Questioning agriculture in Detroit's future

Stewart Brand envisions urban agriculture feeding a city like Mumbai, he talks about 30-story indoor grow ops capable of feeding 50,000 people.

There could be great academic research value in converting an abandoned auto factory into a grow op, but MSU says they aren’t looking for a facility of their own. MSU officials say the MFPIC@D program might, as some indeterminate point in the future, acquire 8-10 acres in the city for a greenhouse or something. That doesn't jibe with the vision of local agriculture in hyper-urban cities. Outside of pure academic research, it’s hard to see why anyone would invest in large-scale vertical agriculture in Detroit when, as everyone loves to remind us, Detroit has an abundance of unused land. Unlike in Mumbai, it's still cheaper to grow horizontally instead of vertically.

It's worth asking if what we call urban agriculture in Detroit is existentially “urban agriculture,” or is it just regular old agriculture in a place that was once urban? Maybe that’s just the bitter reality that Detroit must accept—but for the greater downtown core and few other pockets of density, much of Detroit is no longer legitimately “urban.”

Fair enough, reality being reality and all that.

Still the terraforming of Detroit from city to farm (a process that began long before urban farming was a thing) isn’t some grand opportunity, it’s a tragedy. It’s a process that, coupled with the terraforming of southeast Michigan farmland into exurban communities, comes with tremendous economic and ecological costs.

There’s no large-scale agricultural project so far proposed for Detroit that otherwise couldn’t be done on any of the many thousands of acres of farmland in Michigan. It’s happening here because we’ve got nothing better left in Detroit.

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