Wither Detroit?

A theme we’ve discussed on this blog before, restoring swaths of Detroit to farmland, is resurfacing in the news again.

Detroit, the very symbol of American industrial might for most of the 20th century, is drawing up a radical renewal plan that calls for turning large swaths of this now-blighted, rusted-out city back into the fields and farmland that existed before the automobile.

Operating on a scale never before attempted in this country, the city would demolish houses in some of the most desolate sections of Detroit and move residents into stronger neighborhoods. Roughly a quarter of the 139-square-mile city could go from urban to semi-rural.

Near downtown, fruit trees and vegetable farms would replace neighborhoods that are an eerie landscape of empty buildings and vacant lots. Suburban commuters heading into the city center might pass through what looks like the countryside to get there. Surviving neighborhoods in the birthplace of the auto industry would become pockets in expanses of green.

Detroit officials first raised the idea in the 1990s, when blight was spreading. Now, with the recession plunging the city deeper into ruin, a decision on how to move forward is approaching. Mayor Dave Bing, who took office last year, is expected to unveil some details in his state-of-the-city address this month.

“Things that were unthinkable are now becoming thinkable,” said James W. Hughes, dean of the School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, who is among the urban experts watching the experiment with interest. “There is now a realization that past glories are never going to be recaptured. Some people probably don’t accept that, but that is the reality.

I intended to discuss this subject more last fall, after putting up my initial post. However, very soon after that post, our family found itself in the frenzy of final preparations for Yeoman Farm Baby’s birth and adoption. Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I did discuss the “farm Detroit” idea back then, after my post (and I received insightful emails from some readers), and came to an unfortunate conclusion: as attractive (even romantic) as returning Detroit to farmland sounds, there are some extremely big problems with it in practice. Number one, which is prohibitive for us, is even bigger than the threat of losing livestock to drive-by shootings: it’s the condition of the urban soil. Quite simply, we can’t know everything that’s accumulated in the Detroit soil over the last hundred years — but you can bet that most of it isn’t good, and most of it goes very deep.

Think of all the automotive emissions (including from leaded gasoline), industrial pollutants, spilled heating oil, runoff from parking lots and building roofs … and that’s just a start. Any forages you plant for livestock grazing, or vegetables you grow for human consumption, will likely draw all kinds of nasty stuff up through their roots. And this can’t be remedied by adding new layer of top soil; nearly every kind of plant that farmers grow sends roots many feet into the ground. Or does someone out there know a way to do urban soil remediation without spending a fortune?

So…what could a farmer do with Detroit soil? Maybe plant a Christmas tree farm, as one reader suggested. It’s hard to think of any other crop that would be purely decorative. One might be able to plant trees for firewood, but even then I wonder what would be released into the air when one burns those trees.
Any other suggestions?

2 thoughts on “Wither Detroit?

  1. Hm. Christmas tree farm (did I come up with that one? Its been so long, I don't remember anymore, lol)…maybe raising trees for pulp paper (pines are especially good for that, grow quickly, etc, and would be a “cash crop” fairly quickly). Another item, might be wood for furniture–some of the rarer trees, like walnut, oak, good cherry, etc. I don't know the items in the soil would affect the wood, but it couldn't hurt, especially after a generation or two of pine tree farming. Those would be longer term investments (perhaps interspersed with firewood tree lots? Less 'expensive' woods, but still stuff that is good to burn?

    I'd go through those ideas before I'd consider anything else, except maybe planting good cover crops that help clean the soil in between the trees? I don't know if that'd work, if the crops were left on the ground after maturity, but it couldn't *hurt*.

    Whatever is done, will take a long time.

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  2. Someone needs to try it and do extensive testing, perhaps develop a protocol that relates soil contamination to contamination of different kinds of food grown in that soil. I don't know how plant material is tested for soil contaminants (or if that can even be done) but surely one of the big universities in the area has someone who would be interested in the problem. They might even get some ObamaBucks to study the problem.

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