A Growing City: Detroit’s Rich Tradition of Urban Gardens Plays an Important Role in the City’s Resurgence

Sourced from the Urban Land Institute

Amid the concrete, steel, and asphalt of American cities, open space has long been celebrated and valued. From Chicago’s majestic Grant Park to New York City’s iconic Central Park, these civic treasures inspire pride and provide the setting where citizens gather for important celebrations. Land adjacent to these magnificent municipal commons is typically among the highest valued in the region.

As important as these monumental parks are, however, they do not tell the whole story about the importance of green space in cities. Similarly, but in a much more dispersed manner, neighborhood green spaces ranging from parks to playgrounds to backyards improve residents’ quality of life while creating value.

In Detroit, as in many cities across the United States, a distinctive type of open space—the urban garden—has emerged as another type of civic asset. Whether growing vegetables for the family table or flowers to sell at the local farmers market, such gardens have provided a way for families and communities to survive and thrive—leading healthier, happier, and more prosperous lives.

Planting the Seeds

Detroit’s urban gardens are part of a long tradition that extends back to the 1890s. In response to the recession brought on by the Silver Panic of 1893, Detroit Mayor Hazen S. Pingree exhorted Detroit residents to plant their own backyard gardens. While his efforts were initially mocked as “Pingree Potato Patches,” urban gardens were a huge success—and actually ended up generating more income for participating families than those families received from nascent government assistance programs.

Detroiters joined other Americans in enthusiastically embracing the Victory Garden movement during World War II. At one point, nearly 40 percent of all food produced in the United States came from these gardens. Later, in the 1970s, Mayor Coleman Young’s “Farm a Lot” program set an ambitious goal of transforming 3,000 empty lots into urban gardens. The program assigned interested Detroit residents their own lot with twin goals of helping citizens trim living expenses while creating a greener, more appealing urban landscape.

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