Detroit Aims for Food Sovereignty

Plum street market garden / Jared Green
Plum street market garden / Jared Green

There are 165 acres of urban gardens and farms under cultivation in Detroit, Michigan. In a tour, Ken Weikal, ASLA, co-founder of the non-profit GrowTown and the firm Hagenbuch Weikal Landscape Architecture, explained that everyone from Capuchin Monks to non-profit cooperatives, university labs to self-sufficient farmers, corporations to small businesses are involved in using Detroit’s vacant lands to produce food. The goals of these efforts are to increase food production “for Detroiters and by Detroiters,” generate new sources of income, and build community. The grand, long-term vision: “food sovereignty” for this resurgent rust-belt city.

A few farms we toured downtown were examples of corporate social responsibility efforts — spaces for company employees to volunteer. For example, an empty lot next to the MGM Grand casino and hotel in downtown Detroit was transformed into Plum Street Market Garden, where everyone volunteering the day we went was wearing an MGM employee t-shirt (see image above). The 2-acre garden produces 20 types of fruits and vegetables. MGM has invested some $600,000 in the project so far, and partnered with Keep Growing Detroit, a local non-profit, to hold some 60 community classes there a year.

Another example is Lafayette Greens, a nearly half-acre garden set in the empty lot where once stood the historic Lafayette building. The garden was financed and administered by Compuware Corporation, which has its headquarters a block away, but is now run by the Greening of Detroit, a non-profit. Designed by Beth Hagenbuch, ASLA, a partner at Hagenbuch Weikal Landscape Architecture, the market garden won an ASLA 2012 Professional General Design Award. Weikal said the garden helped start the conversation downtown among everyone from policy-makers to school kids and tourists about the opportunities with urban gardening.

Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green

Heirloom apple trees line one edge of the garden. “They have ornamental, productive, and screening qualities.”

Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green

Within the garden, raised beds, with smart benches at the end, grow a range of herbs and vegetables. “The beds are programmed like a museum exhibition but for flavor and color. They are vegetal exhibitions.”

Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green

Sheds made of reclaimed wood house gardening tools and supplies.

Lafayette Greens / Jared Green
Lafayette Greens / Jared Green

Detroit’s bottom-up food movement was the focus of a session at the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU). Ashley Atkinson, who runs Keep Growing Detroit, explained that urban farming and gardening is not a new thing in Detroit. In the 1890s, Republican Mayor Pinzen Stuart Pingree, who was elected to four terms, encouraged the poor and hungry to grow food. “He was the laughing stock of the country, but hunger was reduced dramatically.” Urban farming was seen as “low value, low education work,” but decades later, during World War I and World War II, nearly “every major city practiced urban farming.”

The mission of Keep Growing Detroit is food sovereignty in Detroit. “We want the majority of food vegetables in Detroit to be grown by Detroiters.” Her goal is to transform some 40 square miles of vacant land in the city into productive assets. Keep Growing doesn’t differentiate between “family gardens, school or market gardens.”

In 2003, Keep Growing Detroit started a garden resource program to grow seeds and transplants. They had to build this whole system from the ground-up, because “no one knew where to get these.” They now grow 250,000 organic transplants a year that are given away to the community. “We distribute them equitably” through local educational workshops and training sessions. In every district of the city, local farmers lead these training sessions. There are also tool sheds where hand tools and shovels can be borrowed for free, and compost centers where some 200 tons of compost worth $1.5 million is also distributed at no charge. And “we use shared work days and community events to build community infrastructure. Plus, we eat a lot together.”

Keep Growing Detroit education and transplant distribution / Keep Growing Detroit
Keep Growing Detroit education and transplant distribution / Keep Growing Detroit
Keep Growing Detroit family demonstration garden / Keep Growing Detroit
Keep Growing Detroit family demonstration garden / Keep Growing Detroit

Her group then formed Grown in Detroit, a collaborative network of some 80 gardeners and farmers who sell their produce at farmers markets and to local restaurants. According to Atkinson, “some $100,000 is made and 100 percent of that money goes to the growers.” There is also a network of 1,400 community gardeners who help bring healthy food to the neighborhoods. They are part of an effort to establish healthy eating behavior among very young children. “If we can introduce healthy food recipes and cooking at a young age, we can impact them their whole lives.”

Grown in Detroit produce at Eastern Market, Detroit / Seed sow grow
Grown in Detroit produce at Eastern Market, Detroit / Seed sow grow

In 2013, the Detroit city government finally changed regulations so urban farming is now legal. While Atkinson considers that a win, she has a much broader vision: 25 percent of the 40 square miles of vacant land, which is some 5,000 acres, under cultivation. With that much farming, “we can produce 70 percent of the vegetables and 40 percent of the fruit consumed in Detroit and raise incomes.”

Urban farm, Detroit / Jared Green
Urban farm, Detroit / Jared Green

Devita Davidson, who heads communications for FoodLab Detroit, made the moral argument for local food production. “If you look closely at the supermarket, it’s a facade. The industrial food system is the site of injustice; the food system is failing so many people.” While she sees Detroit as the “comeback city,” she still sees major issues: 70 percent of adults are obese as are 40 percent of kids. “Detroit is dying from diet-related diseases.” She wants some of those locally-grown fruits and vegetables to be transformed into value-added products like ketchups, salsas, jams, and sauces. Her group’s innovative effort — Detroit Kitchen Connect, which was been lauded by Oprah Winfrey — enables local entrepreneurs to use restaurant, church, and other facility kitchens during off-hours to develop their products. Such a smart variation on the sharing economy, with food justice and social equity at its heart.

Devita Davidson, Detroit Kitchen Connect / Be a localist.org
Devita Davidson, Detroit Kitchen Connect / Be a localist.org

And Pashon Murray, a co-founder of Detroit Dirt, sees access to good-quality compost as central to the entire food sovereignty effort. She said Americans are incredibly wasteful, disposing of $218 billion in uneaten food, which is then dumped into landfills. “Some 52 million tons of food waste is sent to landfills each year, while 10 million tons is just left in the fields.” Much of that food waste can instead be collected and turned into compost, revitalizing soils in the process. Plus, “waste recovery equals revenue and jobs.”

Pashon Murray, Detroit Dirt / Twenty Ten Club
Pashon Murray, Detroit Dirt / Twenty Ten Club

She has partnered with GM and Chrysler, collecting their food waste from factory cafeterias weekly and turning it into compost that is then distributed to local gardeners and farmers. To do this work, she hires ex-cons, “people we associate with dirt, the forgotten and left-behind.”

Pashon Murray, Detroit Dirt / The Detroit Hub
Pashon Murray, Detroit Dirt / The Detroit Hub

Her dream is to raise enough funds for an “in-vessel composter digester” that will help her scale up compost production. She hopes to realize this in 2017. “Compost is the root of the soil, and soil is the foundation.”

Habitat III: Towards a Vision for Sustainable Cities

habitat3
Habitat III / UN Habitat

“The battle for sustainable development will be won or lost in cities.” So reads the preamble to the New Urban Agenda, a draft document recently released by UN-Habitat ahead of its Habitat III Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, to be held this October in Quito, Ecuador. Habitat III, which picks up 20 years after Habitat II in Istanbul, Turkey, aims to help global cities cope with climate change and exploding population growth by offering a global plan for sustainable urbanization over the next two decades. UN Habitat has spent the past year collecting input from around the world for this new plan; their hope is it represents the latest global thinking on sustainability and cities and captures the collective wisdom of academia, non-governmental organizations, citizens groups, and local and national governments.

Here are some highlighted ideas in the latest draft, which will continue to be debated, but will ultimately become, in some form, part of the agreement among 150-plus national governments meeting in Quito:

Preserve nature to build sustainability and resilience

The New Urban Agenda notes that cities, many of which are on coasts or rivers, are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change. As such, national governments will be asked to commit to sustainable urban development efforts that protect the environment, preserve natural resources, reduce risks associated with natural disasters, and promote economic and social well-being. This is to be done through “environmentally-sound planning, infrastructure, and basic services.”

A very positive step: the current draft gives special consideration to the protection of ecological corridors, urban deltas, coastal areas, “and other environmentally sensitive areas, highlighting their importance as ecosystems’ providers of significant resources for transport, food security, economic prosperity, ecosystem services, and resilience.”

The agenda also focuses on a common issues for cities: their heavy reliance on distant sources of food, water, and energy, and the implications for sustainability and resilience.

While these statements might not sound groundbreaking, they represent a sea change in the thinking on how cities should perform since the Habitat II conference twenty years ago.

Urban form and infrastructure are key to prosperous and equitable cities

The agenda describes affordable housing options and quality public spaces as two ingredients necessary for a prosperous and equitable city for all.

The agenda contains strong language on affordable housing. Adequate housing for all is seen as key to raising urban living standards. Also, cities, the document reads, should focus “on the needs of the homeless and persons in vulnerable situations, while enabling participation and engagement of communities and stakeholders.” This is a change from an earlier draft that some considered weak with regards to supporting under-served populations.

The principles of efficient land use and appropriate density, along with considerations for safety and security, inter-generational interaction, and respect for diversity, will guide the development of public spaces.

Public space is central to sustainable urbanization

The latest draft calls for national governments to commit to “developing universally safe, inclusive, accessible, green and quality public spaces.” This includes parks and public squares but also streets and sidewalks. Multi-functional spaces — those that serve “social interaction and inclusion, economic exchange and cultural expression among a wide diversity of people” — will be prioritized.

Patricia O’Donnell, FASLA, principal of Heritage Landscapes LLC, who has followed the Habitat discussion for several years, believes the agenda can still be improved. “My key issue,” O’Donnell said, “is having Habitat III outcomes recognize the critical intersections of cultural diversity and biodiversity upon which life on earth depends.”

O’Donnell expressed hope that the agenda items and outcomes of the conference would make a difference. “Action will rely on the commitment of leaders at the national level in any country, to champion and give voice to the objectives and programs.”

For too long national governments have not provided enough financial support to cities as they seek to transition to more sustainable forms of growth. Hopefully, Habitat III, which will be approved by all the leading housing and urban development officials of the world, will lead to more smart planning and increased investment in our cities, which are expected to be home to 2.5 billion people by 2050.

It’s Time to Get Political

Earth Day political rally, National Mall, Washington, D.C. / Earth Day
Earth Day political rally, National Mall, Washington, D.C. / Earth Day

Social justice. Environmental stewardship. Enduring aesthetic beauty. An expanded role for landscape architects. These were the predominant themes in the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF)’s Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

These goals are admirable and worthy of the profession’s best efforts. But what many of the speakers at the summit neglected to discuss – as did the authors of the original declaration 50 years ago, upon which LAF was established – is that landscape architects must increase their access to power if their hope of a society more reflective of their core values is to be realized. The act of envisioning alternative futures – something landscape architects excel at – is a political act. It’s time we build upon our design acumen by participating directly in the legislative landscape.

So when the LAF asks what we need to prioritize over the next 50 years, my answer is the continued development of design intelligence through research and practice is a necessary but insufficient means of achieving the profession’s lofty ambitions. We also need a strategy for placing more landscape architects into the elected, appointed, and bureaucratic offices where the big decisions about how to plan, design, and manage the land are made. This is how we construct a positive feedback loop between private and academic practice, which can bring invention and creativity, and government, which offers a tremendous scale of impact.

Building this electoral infrastructure won’t be easy, but it should become a core component of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)’s and the LAF’s post-summit work. These organizations can create a mechanism for identifying and supporting potential candidates for public office from within the profession.

Though the profession is not in the same financial position as, say, trial lawyers, the good news is many of the most impactful elected positions are not prohibitively expensive to pursue. There are 7,382 state legislative offices, most of which are part-time and would allow landscape architects to remain in their private practice or academic positions. The same is true of the nearly 1,500 city council positions that are spread across the nation’s largest 250 cities. Surely our profession can muster a handful of worthy and willing candidates for at least a few of the nearly 9,000 positions available to our members.

In addition to putting some of our established and emerging voices forward as candidates for elected office, the ASLA and LAF should partner with academic departments of landscape architecture to build a pipeline for placing our new graduates in the state and federal agencies responsible for regulating and financing the bulk of our professional work: the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Bureau of Land Management, among others.

Fortunately, much of this work has already been done for us. The Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) program, a two-year leadership development program aimed at recruiting and grooming the next generation of public servants, is readily available to anyone who has recently earned a graduate degree. The ASLA and LAF are already planning to host a series of webinars aimed at guiding landscape architecture graduate students through the PMF application process. They should now look for ways to provide incentives for students who are interested in pursuing this path, including travel scholarships to and from the PMF interview sites.

ASLA should also create professional and student award categories that recognize excellence in policy-related work. And our academic departments should better prepare our students for this option by broadening the scope of design education to include coursework in policy analysis and, where appropriate, dual-degree offerings in landscape architecture and public policy.

Our colleagues in architecture and urban planning blazed this path decades ago, and their dominance in professional staff ranks of the HUD, DOT, and EPA reflect the success of their strategy. HUD’s award criteria for its Choice Neighborhoods grant program is nearly identical to that of the LEED Neighborhood Development (ND) rating system developed by architects and planners in the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU). Their influence on this vital program is not the result of boisterous or pleading rhetoric. It is because the Choice Neighborhoods program, and many others like it, was designed by the CNU’s own architects and planners — people like Shelley Poticha, Polly Trottenberg, and Shaun Donovan. Ceding this professional space to CNU planners and architects is akin to sitting at home on Election Day and complaining about the results.

As a junior staffer in the White House Domestic Policy Council during President Obama’s first term, I worked alongside many of these professionals. I remain convinced that for landscape architects to achieve a level of success commensurate with the scale of their stated ambitions, they must wade directly into the muck and mire of electoral politics. CNU became the conduits for channeling the creativity and intelligence of planning and architectural practice into the rule-making and regulatory power of the federal government. It’s time that ASLA and LAF do the same.

This guest post is by Billy Fleming, Student ASLA, doctor of city and regional planning candidate, University of Pennsylvania.

James Corner’s Icebergs Float into the National Building Museum

Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM
Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM

James Corner, ASLA, is passionate about climate change, but he is also passionate about fun. How can these diametrically-opposed interests be combined? Icebergs, the newest summer installation at National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. created by Corner’s firm Field Operations, aims to show us how.

Facts about these floating ice chunks, which break off from glaciers or ice shelfs, are found on giant iceberg teepees scattered throughout the installation, which visitors can walk around, through, and, in one instance, climb inside to the top. In real life, some 75 percent of icebergs’ mass is found beneath the water line. Corner’s installation clearly illustrates this, using a 20-foot-tall blue mesh ceiling to separate the vast undersea world from the surface, which can be only accessed when you climb up inside one iceberg and look out over the vista of the entire installation.

Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM
Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM
Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM
Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM

Very small icebergs — apparently their technical name is “growlers” — hang from the ceiling, and they can be appreciated both from below and when at the surface. Bean bag chairs shaped like floating ice chunks dot the floors.

Icebergs / Aaron King
Icebergs / Aaron King
Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM
Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM

Coupled with this subtle education on icebergs is the immersive experience, the fun factor. At the preview, Corner said: “We wanted to design an interactive environment for people that will surprise, delight, and intrigue.” Corner also wanted it to have coolness, and be “literally cool,” hence the blue mesh walls.

Climbing inside a massive iceberg sheathed in dappled blue light, visitors can enjoy a sense of discovery as they climb up to the overlook point and then find the slide, which is very fast and seems primarily designed for kids.

Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM
Icebergs / Tim Schenck, NBM
Icebergs / Aaron King
Icebergs / Aaron King

As visitors pop out the bottom of the slide, or walk around to end, they come to a shaved ice stand run by local Japanese restaurant Daikaya, which is perhaps the only literally cold aspect in this installation. The interiors of acrylic panel and wood icebergs were fairly balmy and may get even more so as they are packed with sweaty DC-ers and tourists this summer.

Corner made a point of describing the challenges of constructing Icebergs in just two weeks. To make this tight deadline, his team designed the iceberg forms to be modular, using the same-sized isosceles triangle piece, which enabled them to create icebergs 8, 16, 24, 32, and 56 feet tall. But “it was a complicated, herculean effort” accomplished by the National Building Museum’s team of carpenters.

Enjoy the icebergs and shaved ice until September 5. Admission is $10 for members and $16 for non-members, less for students. Corner has also designed a nice series of t-shirts and floaty pens.