First time visitors to Detroit are struck by a sense of awe at the sheer scale of abandoned buildings. Very few of them consider the practical implications that residents deal with every day: Detroit’s infrastructure is designed to support at least 2 million people, but the population has dwindled to 700,000. Maintaining services over such a sprawling area puts a tremendous drain on police, fire and transportation budgets. Realizing that things had gone too far for mainstream urban renewal solutions, Detroit’s mayor, Dave Bing, put forth a radical proposal after his election in 2009: shrink the city.
Having the city acquire land is out of the question; it needs to stay out of state receivership. Rather, Bing suggested a creative, potentially profitable use for abandoned land: urban farming. Detroit’s non-profits have already pioneered this green form of urban renewal, and a large scale increase would not only provide a buyer for entire blocks but could provide a solution to the malnutrition that is closely associated with urban poverty.
Given Detroit’s deficit, the inevitable opposition by the few remaining neighborhood residents and Detroit’s utterly dysfunctional political culture, Bing’s initiative promises to be an uphill battle (especially for a Republican businessman with no previous political experience). Eighteen months later, a major sticking point has come in the form of those pesky little regulations that visionaries ignore at their peril. Under Detroit’s zoning code, urban farming remains illegal. Although restrictions remain unenforced against the various community groups running urban farms, larger, for-profit buyers are understandably leery of investing their money in a technically illegal venture.
Bing has delayed because he wishes to roll out a single, comprehensive plan under the banner of the Detroit Works Project. Such long-term vision from a city leader is commendable, but Detroit is sacrificing desperately needed tax base to protect a zoning program that ideally will allow the farms to pop up wherever there is space. Creating an expedited process for receiving a zoning variance could allow interested landowners to get a jump on farming and contribute to Detroit’s tax rolls today.
The other obstacle is the state of Michigan. Governor Rick Snyder seems to have little patience for the renewal plans of his fellow Republican, preparing to cut city revenue sharing by as much as 40%. In addition to the usual Republican fiscal irresponsibility, there are legal barriers to the farming initiative as well. The Michigan Right to Farm Act has left Bing’s office leery of permitting urban farming. The Act bars public or private nuisance litigation against farms that meet generally accepted agricultural management practices. The bar on litigation remains even if the farm expands in size or changes to a new technology that changes the type of nuisance created. This means that the farms that could drive urban renewal in Detroit today could also choke it in 20 years when the city wishes to expand again.
Although Bing’s concerns are reasonable and would support delay in almost any other American city, Detroit’s choices remain limited. Not amending the Act will incentivize larger investments in the city by reassuring potential farmers that their investment will not become a victim of its own success. Battles with the state legislature and governor could add months or years before we achieve a smaller, greener Detroit, or cripple that vision altogether. If this plan works, in ten years a once-again vibrant Detroit can wield its growing political influence to amend the Right to Farm Act and buckle down on the zoning codes. Today, Bing should not let zoning minutiae and nuisance fears get in the way of a potentially brilliant vision.