Detroit Should Aim Higher In Its Blight Fight


Renderings for a mixed-use development in Boston’s Mission Hill neighborhood

Over the past several decades, mayors and emergency managers have come and gone in Detroit without solving what is perhaps the City’s most fundamental problem: it continues to lose residents. The problems from this decline in population are obvious and have been well documented. A declining population means a declining tax base leaving the City with less money to provide basic services. Further, when residents leave their property, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, it often remains vacated for several years and becomes what many describe as “blighted.” Research has connected blighted properties to all kinds of problems from increased crime rates to decreased property values for neighbors.

The enormity of the problem that blighted properties present to Detroit and it’s residents is neither something new nor is it an unknown. It was recently estimated that there are approximately 78,000 vacant structures in Detroit as well as 60,000 parcels of vacant land. Given the prevalence of the problem, the promise to fight blight has become perhaps the most common campaign promise for each mayoral candidate. Kwame Kilpatrick promised to demolish 5,000 structures in his first year in office. Dave Bing promised to demolish 10,000 structures in his first term. Now it’s Mike Duggan’s turn.

Mayor Duggan’s goal is to remove all blight by 2020.  A recent report stated that in the first 7 months of Duggan’s administration, the City has torn down 5,812 structures. It was also estimated that these recent demolitions have helped to raise the property values of surrounding homes within 500 feet of a demolished, vacant structure by 4.2%. However, the high number of demolitions over the past year have largely been made possible by an influx of federal money. The U.S. Department of Treasury gave Detroit $100 million to demolish blighted and vacant residential structures. That pool of money is expected to run out in December. Mayor Duggan estimated that the City needs $400 to $500 million to meets its ambitious goal and has acknowledged that only the federal government can provide that kind of funding.

While Mayor Duggan has plans to go back to Washington D.C. to lobby for more funding, Detroit must look to solutions beyond demolitions in its fight against blight. First, there’s the problem of the presidential election next November. Given the expressed disdain of almost every Republican candidate for federal government spending, it’s very likely that if a Republican wins the White House the financial support that has been flowing to Detroit from a diverse array of federal agencies would dry up. Second, there’s the issue of coming up with a plan for abandoned parcels once the structure is demolished. The City still lacks a comprehensive plan for repurposing the enormous amount of vacant land.

While the demolition of vacant structures is an important part of the fight against blight, it’s only half the battle. Even assuming that the City is demolishing structures in accordance with best practices, once an abandoned structure is torn down it’s still a vacant lot. While a vacant lot is often not as detrimental as a vacant structure, vacant lots are still hotspots for illegal dumping and crime. They also often have a negative impact on neighboring property values, particularly if they are left unmaintained.

For several years, many Detroiters have been calling for the City to embrace agriculture as a solution for repurposing vacant land. Doing so would provide many benefits to the City and its residents. First, many gardens and farms would provide health benefits to the surrounding community. As detailed in the previous post, diet-related health conditions are the leading cause of hospitalizations and deaths in Detroit. Providing land for farms and gardens can help to reduce those diet-related health conditions. Studies have shown that individuals that participate in a garden or farm typically consume more fruits and vegetables and less sweet foods and soft-drinks than the average American. The act of farming or gardening is also a great form of exercise that has been shown to reduce the risk of obesity, coronary heart disease, and diabetes. Lastly, urban gardens are farms often serve as social centers for communities and provides a place for neighbors to interact in a visible, open space and to feel safe while doing so.

However, beyond the health and social benefits, research has also shown that urban farms and gardens provide significant financial benefits in the form of raised property values. A study by Ioan Voicu and Vicki Been found that urban gardens and farms raised the property values of all properties within 1,000 feet. Significantly, the study found that the greatest increases in property values were found in low-income neighborhoods; it found that urban gardens and farms raised neighborhood property values by as much as 6.2% in one year and by as much as 9.4% in 5 years. It seems intuitive and the numbers appear to confirm the intuition: turning an abandoned property with a structure into an urban garden or farm is more valuable than turning an abandoned property with a structure into an abandoned property without a structure.

Given the multi-faceted benefits that urban gardens and farms can provide to Detroit and its residents, the City should be encouraging and incentivizing residents that want to transform vacant lots into productive agricultural spaces. At a minimum, this should include providing nonprofit and for-profit urban farm and garden enterprises with cheap access to land as well as financial support to help defray startup costs.

However, the topic of land has always been a contentious one in Detroit and that is no different for those involved in urban agriculture. Many urban farmers and gardeners have grown to the point where they are thinking about investing a lot of time and money into a specific space and before doing so want to make sure their investment is protected. As such, many urban farmers and gardeners are no longer asking for a lease but instead are asking for the chance to purchase their property. In many instances, this request has been met with reluctance by the City. The City’s primary concern is that selling property to an urban farmer or gardener will limit the value the City will receive from that property in the future. While an urban farm or garden may make sense given the lack of demand for most vacant lots, it may not make sense decades from now when demand for real property will presumably have increased based on Detroit’s revitalization. Therefore, in many neighborhoods, the City continues to hold onto land waiting for its renaissance moment.


An 8,000 square foot greenhouse perched on the roof of an affordable housing development in the South Bronx

In sacrificing the certainty of current benefits for the hope of greater future benefits, the City is hampering its own revitalization. The hope of greater future benefits is also a gamble the City has been losing for decades and it’s time to change course. It is long overdue, but many in Detroit are finally perceiving Detroit’s large geographic space as an opportunity to reimagine the urban setting as opposed to an obstacle to its renewal. One such way many developers and cities are reimagining the urban landscape is by integrating urban farms and gardens into new development projects. In the South Bronx, an 8,000 square foot greenhouse was incorporated into an affordable housing development. In Boston, a mixed-use development will incorporate a garden and a solar farm. These projects are part of a growing trend amongst developers who view urban agriculture as an amenity for tenants similar to a gym. For developers, it provides an opportunity to make their project stand out from others. For the City, it provides the opportunity to expand the scope of a development outside of the four walls to the community as a whole.

Given its space, Detroit is in a prime position to capitalize on the benefits urban agriculture projects provide as stand-alone developments and on the trend of incorporating urban agriculture projects into housing and commercial developments. To do so, the City needs to start thinking beyond demolitions towards how those newly vacant properties will be repurposed to fit into Detroit’s future.

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