Imagine driving down a typical suburban grid of streets, but to the left and right, the houses have been replaced with a giant tree farm. Farther down the road, families are still living in homes, but every few lots the urban forest pops up again. Welcome to the lower east side of Detroit, 2014.
After five years of navigating through municipal red tape—not an easy process with a rapidly shifting succession of city officials who all needed to agree simultaneously—a company called Hantz Farms finally has the green light to plant what they say is the world’s largest urban farm.
The project is funded by John Hantz, a Detroit businessman who wanted to reverse the trend of foreclosures, putting property in the hands of a city that can't afford to maintain it. With the surplus of city-owned properties flooding the market, entrepreneurs didn’t have a good incentive to invest in land. Hantz, on the other hand, felt that investing in land would pay for itself in time, transforming neighborhoods and making them livable again, says Michael Score, who is CEO of Hantz Farms.
Hantz thought the answer could be an urban farm, and Score had been wondering the same thing when the two met. As an agriculture expert who was born in Detroit, Score was looking for a way to help his hometown. He was working with a gardening organization that taught former prisoners to start micro-enterprises, but the work was often discouraging—after selling produce, the would-be gardeners would often start buying drugs again.
One day, walking through the Detroit neighborhood where his great-grandparents had originally settled, Score had a realization: "I was standing next to a big field and when I looked at it I thought, it’s not a garden Detroit needs, it’s a large-scale farm." Four years later, he met Hantz, who was looking for someone to help make that happen.
Hantz Farms will buy up around 1,450 vacant lots, take down 50 houses that are so dilapidated they’ve been deemed dangerous, and plant 15,000 hardwood trees. The plan originally called for apple trees, but since neighbors didn’t want pesticides nearby—and worried that the apples would attract rats—the company is starting with maples and oaks.
Score says the neighbors are now enthusiastic. In anticipation that they’d soon have a deal, the company started mowing vacant, overgrown properties earlier this year. As they worked, neighbors came out to thank them, and eventually started fixing up their own yards. "We’ve seen people fix up porches, paint their houses, one family put a roof on their house last summer. It’s really beginning to give people a reason to stay," Score says. "That was the intention."
Hantz envisions the new tree farm as being something like a lake: a beautiful place that will attract more people to live nearby. As the city becomes more vibrant, the company hopes that isolated lots in existing neighborhoods can eventually become housing again, though the larger block of the farm is intended to be permanent.
It’s an idea the company thinks could work in other places—not just throughout Detroit, which now has a staggering 200,000 surplus parcels, but in other Michigan cities like Flint or Saginaw, and in other states as well. "We’re not the last city that will have to work to repurpose large plots of land," Score says.