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Urban farms can help plant seeds for cities’ growth around them

In Detroit, an “agrihood” takes shape.

December 20, 2017 |
Michigan Urban Farm Initiative

On two acres within Detroit’s North End, the Michigan Urban Farm Initiative grows 300 varieties of leafy vegetables that it distributes free to 2,000 families who live within two miles of the farm. Like many urban farms around the country, MUFI has spurred redevelopment in its surrounding communities. Photo: Michelle and Chris Gerard

Urban farms have been impacting cities’ agribusiness—and, on some cases, their redevelopment—for decades.

In Philadelphia, for example, the success of Greensgrow Farms—whose 6,000-sf flagship greenhouse celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2017, and whose three locations (which include a retail garden center and farmstand) draw 15,000 people per year—has spurred numerous competitors, and has helped gentrify its surrounding working-class neighborhoods.

Since 2011, Gotham Greens has operated a 15,000-sf enclosed rooftop greenhouse in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, N.Y., that produces over 100,000 lbs of leafy greens annually. The greenhouse is a tenant of the Greenpoint Manufacturing Design Center, a nonprofit developer dedicated to revitalizing Brooklyn’s industrial spaces for small-scale entrepreneurial manufacturing.

Gotham Greens also operates a 20,000-sf greenhouse in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn that grows over 200,000 lbs of greens, herbs, and tomatoes; a five-story, 60,000-sf greenhouse in the Hollis section of Queens, N.Y., that employs 50 full time workers and produces over 5 million heads of leafy greens; and a 75,000-sf greenhouse on two acres of Chicago’s south side that opened in 2015 and now produces 10 million heads of greens and herbs annually.


MUFI is developing what it’s calling America’s first “Agrihood,” which will include the adaptive reuse of several buildings on its three-acre complex. A now-vacant, three-story apartment building that dates back to 1915 (pictured) is being converted into a 3,200-sf Community Resource Center. Catalyst Partners is supervising these rehab projects for MUFI, and Integrity Building Group is the AOE and CM. Other Building Team members include Ingalls Engineering Group (M/PE and net-zero energy consultant), IlluminArt Lighting, a division of Peter Basso (EE), Insite Design Studio (design and CE), Jeremy Ziegler (architect). Photo: Michelle and Chris Gerard


Several urban farms operate in Detroit, including the six-year-old Michigan Urban Farm Initiative (MUFI), which grows 300 varieties of vegetables on two acres in the Motor City’s North End. Since 2012, MUFI has produced more than 50,000 lbs of produce, which it distributes free to 2,000 households within two square miles of the farm.

In November, during the Greenbuild Expo, MUFI announced its plans to develop what it’s calling the first sustainable “Agrihood” in the U.S., as an alternative neighborhood growth model.

Working with such high-profile partners and sponsors as BASF, Herman Miller, and General Motors, MUFI is converting a vacant 102-year-old three-story apartment building across from its urban garden into a 3,200-sf Community Resource Center. The Center will include two commercial kitchens on the first floor and allow for future production and packaging of valued goods.

On land next to the CRC, MUFI intends to open a healthy food café. It also plans to convert an existing single-family home on the farm’s premises to housing for the farm’s interns. The foundation of another single-family home has been fortified to support a two-bedroom home made from a shipping container. And the basement of a recently fire-damaged and deconstructed home on the farm’s border is being converted into a 12,000-gallon rainwater harvesting cistern that will be used to irrigate the farm and prevent runoff into Detroit’s sewer system.

Integrity Building Group is AOR and provides architecture services and construction for the farm. One of MUFI’s partners, Sustainable Brands, will debut the CRC and café at its conference in Detroit’s Cobo Arena next May.

“Cities are the future, but we can’t just rebuild the same inefficient buildings of the past,” says John Beeson, LEED AP BD+C, EBO+M, a project manager with Catalyst Partners in Grand Rapids, Mich., which is supervising these reconstructions for MUFI. “The question we’re trying to answer is whether we can do urban infill better.”

Tyson Gersh, MUFI’s cofounder, says that while urban redevelopment “was not on our radar screen at first,” it has become a priority, partly for political reasons, but also because “it’s hard for an urban farm to justify itself on its own.”

Gersh observed “quite a few people” who were buying blighted homes around the farm. (He’s identified at least $3.5 million in purchases so far.) Several of those new owners told Gerson they wouldn’t have heard of this neighborhood were it not for the farm.

MUFI is now working with several developers—including The Platform, Basco, Terranova Development, and South Oakland Shelter—on another residential project that would be two blocks from the farm.


Photo: Michelle and Chris Gerard

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