Where Is Detroit’s Sustainability Plan?



The Mayor of Los Angeles signs
the City’s first-ever Sustainable City Plan


While it may be hard to combat things like greenhouse gas emissions at the local level, many cities are finding that there are a whole host of environmental issues that are best addressed by local government. Over the last decade, cities across the country have started to talk about what can be done at the local level to make themselves more environmentally sustainable. Just what “sustainable” means varies from city-to-city, but in general it at the very least means scrutinizing development projects through an environmental lens. In taking an environmentally sustainable approach to development, the hope is that a city will develop in a way that makes it more resilient to future resource scarcity and climate change as well as more socially just for its residents.

While cities like Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle have always been leaders in sustainability, they are by no means alone today. Cities of all different sizes are developing long-term sustainability plans and creating city agencies to implement those plans. For example, Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis (just to name a few) all have adopted a long-term sustainability plan and have created a city agency to oversee the implementation of the plan. Even Grand Rapids has developed a sustainability plan and charged the Office of Energy and Sustainability with implementing the plan. While former-mayor Kenneth Cockrel created an Office of Energy and Sustainability in 2008, it did not survive long and no sustainability plan was ever crafted. Today, Detroit is without a long-term sustainability plan of any sort or any city department dedicated to sustainability. This makes it the exception among large American cities; Detroit is the only of the country’s twenty most populous city’s to have no formalized, long-term sustainability plan.

The lack of direction on the issue of environmental sustainability can be felt by Detroit’s urban agriculture community. In developing long-term sustainability plans, many cities have sought to improve resident health through boosting the local food economy. This has typically included providing support to urban farms and gardens in the form of increasing the amount of City-owned land under cultivation. As the implementation of various cities sustainability plans have progressed, so has their dedication to urban agriculture. This month, Atlanta hired its first Urban Agriculture Director. Operating within Atlanta’s Office of Sustainability, the director will be responsible for a wide range of activities related to urban agriculture in the city of Atlanta, including agricultural policy development and the conversion of brownfields into urban gardens. The director will also work with community organizations and various City departments to improve growers’ access to public and private land, facilitate the permitting process, obtain necessary zoning permits, support local initiatives, manage code compliance, and address other issues to advance urban agriculture in Atlanta.

If you talk to any farmer or gardener in Detroit, one of the biggest complaints is how difficult the City of Detroit has been to work with regarding agriculture projects. Typically, a farmer or gardener that contacts the City is greeted with skepticism. Farmers often find themselves explaining what a hoophouse or a raised bed is to a confused City employee. The languishing of applications to purchase City-owned property has become routine and expected. All of this points to a basic problem regarding the relationship between the urban agriculture community and the City; the City lacks the appropriate personnel to be able to promote and manage the City’s farms and gardens and also lacks any comprehensive sustainability plan that envisions the future of urban agriculture in Detroit.

Developing a long-term sustainability plan and having an urban agriculture director in Detroit City government would be enormous developments for Detroit’s urban agriculture community. It would signal to Detroit’s urban agriculture community what the City is planning and give them a point person within City government. It’s time the City caught up with the rest of the country.


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