People working in a community garden.

Citizen participation as a catalyst for change

Sometimes, service providers and end-users are one and the same. In a city that is bankrupt, has a lot of vacant space in decay, very limited local fresh food, and massive unemployment rates, limited government initiatives are just not enough. Proactive citizens take matters into their own hands. Here’s what happened in Detroit.

In the last decades, Detroit has seen a large deindustrialization and depopulation, resulting in a barren city landscape. One of the ways the government combatted this was by starting the Farm A Lot program. Originating in the mid-seventies and ending in 2002, the Farm A Lot program offered free seeds and tilling assistance to residents with the goal of cleaning up the city and helping struggling Detroiters help themselves.

With Farm A Lot, the government supported citizens of Detroit to use and maintain the vacant lots and produce fresh food for a relatively low cost. This food could be sold in the neighborhoods in which it was produced, creating new job opportunities. But at the start of the twenty-first century the Farm A Lot program received 2000 requests annually, while only able to accommodate around 400. The program subsequently ended.

The home-grown hype

In the last few years, with the rise in popularity of local produce, many more citizens and newcomers have started non-profits to provide solutions to the problems of unemployment, decay of the city and the lack of fresh, local food in Detroit through community run farms.

Fresh food production was increased by organizations training beginners as well as experienced gardeners, creating lots of job opportunities for residents. Many attempts are made to enable citizens to manage their own businesses through produce vending platforms like Grown in Detroit.

One of the driving forces of these positive changes is Ashley Atkinson, co-director of Keep Growing Detroit. She has witnessed the progress of the city’s farming movement. In Model Media, she says:

“2004 was the first full-functioning year. We had 80 gardens in the network at that time… Today [2015] we support a network of about 1,400 gardens and farms, and there are nearly 20,000 Detroiters engaged in some capacity at those farms. […] The Garden Resource Program‘s membership is still climbing.”

Though the decline of Detroit has been a terrible one, it is heartening to see how the citizens have embraced the “Farm A Lot mentality” in the face of adversity. Neighbourhoods are exceeding expectations by creating training programs and platforms to sell produce. Citizens have recognised the value of farming and are actively developing ways to combine their efforts, using it to help the community. As the end-users in the scenario, they understand the services city inhabitants need and are actively trying to create them.

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