.  Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady chronicle this period in their 2012 documentary, Detropia.

There were any number of real farming initiatives underway, notably in the neighborhood of Brightmoor, which had become the epicenter of "guerilla farming," as Mark Spitznagel called it.  He's another Detroit resident who made his money in hedge funds, but unlike Hantz actually got involved with the local community in Brightmoor, funding projects and tried to range feed a few goats in the overgrown city blocks, which pundits have called an "urban prairie"  Spitznagel was taking advantage of the Michigan Right to Farm laws, which were extended to Detroit in the wake of the 2008 crisis, but he hadn't applied for a city permit so the new mayor, Mike Duggan, shut him down.

Such initiatives are not new to Detroit.  Back in 1894, Hazen Pingree launched his "potato patch plan," allowing poor residents to grow food on small plots to help make ends meet during the recession.  Pingree was a social liberal and his plan was mocked by local conservatives, but its success inspired other cities to do the same.

At 70, Bing chose not to run for re-election in 2013.  It was probably a wise move as his austerity measures hadn't gone over very well with the public, and now Detroit has its first white mayor in decades.  Presumably "nonpartisan" like his predecessor, Duggan has championed urban farming, at least in concept.  He is the one who helped Hantz finally get the permits he needed to start his tree farm, but apparently goats are out.  To be fair it was Rick Snyder, the governor of Michigan, who had initially approved the land deal.

It is hard to say which direction Detroit will go, but it is clear that guys like Hantz are sitting on very lucrative property and that trees are just a way of meeting the requirements of the new land use plan.   Spitznagel, a Libertarian, is not giving up without a fight though, so it will be interesting to see how these competing visions resolve themselves.

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