Food insecurity, high unemployment, poverty, vacant land, and fragmented neighborhoods—these are some of the issues Detroit is facing. One local entity has a solution, and it begins with the simplest of things: the local food economy.
GrowTown is a non-profit created by Ken Weikal and Beth Hagenbuch, local landscape architects who specialize in using recycled materials and sustainable methods in their designs. While completing her degree in landscape design at Michigan State University, Beth was working on a project in a poverty-stricken neighborhood in Saginaw and was struck by a comment made to her by a local resident. “He said ‘What you are all doing is fine, but it doesn’t change anything.’ I realized he was right, and I started thinking about ‘band-aid decorating’ done by most developers who try to beautify a neighborhood.” At the same time, Ken was working on a project at the Bell Building for Focus Hope, and they both began thinking about making a design non-profit centered around not only beautifying a neighborhood, but making it self-sustainable. How can you use what is already there, and use the existing infrastructure to create a viable neighborhood? How can you improve a neighborhood now?
Ken likes to use the phrase “start from the bottom up” when discussing GrowTown. “Too many times developers move into a neighborhood, buy up a bunch of land, slap up some buildings, and never ask the residents what they want. No one asks them, ‘If you could imagine anything for your neighborhood, what would you see? What would it look like? What would be there?” The goal of GrowTown is to provide neighborhood residents the tools to make their own plans, present them to developers and city officials, and work with them to implement the plan. The model centers on the local food economy as the starting point for change. Food and a food marketplace centered in a neighborhood provide not only food but jobs, entrepreneurship opportunities, education, marketable job skills, and neighborhood sustainability, and little investment is needed to start. To begin the process, they created the Tool Box. The Tool Box consists of ten trim tab solutions of low-cost things people can do right away to revitalize a neighborhood. It centers on using existing financial resources and what people have right now, and who they know. It enables residents to recycle existing assets, such as vacant lots, and create gardens for food and income, and green spaces for community gathering. “It Starts Now” is the catalyst statement; there is no waiting for the big problems to be solved. Little things can be done right away, such as trash pick-up, making a garden, mowing vacant lots, or creating a natural playground with recycled materials, to begin the revitalization process.
“Right now, we have all these groups in Detroit that are doing urban agriculture, and all these people are interested in it, but the resources and knowledge needed to discover if this is a viable business for an urban area is a slow process,” Ken says. “GrowTown is trying to speed it up.” Part of the GrowTown plan is to integrate successful urban agriculture into a neighborhood in a beautiful way. By considering spatial design community and market gardens, community spaces, businesses, and housing are integrated in the existing space in a pleasing but practical way. How the neighborhood connects to other surrounding neighborhoods is a key consideration as well—are there viable, safe ways for residents to commute to other city areas? Can they access existing local businesses safely? If the neighborhood can relate easily to others surrounding it, it will naturally be more resilient.
Visualizing what they wanted to accomplish with GrowTown was easy, but formulating the plan and putting it to paper proved more difficult. However, entering the Buckminster Fuller Challenge gave them the catalyst to explain the plan in a concise, accessible manner that could be pitched for potential projects. The GrowTown plan was one of 35 semi-finalists in 250 submissions for the $100,000 prize last year. Currently, GrowTown is revitalizing the Penrose Neighborhood in the 7 Mile and Woodward area. GrowTown and neighborhood residents have turned vacant lots into a CSA garden, a market garden, and natural meadows. A seedling-starter hoop house has been built, and art and gardening classes are given in a community Art House for local children. The preliminary GrowTown framework plan was created by area residents, businesses, and non-profits and it is currently the basis for determining lot ownership and locations for future gardens, public spaces, housing, and open space.
Detroit has been referred to as a post-industrial city in the recent press; a city that is looking for The Next Thing to sustain it. Urban agriculture has many advocates, and it has certainly revitalized many a blighted neighborhood, but the perception exists that urban agriculture can’t be as successful as rural agriculture. However, the GrowTown plan could change opinions; with little investment and the use of existing resources, the plan is working well in one Detroit neighborhood already. Perhaps in the future, there will be more GrowTowns on the map of Detroit.