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RecoveryPark Offers Fresh Start for Detroit with Urban Farming

The Detroit Collaborative Design Center’s plan to revitalize the city is many shades of green

By Michael J. Crosbie, Ph.D., AIA

When the Great Recession came to long-struggling Detroit, the city seemed to ask a simple question: “How much worse can it get?”

But just as the Motor City seemed to hit bottom and cement its reputation as the poster child for urban mortality, evolving attitudes about redeveloping cities—and the new realization brought on by the Great Recession that Detroit’s problems were everyone’s problems—have opened the door for a new narrative.

Detroit has since become a hotbed of ambitious redevelopment plans, drawing architects and planners to its derelict quarters to re-envision how the quintessential 20th century automotive-based city can cope with shifting economies and populations. As designers have grown more comfortable redeveloping disused 20th century infrastructure, they’ve found Detroit to be the ideal canvas, filled with history, opportunity, and the remains of well-regarded architecture.

So far, not many of these ideas have shifted into actual design proposals. But in the fall of 2008, the local nonprofit SHAR Inc. (Self Help Addiction Rehabilitation) started to connect the dots between substance abuse, unemployment, and the city’s vast open spaces. The strategy was to address these needs through urban farming, and to envision how architecture and planning could help. The result is RecoveryPark, a wide-ranging effort to breathe new economic life into impoverished neighborhoods by reconnecting urban dwellers to natural cycles of food production and consumption.

Making the “food desert” green

According to the Detroit Residential Parcel Survey, in 2010 vacant residential property accounted for 40 square miles of the city. Between 1992 and 2002 alone, 39 percent of the city’s manufacturing base evaporated, accelerating a mass exodus of residents already under way. High rates of infant mortality, drug use, illiteracy, and unemployment (twice the state rate) likewise plague Detroit. At the same time, a report by the Mari Gallagher Research & Consulting Group described the city as a “food desert,” with little access to healthy and affordable food.

RecoveryPark aims to address these problems by developing large pieces of the city’s open land as urban farms, creating jobs for local residents (many of them suffering from substance abuse), establishing economic sustainability in desolate neighborhoods, and renovating abandoned buildings for new uses. SHAR teamed up with the Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC) at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture to create an effective community design process to develop land-use proposals, and to speculate what these resuscitated urban environments might look like.

According to Gary Wozniak, chief development officer of SHAR and president of RecoveryPark, SHAR felt that it was critical that the project have community engagement--not only from the residents, but also from local, city, and state governments. That led to the selection of DCDC, a nonprofit staffed with professional architects, designers, and student interns that specializes in community engagement. SHAR was “completely committed to community engagement, and looked to us to find different ways to make that happen,” says DCDC executive director Dan Pitera, FAIA.

As the project’s lead design partner, DCDC will be responsible for bringing in any new design experts RecoveryPark might need. The center has led the community engagement process not only through meetings, but also with community events, door-to-door surveys, workshops, and design charettes. It has also undertaken preliminary conceptual designs of the project at the behest of RecoveryPark. Wozniak believes this engagement is why such an ambitious and complex project has continued to move forward. Over a two-year period, SHAR and its partners met with local residents and other stakeholders to collect ideas about what a new community might be like. A 40-acre site on Detroit’s Near East Side was identified in mid-2010 as a good place for the demonstration project. The scope has since grown to 220 acres.

The resulting plan is a 20-year community redevelopment project to re-envision the city among multiple components, including education, agriculture/urban farming, community development, food production, and residential and commercial development. The project’s humanitarian aims make it clear that it’s interested in all facets of green and sustainability (such as economic and social sustainability), not just low-carbon buildings with impressive LEED credentials. Pitera notes that the project is more than just urban agriculture. “It is a food systems development project, one designed and constructed in an urban context,” he says, which could serve as a model for other parts of Detroit and other U.S. cities grappling with urban decay.

Charles Cross, project manager at the DCDC, notes: “The RecoveryPark model is a holistic approach to neighborhood redevelopment, with a locally driven food system. Once this comes online, job creation should be three jobs in distribution [and] packaging to every single job in the field of actually growing the food.” Organizers anticipate the creation of 3,000 new jobs in the first 15 years of the project.

The “food continuum”

RecoveryPark was to have broken ground this spring, planting its first crops. Finalizing leases and land use agreements have slowed the project, and there’s no current timetable for construction to begin. “Governments move at different paces than developers,” says Wozniak. Soil analysis of potential planting beds should take place over the fall and winter so planting can begin next spring.

One high-profile initiative (which Wozniak says is already moving forward) is a fish-farming aquaculture project to be housed in an existing city water and sewer maintenance facility adjacent to Detroit’s Eastern Market—one of the country’s largest open-air farmers’ markets. Other projects on the horizon are a manufacturing kitchen to process locally grown food, a plastic carton recycling facility, and a hydroponic farm. Partnering with the University of Michigan, RecoveryPark anticipates the development of an equestrian center where horses can be boarded, including those for mounted police—promoting a security presence within the project area.

With such a roster of diverse projects, are RecoveryPark and Detroit biting off more than they can chew? Is this iconic American city ready to have vast swaths of its property essentially rezoned into a land use that is utterly untested at this scale? The energy in any large-scale redevelopment project is generated by the mutually supportive nature of the pieces. Everything within the RecoveryPark plan seems compatible within a larger vision of food production, processing, storage, distribution, and consumption—activities Wozniak refers to as the local “food continuum.” It’s his hope that sustaining and nourishing local residents with Detroit-grown food will likewise sustain and nourish the city itself.


The RecoveryPark plan isn’t just about urban farming. Existing buildings will be adaptively reused to facilitate food production, processing, storage, and distribution.
All images courtesy of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center.

Some urban farming plots will be protected by “hoop houses”—temporary structures that function as greenhouses.

An urban farming plot with a sheltered pavilion.

A fish-farming aquaculture building housed in an existing city water and sewer maintenance facility will grow tilapia.


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