Four years ago, Detroit businessman John Hantz received national attention when he announced his plans to create the world's largest urban farm in Detroit. His plan to buy vacant city land and convert it to orchards and tree farms was hailed as visionary by some and nefarious by others. After 4 years of negotiating with the city and meeting with neighbors, Hantz Farms was finally able purchase 1,400 vacant city-owned lots on Detroit's lower east side for half a million dollars.
"The purpose of the investment is to make neighborhoods more livable," says Hantz Farms president Mike Score. "Our intention is to take larger blocks of contiguous land and make our woodlands a permanent feature in the city."
In a bankrupt city that has lost a quarter of its population in 10 years, vacant land has become a pressing concern. The city of Detroit is drowning in the financial burden of owning nearly 200,000 vacant parcels—almost half of them residential plots.
The Hantz proposal, initially a plan to create commercial fruit orchards and cut-your-own Christmas tree farms, had been scaled back to a simpler tree-planting project by the time the city approved the land sale in December 2012. Hantz Woodlands—a subsidiary of Hantz Farms—agreed to buy 1,400 vacant parcels from the city, clean up the debris, tear down decaying buildings, plant 15,000 trees, mow the grass regularly, and pay taxes on the land. The parcels are interspersed among homes that people are caring for and living in.
A small, but loud, group of community activists allege that the transaction is a "land grab" and demand that Detroit's surplus land go into a community trust. They accuse Hantz of greed disguised as philanthropy. What if Hantz sells some of those parcels for housing, they ask, and he makes a profit off the cheap land?
Score has posed that question to the people currently living in the area. "If you go up and down the street and ask people, 'What do you really want to happen in this neighborhood?' they say they want a house on every lot," he says. At this time, there isn't a great demand for land in Detroit, but if in the future people decide this is a nice place to live and Hantz Woodlands can build houses on some of its land, Score says the neighbors would be pleased.
Hantz Farms maintains a small demonstration site next to its office on Mt. Elliot Street. Oak and sugar maple trees in tidy rows grow on 50 lots that formerly were used as dumping grounds. Gone are the frayed tires, soggy mattresses, and semi trailer full of chemicals. The drug dealer that used to operate on the corner has moved on, and the 80-year-old woman who lives on the street is delighted.
Although urban farming seems a viable income source for a city with a surplus of land and a shortage of people, Detroit lacked a formal policy for urban agriculture until recently. The city's first agriculture zoning ordinance, adopted by Detroit City Council in April 2013, recognizes agriculture as a legal use of land and establishes guidelines for it. With the law on their side, Detroit's farming entrepreneurs should now be able to avoid spending 4 years and a lot of money for the right to buy land in Detroit.
Originally published in Organic Gardening Magazine, Oct/Nov 2013