Farmville USA, Motown to San Fran

SF urban farmSan Francisco and Detroit may be in full bloom this spring thanks to urban farms. Who are responsible for these urban farm projects? Could urban farms really remake either of these cities?

The cities' housing markets don't have much in common. San Francisco is frequently in the news for high priced homes, while Detroit is getting press over their $1 homes and esoteric structures like two-story beehives.

What both cities share is a renewed interest in urban farming...

In San Francisco an unused portion of a street is being temporarily converted to an urban farm. "We call it 'freeway to food forest,'" explained Chris Burley, Project Director for Hayes Valley Farm.

Streetsblog SF writes:
"Because the project is temporary, Burley said they are not planning to rip up the existing asphalt, which would cost thousands of dollars. Rather, the farmers will plant up to 150 fruit trees in pots that can be moved to other gardens or planted in back yards. Burley also said that in honor of the old Highway 101, they will be planting 101 beneficial plants among the fruit trees to help with pest control."
As with any new endeavor there are risks. Burley should know, as he is the former organizer of My Farm, a start-up that privately farmed empty lots in San Francisco in 2008 that ultimately failed.

Still, you can't expect dramatic city changes without some experimental failure.

In Detroit, the city is entertaining plans to bulldoze approximately a quarter of the 139-square-mile city, moving the land from urban to semi-rural.

Some groups, like Hantz Farms Detroit, see this as an opportunity to remake deserted parts of the city into urban farm land. In fact, Hantz Farms also announced interest in harvesting wind energy and geothermal heat. But don't mistake Hantz Farms as a small-time initiative with dreams too big to fulfill. Hantz Farms Detroit is part of Hantz Group, Inc., a financial company in Southfield, Michigan with more than 550 employees and 23 offices in Michigan and Ohio.

With hefty investment, muscle, and imagination, both cities' urban farms may shape their respective housing market futures. Whether by community garden efforts funded by a small number of people or larger-scale projects with more robust financial backing, urban farms can have an extremely positive effect on the local housing market.

Well-tended plots of land signal that an area hasn't been abandoned. Abandonment invites crime, as has been seen repeatedly during the foreclosure crisis.

Motown and the City by the Bay don't need to look far to see models working in other cities. For example, Louisville, Ky. residents are banding together to create 15,000 neighborhood and "balcony" gardens. It should be noted that Louisville was recently rated the second best housing market in the country.

Cities are ideal for farming reinvention because they harbor both massive population and have underused land. A 2004 NASA study found that the 3% of the mainland US that was urbanized (seen from space as night lights) had the agricultural capacity of the 39% currently being farmed.

Urban farming might just be one thing upon which most people agree. It's also gaining political support. For example, Georgia state legislation is introducing House Bill 842, which will virtually eliminate the ability of local governments to take any action against people raising chickens, rabbits, goats or food crops.

Urban farms are embraced nationwide for a variety of reasons. Food activists, environmentalists, and small producers applaud the shortened mileage from "farm to table." City planners see urban farms as a means to combat blight. Community members - such as homeowners and renters invested in specific areas - see urban farms as a way to engage local residents for a common goal and instill community pride. Most everyone appreciates the visual beauty an urban farm can lend, too.

Could seeds of big change begin in Detroit, San Francisco, and other cities? It's a topic to discuss over your next locally-grown meal.

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