Urban Roots: Urban Gardens in Detroit
Directed by Leila Connors and Matthew Schmid (2011)
This incredibly inspiring film is about the mainly African American Detroit residents who have converted abandoned properties into productive urban farms. As the filmmakers demonstrate at the end of the video, grassroots urban farming has become a common strategy for rehabilitating decaying urban areas. To me, what is happening in Detroit and other distressed cities indicates the revolution has already begun. The system is failing, and ordinary people are already taking over.
Owing to the steady decline in US car manufacturing, Detroit’s population has dropped from 2 million in 1950 to less than 900,000 in 2019. The city has 44 square miles of abandoned property and 40,000 vacant lots. This could potentially provide 10,000 acres of farmland.
The filmmakers visit several of Detroit’s urban farms, where they interview the groups running them, as well as the army of volunteers who staff them. Although many volunteers are unemployed or retired, many have paying jobs and garden in their spare time. Many of the older volunteers with Southern roots already have extensive agricultural experience. All participants speak of a a new sense of self-reliance and control over their existence, stemming from their involvement in meaningful, non-repetitive work.
Given that most of metropolitan Detroit is a food desert,* urban farms are the only access to fresh produce for many residents. Urban farmers also sell produce at farmers markets and to local restaurants. Meanwhile the restoration of community activity in abandoned neighborhoods discourages drug dealing and other criminal activity.
Although a few farms have permits from the city to cultivate the abandoned property, most of the gardens are technically illegal. City officials (quoted in the film) refuse to zone city land for agricultural purposes because they’re still holding out for a Walmart or a major supermarket or golf course to spawn commercial redevelopment.
The urban gardeners deride this sentiment, pointing to failed city projects to rebuild Detroit through massive investment in casinos and a sports stadium.
*A food desert is defined as an area with limited (or no) access to affordable nutritious food.
Anyone with a public library card can view the full documentary free on Kanopy. Type “Kanopy” and the name of your library into your search engine to register.