The agrihood isn’t new, but they’re all suburban developments. Detroit’s new sustainable urban agrihood, however, is far removed from the suburbs. In fact, it’s in a re-emerging frontier known as the city’s North End district. Few homes left standing in the 4 immediate blocks surrounding the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI) are occupied. Many appear beyond repair. But there is change taking place in this neighborhood. The downward spiral began here in 1959 when construction of I-75 isolated it from the heart of the city. And a lot of the recent change is because of this urban farm.
The non-profit project started out 5 years ago co-founded by Tyson Gersh and Darin McLeskey. At the time, they wanted to do something to correct some of the socioeconomic imbalance in this part of town. But it’s grown bigger and broader over time, though they invested very little money. Of course, it helped a great deal to have 8,000 volunteers devote 80,000 hours into making this possible. Their accomplishments and efforts inspired other North End property owners to invest $4 million in improvements.
In 2011, MUFI purchased a derelict apartment building on Brush Street for $5025 at a tax auction. It sits across the street from the small urban garden they started out with. An agricultural venture that has grown to cover 3 acres, including hoop houses, and an orchard. They grow 300 different crops here, recently adding 200 fruit trees. Harvests have provided healthy food for 2,000 homes in the area, and through food bank and church donations. Over 50,000 pounds of veggies distributed in the last 4 years. Most of it totally free, and transported no more than 2 miles from the farm.
“The role of MUFI is not simply to use vacant land to feed food-insecure individuals,” Gersh told Crain’s Business Detroit earlier this year. “But rather to position itself as a driving force in rethinking how urban spaces are developed, and to model the many ways that urban agriculture adds value to modern urban spaces.”
Now that little urban garden has morphed into a sustainable urban agrihood – a mixed-use alternative neighborhood growth model centered around the farm. That vacant apartment building is the beginning of the Community Resource Center. When renovation and construction is finished this will house educational space, meeting space, MUFI’s offices, a food packing facility, and kitchens. Last, but not least, it will have a farm-to-table restaurant behind it. A for-profit venture, but one the developing neighborhood is sure to need in the future.
There’s a lot of interest in living around the MUFI farm. Both people already residents of Detroit, and new arrivals have talked to Tyler about the possibility of a home with farm views. But there is outside developer interest too. Probable attraction factors include low North End property prices, and big ticket revitalization going on a few blocks west in the New Center district. And then there’s the power players involved in the agrihood collaboration: General Motors, BASF, Herman-Miller, Green Standards, and Sustainable Brands.
Being an urban farm or the hub of a new urban agrihood isn’t what earned MUFI’s sustainable label. They’re repurposing blighted homes, and turning cast-off shipping containers into intern housing. With so many volunteers, you’ve got to have a restroom too, and so they have a public composting toilet. Growing 300 veggie crops and 200 fruit trees means you need water, not to mention drainage from all those crops becoming a city utilities burden. So, they turned a demolished house’s basement into an collection pond that feeds their off-grid watering system.
Curious about the immediate neighborhood around MUFI’s farm and future Community Resource Center? Take the Google Earth Tour. Most of the imagery is from summer to fall of 2016. Plenty of room for building new homes that offer those sought after ‘farm views’ – though it’s likely they’ll be multi-storied apartments or condos. And naturally, the buildings’ design will also be sustainable. Something new and interesting to watch grow.