May 29, 2022 -- Where are Detroit's gardens?

Cities love to talk about urban agriculture. It's a green infrastructure, it's food justice, it's community space. But where exactly is it? Honestly, most cities don't know. And when so many of the benefits that cities love to talk about are localized to the neighborhoods near the gardens, not knowing who lives nearby is a problem.

To address this gap, we developed a method to map a random sample of gardens in any US city using satellite imagery and Google Street View. In our first application of this method, we mapped the community and home gardens in Detroit. Nowhere does the question of access to urban gardens mean more than in Detroit, where urban gardening and food sovereignty efforts have become a pillar of a community facing extreme disinvestment.

We reviewed the existing literature on garden locations in cities, and we found that previous work had linked gardens to socio-demographics like race, income, and education, as well as built environment features like building density and neighborhood age. After mapping more than 600 home and community gardens in Detroit, we used spatial regression and model selection to determine what neighborhood characteristics were most associated with urban gardens. What we found raised our eyebrows. Gardens in Detroit are widespread, but access to them is clearly unequal.

Map of urban gardens in Detroit; Map credit: Dimitrios Gounaridis - Copyright: Elsevier

In Detroit, a city that is 78% Black, gardens are more likely to appear in places with less Black folks and more diverse communities (in other words, in communities with more white folks and folks of other racial backgrounds). Community gardens in particular seem to pop up in neighborhoods with more young, affluent, and well-educated residents. Even more, gardens in Detroit cluster in neighborhoods where evictions, vacancies, and demolitions peaked in years past, where signs of urban renewal have grown more common. All in all... those who read last week's post probably think it sounds like gardens are following (or causing) gentrification.

In fact, this wouldn't really be a surprise - work in St. Louis, the only other post-industrial shrinking city to study garden locations, had found evidence of garden-fueled gentrification, as had the booming urban areas of Portland and New York. As it turns out, though, gentrification is an extremely complex phenomenon, and measuring it quantitatively (so we can map it in comparison to gardens) is very difficult. Fortunately, Data Driven Detroit (D3) was one of the early partners of the Turning the Corner project, which sought to remedy this challenge. By combing rich qualitative and broad quantitative indicators the groups sought to develop localized measures of potential gentrification, using them to flag neighborhoods undergoing or at risk of gentrification. For more details, see my recent blog post on measuring gentrification and the ways we worked around this in Detroit. By testing for correlation between D3's gentrification warning signs and our garden map, we were able to say, beyond a reasonable doubt: there is no evidence of garden-induced gentrification in Detroit.

Wait, what?

All of this leaves us with a pretty confusing picture. Gardens appear in stable, relatively high-income, high-education communities. They appear less in Black neighborhoods. All of this points to a familiar phenomenon: gardens are attracting new, predominantly white and Asian residents who are in turn displacing long-time Black communities. But, as far as we can tell, this isn't what's happening? How, then, in Detroit of all places, are gardens still unequal? How do Black folks still have less access to gardens that have for so long been associated with Black resilience and food sovereignty?

We develop two explanations. First, we may not be measuring all aspects of gentrification, especially early-stage gentrification. Second, we are likely seeing the results of a parallel process called minoritization, unearthed by Dr. Alesia Montgomery in her recent book, Greening the Black Urban Regime: The Culture and Commerce of Sustainability in Detroit.

So, first, let's revisit how we measure gentrification - as discussed in my last post, it's complicated and fraught. Even modern, mixed-methods indicators have been shown to have limitations, especially early in the gentrification process. With that in mind, it would be irresponsible not to acknowledge that we are probably missing some nuance in the process of gentrification, even with the rich and localized indicator developed by D3.

But we hypothesize that there's something more here. As documented by countless scholars (see work by Colasanti, Pothukuchi, Safransky, and others below), the modern Detroit food movement is a contested one. Although big project like Hantz farms dominate the headline, the reframing of Detroit as a "frontier" ready for resettlement has disenfranchised and alienated many of Detroit original residents, and the centering of white "super heroes" like Dan Gilbert has disempowered the very communities that have held Detroit together through many years of state retreat. In all, this led Montgomery to put forth a new framing for the loss of Black power, voice, and culture in Detroit - in addition to gentrification driven by displacement, Montgomery documents minoritization driven by co-opting of Black narratives (like food sovereignty) and exploitation of labor (like gardening). This led us to argue that, while property values across Detroit may not be consistently strong enough to lead to widespread green gentrification, there seems to have been a tidal shift in who is supporting and who has access to gardens. In the "new" Detroit, gardens are not only linked to resilience and food sovereignty - they are also valorized as an "amenity" and correspondingly being to appear more often in more educated, wealthier, more diverse neighborhoods.

Of course, garden access is, by most accounts, a good thing. Diverse groups of folks having access to urban gardens is a good thing for Detroiters. But this also points to a number of challenges facing Detroit. First, it means that gardens, while not driving gentrification today, are still being valorized (see Sbicca's work in Denver) in Detroit. And if property values stabilize enough across the city, city leaders would do well to attend to warnings about green gentrification driven by gardens. Second, it means that Detroit's leaders risk undermining long-standing institutions and social networks with new narratives which background the city's history and struggles. And finally, it means that minoritization might be reshaping the map of urban garden access in Detroit, a phenomenon that could quickly create a dramatically unequal landscape in one of the US' most important, historically-Black cities.

Read the article or reach out for a copy:

Hawes, J. K., Gounaridis, D., & Newell, J. P. (2022). Does urban agriculture lead to gentrification? Landscape and Urban Planning, 225, 104447.

Read the University of Michigan's summary and press release on our work:

Other readings on urban agriculture in Detroit:

Atkinson, A. E. (2012). Promoting Health And Development In Detroit Through Gardens And Urban Agriculture. Health Affairs, 31(12), 2787–2788.

Colasanti, K. J. A., Hamm, M. W., & Litjens, C. M. (2012). The City as an “Agricultural Powerhouse”? Perspectives on Expanding Urban Agriculture from Detroit, Michigan. Urban Geography, 33(3), 348–369.

Gray, S. (2009). Can America’s Urban Food Deserts Bloom. Time Magazine, May, 26.

Keep Growing Detroit. (2019). 2019 Annual Report.

Kinder, K. (2014). Guerrilla-style Defensive Architecture in Detroit: A Self-provisioned Security Strategy in a Neoliberal Space of Disinvestment. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 38(5), 1767–1784.

Newell, J. P., Foster, A., Borgman, M., & Meerow, S. (2022). Ecosystem services of urban agriculture and prospects for scaling up production: A study of Detroit. Cities, 125, 103664.

Pothukuchi, K. (2015). Five Decades of Community Food Planning in Detroit. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 35(4), 419–434.

Pothukuchi, K. (2017). “To allow farming is to give up on the city”: Political anxieties related to the disposition of vacant land for urban agriculture in Detroit. Journal of Urban Affairs, 39(8), 1169–1189.

Safransky, S. (2014). Greening the urban frontier: Race, property, and resettlement in Detroit. Geoforum, 56, 237–248.

Taylor, D. E., & Ard, K. J. (2015). Food Availability and the Food Desert Frame in Detroit: An Overview of the City’s Food System. Environmental Practice, 17(2), 102–133.

White, M. M. (2011). Environmental Reviews & Case Studies: D-Town Farm: African American Resistance to Food Insecurity and the Transformation of Detroit. Environmental Practice, 13(4), 406–417.

White, M. M. (2017). Freedom’s Seeds: Reflections of Food, Race, and Community Development: Voices of the Food Movement in Detroit. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 7(2), 5–7.