Transforming Urban Decay Into an Urban Forest
In the News
June 25, 2014
Once the center of the American car industry, Detroit became the largest city in U.S history to file for bankruptcy in 2013. Over the last two decades in particular, high taxes, poor services, and an increasing inventory of unmanaged surplus city owned properties combined to make the city less and less livable. With thousands of abandoned buildings, empty houses and vacant lots, Detroit is now known more for urban blight than cars.
But this is something Hantz Farms is hoping to change with their purchase of about 140 acres of city-owned lots. After many years of back and forth with the city, the Detroit City Council voted to allow Hantz Farms to buy the land in 2012 and develop it.
“Initially we envisioned enterprises that are more consumer focused, such as a u-pick orchard or a u-cut Christmas tree operation. While these types of production have the potential to create more jobs, they also tend to be more disruptive for the remaining neighborhoods located near our production sites. We asked our neighbors to think through which set of outcomes they really wanted. They balanced their desire for economic growth with the truth that managing higher valued crops requires pest management, and would significantly change traffic patterns where they live. The end result was that our neighbors decided they would forfeit job creation for immediate relief from chronic blight,” says Michael Score, President of Hantz Farms.
Hantz Farms founder John Hantz has lived in Detroit for more than 20 years. During this time John, along with others, watched the city go through a downward spiral. Six years ago John realized that if he wanted to continue living in Detroit he would have to step up and do what he could do to improve quality of life in Detroit neighborhoods. His commitment included a focus on the key issue of continued ownership of property by the city within an operating budget that does not include funding for property maintenance.
“It was clear, given that the city currently owns 1/3 of the 139 square mile landscape, that in order to make an investment that would result in real change John would have to make a substantial investment, and that the response would have to be land extensive. Production of mixed hardwoods is a type of agriculture that matches up well with the needs and interests of city residents, and which allows the company to recover its costs over time,” says Score.
While converting abandoned homes into fields for new agricultural production sounds like a no-brainer, the for-profit company spent several years trying to establish their agriculture site on the city’s lower east side, despite heavy opposition at times from community activists and some city council members. Opponents had various concerns, including the course of development within the city of Detroit, the question of the creation of jobs and an interest in more food-producing agriculture projects. Hantz Farms subsequently went door to door to gauge community sentiment on the project. Score says that over 94% of the residents supported the work because they wanted the property to look nice. Many residents had been scared to walk around the area, even in the daytime. Now they have pride in their neighborhood where Hantz Farms has planted Sugar Maples, two types of White Oak, White Birch and Flowering Dogwoods, says Score.
Hantz Farms has the option to harvest the trees at any point. The trees could be sold as nursery stock if the market is attractive. Every 10 years the trees will be thinned. At thinning the trees could be sold as nursery stock or, when the trees are larger, they can be sold as firewood. The trees will not be ready for timber harvest until 40 to 60 years. At that point they, or may not, sell the timber.
“Our venture is up and running. We have a development agreement with the city that is designed to remove blight from 150 acres within a square mile. We have until January 2016 to regularly mow the vacant land we have purchased, plant 15,000 trees, and demolish at least 50 dangerous structures. We expect to have all of this work completed by the end of 2014. We also intend to go beyond the requirements of our agreement to make additional investments designed to make nearby neighborhoods more livable,” says Score.
Score says that Hantz Farms has additionally taken a position that they will replicate their work in other areas of the city where chronic blight caused by unmanaged city owned properties is an issue. In other words, they will grow by demand. And they will only invest in neighborhoods where there is strong support from residents for the approach that they take within their venture.
“If residents of an area want blight to be addressed, but they do not like our model we encourage them to find other partners so that the work of building better communities is satisfactory to the people for whom the outcome matters most,” adds Score.