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Land ownership: The next step toward a sovereign Detroit

Keep Growing Detroit COURTESY PHOTO

Keep Growing Detroit COURTESY PHOTO

By Janell O’Keefe
Special to the Michigan Citizen

Detroit is finally thawing out from a long, cold winter — the birds are chirping, the grass is (slowly) turning green, crocuses are fighting their way up through the ground. Across the city, gardeners and farmers are dusting off their tools and preparing for another bountiful growing season. For decades, Detroit’s urban gardeners have grown more than food; they have beautified vacant lots, deterred crime, built community and so much more. Efforts of Detroit’s urban agriculture and food community have been praised across the country and around the world. Yet, we’re still fighting for respect and recognition in our own backyards.

Last spring, after years of work by the Urban Agriculture Workgroup, the city of Detroit passed updates to the zoning code, allowing for growing food and related activities as legal uses of land. The local food community celebrated this new policy environment, knowing it was quintessential step in a larger battle: land acquisition. Prior to the ordinance update, the city of Detroit could not sell land for the purposes of agriculture. Hundreds of gardeners have been caring for, maintaining, and improving city owned property for years with no option to purchase it. Private ownership of land provides growers site security — they can install permanent fixtures (fences, rain catchment systems); start small businesses; and purchase insurance to protect themselves, their business, employees and volunteers.

Over the summer, the Detroit Food Policy Council and several other organizations worked with the Planning and Development Department to create an “Urban Garden/Farm Supplement Application.” The supplement was designed to help P&DD vet vacant lot purchase applications for agriculture projects. The new application and supplement went live in November and dozens of gardeners applied to purchase lots. Not a single one of those applications has been approved (or denied), most applicants cannot even find out where in the review process their application is!

Detroit’s dedicated, experienced gardeners and farmers deserve to own the land they’ve diligently cared for and they deserve to have deeds in hand before any other projects are approved. Residents and projects that have proven themselves sustainable and beneficial should be the first ones through the new application process. Land sales by the city (or any other government entity) should be accessible and transparent, with a predictable timeline and turnaround. Most importantly, every project should receive equal consideration, whether they are purchasing one lot or one hundred. The city should be fostering a policy environment that promotes and encourages, rather than inhibits, urban agriculture and vacant land re-use.

The urban agriculture movement in Detroit is only going to continue to grow; 1,600 gardens are expected to participate in the Garden Resource Program this year. That equates to hundreds of new gardens and hundreds of additional lots being transformed from blighted to bountiful. The Detroit of the future will be built through the collective efforts of residents, community-based organizations and businesses working together lot-by-lot to create change in their neighborhoods and across the city. How much longer will it be before these dedicated individuals are rewarded with a path to land ownership?

If you are resident of Detroit, Highland Park or Hamtramck and interested in joining the Garden Resource Program, come to Cold Crop Transplant Distribution April 10 from 5-7 p.m., and April 12 from 1-3 p.m. at Earthworks Urban Farm (1264 Meldrum). Gardeners in Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park can fill out GRP applications on site and pick up seeds and plants. For more information call 313.757.2635, email, or visit

If you want to learn more about how the ordinance updates affect gardening and farming in Detroit, come out to the Urban Garden Education Series class “Detroit Urban Agriculture Ordinance Update,” April 24 from 6-8pm at Corinthians Baptist Church, 1725 Caniff.

Janell OKeefe is a Detroit resident and staff member at Keep Growing Detroit, an organization dedicated to promoting a food sovereign Detroit where the majority of fruits and vegetables consumed by Detroiters are grown by residents within the citys limits.

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