Thursday, July 10, 2008

Community gardens and garden communities

In an effort to momentarily suppress my frustration and dismay over yesterday's FISA amendment vote, I'm distracting myself with a far, far more positive story.

Madison has long been known as a green-leaning city, having several community garden projects and farmer's markets and other such neighborhood improvement efforts. We're not perfect, and there's always room for improvement, but perhaps because we've never been a particularly industrial city, these sorts of ideas have been around for a good long while.

That isn't really the case with Detroit. The Motor City, once a shining metropolis of industry, has, in more recent decades, been abandoned by corporate interests and left to rot away on the shores of Lake St. Clair. Personally, I've heard little else about Detroit than that huge swaths of it are rapidly decaying, that crime is rampant, and that no one seems interested in investing in its future. In short, the story seems pretty grim.

And yet, some enterprising residents have decided that they're not ready to give up on their city. They've recognized something somewhat unique and full of promise in the midst of the urban decay: green space, nature slowly taking back the factories and empty homes, even pheasants wandering through inner city fields.

What they've decided to do with all that abandoned space is, plainly put, inspiring.

I watched this short doc about Detroit's citizen's efforts to help neighbors start their own gardens, all in an effort to alleviate what has become a "food dessert" in their neighborhoods--that is, there are no major grocery chains in the entire city, only fast food joints and expanded liquor stores, and it's extremely difficult for people to get fresh produce and other good-for-you food.

It led me to the Garden Resource Program Collaborative (a group that includes the Detroit Agriculture Network, Earthworks Garden/Capuchin Soup Kitchen, The Greening of Detroit and Michigan State University), which provides very affordable seeds, starter plants, information and tutorials to any interested person or group within the city. Slowly but surely, organizations like these are helping to reclaim the empty spaces for productive, green, sustainable purposes, breathing life back into a city all but declared dead by the rest of the country.

No doubt it will be a long, uphill battle - all good causes are - but the important thing is that they're doing it, and making it work. They're helping to empower residents long neglected by the big corporations and corrupt or inept governments. And just as importantly, they're helping to provide a healthy, sustainable food source. That's something we should all be working toward.

Any city, large or small, could stand to take a cue from these groups in Detroit. Urban infill as an idea has been around for some time now, and frankly, I think its proponents are on to something. In order to cut down on sprawl, the depletion of natural resources, waste run-off and the paving over of wetlands, etc., we need to focus on making our cities better, leaving the countryside for agriculture that can support surrounding areas, and open space simply to support nature. This also cuts down on transportation costs and the associated pollution, as our food sources become increasingly more localized. Gas ain't getting any cheaper, after all.

I'm both encouraged and impressed by the efforts in Detroit. I have family that live in the area, and I've seen first-hand just how devastated and neglected the city has become. It's good to know that there are still people out there who care, and who are working hard to make real, long-term improvements. Outside help would, of course, be useful, but this strikes me as a good example of locals taking the initiative to improve their lives and their communities. Ultimately, that's what it's all about.

You can read more about the Detroit community garden and sustainability programs here and here.

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