Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Legalising Urban Agriculture in Detroit: A Contested Way of Planning for Decline

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Legalising Urban Agriculture in Detroit: A Contested Way of Planning for Decline

Article excerpt

Shrinking cities are not just 'urban areas that have experienced population loss, economic downturn, employment decline and social problems as symptoms of a structural crisis' (Martinez-Fernandez et al., 2012, 2), as they also offer opportunities for new uses of urban space. Although the effects of shrinkage can be dramatic (Downs, 1997; Smith et al., 2001; Rappaport, 2003), it has been argued that shrinking cities are places where urban sustainability can be experimented with and where environmental innovations can be an important catalyst for change (Wachter, 2005; Schilling, 2007; Hollander, 2010; Mulligan, 2014). In the shrinking cities of the north American 'Rust Belt', urban agriculture is one of the most publicised 'green strategies' that has been acknowledged for providing economic social, and environmental benefits (Mogk et al., 2008; Schilling and Logan, 2008; Gallagher, 2010; LaCroix, 2010). Food access issues have been analysed within the framework of 'food deserts' (Zenk et al., 2005; Gallagher, 2007), whereas community food systems have been explored as a way to improve food access for residents (Pothukuchi, 2015). In several of these cities, planning for decline (Pallagst et al., 2013) and 'smart decline' policies (Popper and Popper, 2002; Hollander and Popper, 2007; Hollander and Németh, 2011) have included urban agriculture in their plan, such as in Cleveland or Youngstown, and the zoning has been modified to legalise urban agriculture (LaCroix, 2010). Yet a smaller body of work has a more sceptical and critical approach towards urban agriculture in shrinking cities, focused on remaining unjust dynamics for people of colour, women and marginalised communities (Draus et al., 2014) or on green marketing as a part of unequal right-sizing politics (Rhodes and Russo, 2013; Safransky, 2014).

Focusing on making urban agriculture a legal land-use in Detroit is therefore an opportunity for us to assess both the advantages and drawbacks of legalising urban agriculture in a shrinking city. We argue that urban agriculture in shrinking cities has been embedded in a 'mutual benefits' narrative, since shrinkage is presented as an opportunity for urban agriculture - usually threatened by urban growth and development - and since urban agriculture is portrayed as a multifaceted tool to reduce the negative impacts of shrinkage. In this context, legalising urban agriculture would be an opportunity to plan for decline while increasing the assumed ongoing benefits. Land access and security are indeed key planning features to stabilise and expand urban agriculture. Yet, it does not necessarily solve all of the issues faced by urban growers, especially as land management is troubled in shrinking cities. We contend that legalising urban agriculture is not a beneficial or just practice per se, allowing a city to shrink 'better'. Through a case study of Detroit, we therefore explore how the content, implementation, and debates concerning new zoning legislation legalising urban agriculture can help us go beyond the 'mutual benefits' narrative. It will allow us to reflect on remaining issues and better assess and plan for decline while including urban agriculture in shrinking cities.

Detroit, the former capital of the automobile industry has now been a shrinking city for decades and is considered to be at the forefront of the urban agriculture movement in the United States (Morgan, 2015). It suffered from a severe deindustrialisation process lasting more than half a century that hit the Rust Belt particularly hard. Since 1950, Detroit has lost more than a million people and hundreds of thousands of jobs. The city's population dropped from 1.8 million inhabitants in 1960 to 951,000 in 2000 and only 681,000 inhabitants in 2014. The city has endured a generalised urban crisis (Sugrue, 1996), resulting in a highly segregated and deprived city, as its population is 83 per cent African American in a predominantly White metropolitan area and 38 per cent of its population is under the poverty line (US Census Bureau, 2012). …

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