Growtown: Detroit’s Urban Farming Legacy

It’s the opposite of the blues, and driven by a power that has nothing to do with engines. Motown has come full circle, the birthplace of the urban farming for food desert relief returns to it’s roots in a really big way. There’s a really massive farm under development in the heart of the city – the next step in Detroit’s agricultural history. It all actually started here in the 19th century.


The Panic, a Victorian era financial depression, placed many Detroiters in a position of having no work, and no food. They also had no land, or not enough to grow their own. The mayor at the time got the idea that they could grow food to sustain themselves through the bitter winter if the city had land they could use. However, the city had no funds to purchase enough land. Mayor Pingree wanted at least 200 acres for his farm project. Raising the money through normal methods landed him some $13, nowhere near what was needed, so he sold his own saddle horses, which opened up some other pockets about town, and in the end there were over 420 acres in this first urban farm.

1896: Urban Farming in Detroit

The poor did not go hungry, and the city through a work exchange program gained asset improvements such as the lovely island park, Belle Isle. The growers could eat all they wanted, and were encouraged to sell the surplus. Other cities heard about Mayor Pingree’s Potato Patches, and 19th century urban farming spread everywhere. When the depression ended, the city turned the land used for growing food into parks scattered on both sides of the city.


Once again, Detroit fell on hard times during the Great Depression. This time around the mayor was Frank Murphy who was faced with the dilemma of feeding the poor and the unemployed, along with finding something constructive for his out of work population to do. Inspired by the huge success of Pingree’s program, he came up with The Thrift Garden plan. It was more organized, structured, required almost contractual commitment from the growers, and occupied vacant lots. Murphy decided he’d try it for a year, and if it did indeed profit the people, he’d consider allowing it to continue.

To use a plot, one had to fill out a detailed registration form, the data provided would be used to measure the success or failure of the program. All the Thrift Gardeners were required to sign an official pledge, agreeing to the rules of participation, including that no food grown would be sold. The rules covered keeping records of the plot’s progress, and that the layout had to make efficient use of the space. Those with lots of experience created plot designs that beginners copied, the seasoned gardeners also shared their knowledge, which had a lot of influence over the size of many grower’s harvests. The photo below shows garden guidance relaxing at the shed, photo courtesy of the University of Michigan.

1930s Detroit: Urban Agriculture During The Depression

As you might guess, that trial year was very successful. The amount of profit each gardener generated totaled about $50 – a lot of money in those days. The Thrift Gardens fed some 20,000 people in 1931-1932. That was the height of vacant lot food production under Murphy’s plan, but in the decades moving forward, agriculture virtually disappeared as industrial employment generated by the auto manufacturers created solid employment for the masses… for many years anyway.

Recent Years

Once again, the people of Detroit have fallen on hard times between urban sprawl, the housing bubble crises, and the evaporation of industrial jobs. This time though, Motown hit rock bottom, there were more vacant properties, commercial buildings, and homes standing empty than ever before. The population slashed as people moved to where employment was available, but urban agriculture began sprouting up here and there. It’s a well-established food desert , and those that remained started growing food on vacant lots that they couldn’t buy at any local stores.

Things are changing. What was once Motown has turned into GroTown in many ways. Young people are moving in, artists have begun forming a community – it’s the only place in the US that you can buy a house for a few hundred bucks. It will need some serious elbow grease, and remodeling, but it’s an opportunity you can only find in Detroit in 2015. It’s attracting people from everywhere. They’re 21st century pioneers with energy, vision, talent, and skills who are busily building their own culture from the ashes. And they all want fresh food that’s organic, and locally grown. There’s a growing number of artisan food entrepreneurs in the city too, eager to source the best ingredients for their customers.


Recently news of a huge 60-acre urban farm coming to the City of Detroit hit the wire. The rendering at the top of this page shows part of the planning for the project that will cost $15 million to complete. From the boundaries given on the city’s website Google Maps shows the new farm will occupy roughly 1 square mile that covers 22 city blocks (shown in red below). The farm will transform and maintain 406 currently blighted properties that the city has absorbed over the years. The agricultural development, RecoveryPark Farm, will use an old open-air farm market from the 1880s at the heart of this section of land will serve as the project’s headquarters.

RecoveryPark Farm Footprint (Courtesy of Google Maps)

You can see the historic Chene-Ferry Market to the right side of the greenhouses in the rendering above this article. This location is a mile north of Eastern Market, a little over a mile from Detroit’s Art Center, and a short drive from both Midtown and Downtown. The neighborhood is long overdue for recovery, filled with empty lots and derelict buildings.

Eventually, there will be a full 9 acres of greenhouses producing aquaponic fish and hydroponic fruits and vegetables year-around. The development will take 5 years to complete, and a totally understandable start-to-finish time frame given the amount of cleanup the RecoveryPark staff has ahead. They must demolish or rehabilitate all buildings currently standing on the 60 acres. From the sound of news coverage they have long-term goals of putting up a lot more greenhouses than the initially required 9 acres, because there’s no mention of outdoor growing in soil, and the city stipulates that they reserve the right to reclaim any land not occupied by greenhouses in the future. Not that they have a need for it now with the Detroit Land Bank Authority burdened with an overload of confiscated properties, but who knows what the city will be like in 10 to 20 years.

They RecoveryPark team aren’t new to urban farming, the non-profit already operates 2 small city farms in Waterford, an hour’s drive Northwest in the heart of neighboring Oakland County. The organization is relocating the existing structures and equipment on their Waterford farms to the new farm in Detroit right away. In addition to providing efficiently grown, fresh, local food that is free of pesticides, RecoveryPark focuses on building self-sustaining farms and repairing communities. The farm will provide jobs for 128 employment-challenged people in 3 years. All profit generated from sales to chefs and restaurants beyond wages, equipment, and operating costs will be donated to SHAR, a drug addiction recovery agency.

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Tammy Clayton

Contributing Writer at Garden Culture Magazine

Tammy has been immersed in the world of plants and growing since her first job as an assistant weeder at the tender age of 8. Heavily influenced by a former life as a landscape designer and nursery owner, she swears good looking plants follow her home.