Urban decay to be replaced with farmland in Detroit

Bankrupt and hemorrhaging population, the city of Detroit is banking on greener pastures to lead its rebirth.

A private company is snapping up 150 acres on the Motor City's East End -- property where more than 1,000 homes once formed a gritty neighborhood -- and turning it into what is being billed as the world's largest urban farm. Hantz Woodlands plans to start by planting trees, but hopes to raise crops and even livestock in the future, right in the midst of the once-proud city.

“We are interested with moving into different types of agriculture,” Mike Score, president of Hantz, told FoxNews.com.


Hantz needed approval from Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to buy up the 1,500 parcels for approximately $450,000, or $300 per parcel. Many of the parcels held dilapidated and abandoned homes and buildings and were condemned by the city. Others were rubble-strewn or weed-choked lots. The company intends to spend $3 million to clean out the areas.

“Your eyes would have a hard time absorbing the blight,” Score said. “A third of every neighborhood in Detroit has been devalued by blight on public property.

Score and local officials believe a well-run farm is the best way to stabilize the area's downward spiral, and help surrounding homes and businesses keep their property values from falling further.

Score says that once the sale is complete, his company will spend the winter clearing 15 acres to plant 15,000 trees during the first phase. They also intend to add orchards further down the line.

Not everyone is a fan of turning such a huge swath of Detroit into a farm. The proposal was met with criticism from local residents and even area agricultural groups. It squeaked by the City Council by a razor-thin margin of 5-4.

“I think there’s concern in this transaction,” said Nevin Cohen, a professor of  Environmental Studies at New York's New School who has been monitoring the plan. “The city [Detroit] needs to figure out its blight problem without hurting the members of the community.”

“Replicating a community farm is not as important as addressing issues of race and class concerns -- which underlie Detroit’s problems,” he said.

Groups such as Detroit Black Community Food Service, which runs large community food-garden D-Town Farm, near Rouge Park, have come out against the Hantz proposal. Small vest pocket community gardens like theirs have sprung up around the city, with backers saying it gives local residents a stake in their neighborhoods one empty lot at a time -- as opposed to a giant farm run by outsiders.

But the farm would have been bigger if the founder of Hantz Woodlands, formerly Hantz Farms, had his way. John Hantz originally had a vision to transform the even more rundown areas of the city into a fully functional, large-scale farm, but civic law forced his company to scale back their ambitions.

“[John Hantz] has been exploring urban farming opportunities for years,” Robin Boyle, an urban planning professor from local Wayne State University, told FoxNews.com. “But that has been tempered by reality and time.”

Boyle cited Michgan’s Right to Farm Act and noted that for a true large-scale urban farm to come to fruition, an area within city limits would have to be rezoned for agriculture and doing so would jostle established neighborhoods.

“If the city had changed the ordinance, it would have triggered the state laws and caused many problems,” he said, adding that Hantz scaled back his plan to the current proposal of tree farms and small orchards.

Despite political red tape preventing larger-scale farming in city limits, the DIY garden farms spread throughout the area have helped the city begin to fight back against urban decay.

“They are growing food, but they are also working on combating structural depression,” Cohen said. “These groups are growing food and getting people involved and they are taking it back to their community.”