Detroit, Mich., was once a booming metropolitan center, largely due to the major car companies that were headquartered in the city. After these companies left, the city saw the rise of vacant lots and the rapid loss of available jobs. A new movement has taken over the city: Community gardens have begun to fill the empty lots, and urban farming entrepreneurs have started a local food economy to respond to the city's growing food deserts. Urban Roots is a new documentary which shows the history, current processes and hopeful future (along with its potential roadblocks) for the thriving urban agriculture that has blossomed in Detroit. Leila Conners, Urban Roots filmmaker, answered a few questions about the film and its representation of the local foods movement that is springing up in cities across the U.S.
What made you decide to focus on the projects in Detroit?
The film, Urban Roots, emerged from Detroit because urban farming has taken hold in that city for many reasons. First, the city has more vacant lots than any other American city, so there is a lot of land available for farming. Second, due to the collapse of the US car industry, Detroit has lost jobs over the last 3 decades, therefore entrepreneurial growth around urban farming and a local food economy has arisen to fill the need for jobs and to create a viable, local economy. Urban farming is not just happening in Detroit, it is happening all over the country and all over the world. We focused on Detroit as it shows how people can heal a city recovering from the collapse of the industrial era.
How do you see the Detroit model spreading into other cities? Are there certain steps or recommendations you can make for people interested in doing these same processes?
I wouldn't’t call it the “Detroit model.” What is happening around the country, spontaneously, is a response to the end of the industrial era. There is a drive to create a new food system that is not so centralized as the current food system is unable to provide, healthy, fresh, organic food to many people in this country. Food deserts are everywhere, and many people only have access to highly processed, unhealthy food. Urban farming is emerging as communities wake up and realize that they can do better growing food for themselves. If people want to start creating a local food economy, and start helping create a community that can share healthy, fresh, organic food…the best advice is to start a garden, start a small farm. Cooperate with your neighbors, use your front lawns, your back lawns, your roofs, your window sills.
Has there been any advancement in city policy since the making of the film? What is the current status or focus around the need for changes to the ordinances and zoning in order to make urban agriculture legal and more feasible?
The need to change city ordinances, in Detroit and elsewhere, is important. Most cities do not have a provision for urban farming and Detroit is working on it. Thomas Linzey of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund is working on a “Sustainable Food Systems Ordinance” that can help communities ensure their legal rights to grow food and create a local food economy.
The movie featured many entrepreneurs, but are there any programs to teach people how to grow their own gardens and prepare, cook and preserve their own harvests?
In most communities, there are community gardens that have farmers and gardeners who are very willing to help others learn how to grow food. The whole process of urban farming, harvesting, cooking, recipes, etc. is taking off across the country and you just have to get connected, seek out these resources in your neighborhood and take it from there.
Any additional comments or ideas you would like to share with our readers?
The biggest take-away message from Urban Roots is community self-reliance and cooperation. In order to create the sustainable world we are all seeking, we all have to take part. And starting a community garden is a good way to begin creating the change we all want to see.
Jennifer Kongs is the Managing Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. When she’s not working at the magazine, she’s likely working in her garden, on the local running trails or in her kitchen instead. You can find Jennifer on Twitter or Google+.
Photo credit: Fotolia