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Part of a special feature celebrating the success of Memorial's graduates. This feature coincides with spring convocation 2017.


By Janet Harron

The mystery novelist Elmore Leonard once wrote: “There are cities that get by on their good looks. Detroit has to work for a living.”

Once the hub of Midwestern American industrialization, in the last decades Detroit, Mich., has weathered a continuing storm of economic insecurity, race riots and crime. The proud home of Motown and the Ford Motor Company, in 2013 it became the largest U.S. city to go bankrupt.

Public space

Consequently, residents vacated the city in droves. However, those who remained behind are finding creative uses of the swaths of unused land and abandoned neighbourhoods.

Spaces devoid of human activity for years are now being repurposed into urban farms and Detroit has become the epicentre of North America’s burgeoning urban gardening movement. Not just about growing and distributing food, the movement also represents significant social change as privately held land is being transformed into public space within cities.

Photo supplied by Michigan Urban Farming Initiative
A community garden in Detroit, Mich.
Photo: Michigan Urban Farming Initiative

The topic is the subject of anthropology student Ashley MacDonald’s honours thesis. And what Ms. MacDonald, who graduates on May 31, discovered about Detroit has implications for Newfoundland and Labrador.

Ms. MacDonald moved to the St. John’s area from Ontario during high school, and she has always been interested in gardening and the disassociation between the food that people eat and the food that people produce.

She offers, by way of example, the innate right people feel they have to buy an orange in January versus municipal bylaws that forbid chicken coops in suburban backyards.

“I think we really have to ask how we produce food for a more modern era and if it’s possible to subsidize food costs ourselves,” Ms. MacDonald said.

With its acres of abandoned lots and multiple food deserts (areas where affordable and nutritious food is difficult to obtain), Detroit has issues of food security on par with Newfoundland and Labrador and our reliance on imports and 2-3 day supply of fresh food.

A resident of Detroit working in a community garden.
A resident of Detroit working in a community garden.

According to Ms. MacDonald, urban gardening has the ability to strengthen neighbourhoods and give people reason to hope for the future.

“It gives them a sense of belonging to the city and a sense of pride,” she said. “Participating in an urban farm, growing food, giving back—residents see this as a reflection of their own struggle and ability to overcome.”

Everybody eats

“In a capitalist system, food is not a universal right. What happens with urban gardening is that food becomes decommodified and that can make people uncomfortable.”

“It is yours, but you don’t own it.” — Ashley MacDonald

Like the roadside gardens of the Great Northern Peninsula, the urban gardens of Detroit are common land, offering a shareable resource.

“In an urban garden, you can go in and do whatever you want,” Ms. MacDonald explained. “It is yours, but you don’t own it. We’ve moved away from the idea of ‘the commons’, especially here in North America.”

She says food is a useful lens for examining weak systems precisely because it is universal and shows how systems can fail people.

Further investigation

Ms. MacDonald recently presented her research at the annual meeting of the Canadian Anthropology Society in Halifax, N.S. Despite the fact that her friends “are getting tired of hearing fun facts about Detroit,” she will further develop her honours thesis when she starts her master of arts program at Memorial in the fall.

“Ashley’s project makes an important contribution by highlighting how gardening can reclaim urban space for previously excluded groups,” said Dr. Lincoln Addison, assistant professor, Department of Anthropology, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Ms. MacDonald is quick to offer lessons from the Detroit’s experience.

“We can be more self-sustaining, we can grow things. Listen to your grandparents and learn from them. And do you really need an avocado or strawberries in the winter?”


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