The Green Grid

Beating blight and boosting health with beans and berries
Michelle Lutz

Increasingly, post-industrial Detroit businesses and nonprofits, with seed, trowel, and sweat, are joining community gardens on the green grid to transform unused spaces into productive urban landscapes that banish blight and feed communities.

Urban gardening isn’t new, but it does have the power to flip unused vacant land from liability to asset, according to Dan Kinkead, design principal at Hamilton Anderson Associates in Detroit and a member of the Detroit Future City planning team. “Detroit needs to identify innovative ways to reutilize available land to improve its productive capacity and overall contribution to the city,” he says.

While business gardens are unlikely to change the city dramatically, they can have a positive impact, says community revitalization expert Dale Thomson, associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan–Dearborn. “Beyond the health and nutritional effect, there is an educational component, allowing groups access to resources to provide training, with a focus on youth in the neighborhood,” he says.

Here are just a few organizations and their innovative land-use efforts in and around Detroit:

The Education Experience at the St. Vincent and Sarah Fisher Center, near Brightmoor, Detroit. Shattered glass, broken bricks, and verdant weeds sprouted in a 3,000-square-foot garden until executive director Diane Renaud set a goal to coax the once-thriving plot back into productivity.

In place to educate GED-bound Detroiters and to boost the educational levels of at-risk elementary students, the nonprofit in 2012 received a grant from the Home Depot Foundation to purchase a shed and supplies, then set to work.

This year, the space will nurture lettuce, cabbage, squash, rhubarb, and berries. Serving as an outdoor classroom for first- through third-graders who plan to plant, weed, and harvest, the garden provides healthy produce for the students. “We’ve had little kids with arms loaded down with tomatoes,” says Renaud. “It was great to give them the fruits of their labor.”

This year, Madonna University’s Nutrition Network will partner to plan and sow the crops. “This is a true-life application of what students learn in the classroom,” says Renaud, adding that fresh air and sunshine in a safe environment enhance the students’ pride of ownership in the urban space.

“Now they know you don’t need a million dollars to change the world around you,” she says. “You just need a corner of dirt, some seeds, and a shovel to have something beautiful.”

Marygrove College, Livernois Corridor, Detroit
Feeding seniors and attracting businesses are the goals of Detroit’s Garden Against Hunger. A collaboration between Marygrove College and residents of the nearby Theresa Maxis and McGivney-Bethune apartments, the 2,700-square-foot garden and two raised beds are part of Our Neighborhood Engaged, a grass-roots revitalization effort.

“We’re trying to bring businesses back into the area,” says Sister Ann Nett, 72, who lives on the Marygrove Campus and works with volunteer Doni Owens, 59, of Detroit, to manage the garden — one of six on Marygrove’s campus. A grant from the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which founded the college in 1927, funded the shed, tools, seeds, and compost.

Using Nett’s experience working with an herbal-medicine physician in Brazil, and Owens’ experience with the Greening of Detroit, the women are planning several healing gardens, including a “colds and flu” garden and a first-aid garden, to produce salves and herbal remedies to share with the community.

They feel the green shoots are a real balm to the neighborhood. “A garden creates a softer tone to the environment,” Owens says. “The transformation from green plant to flower is exciting because you know there will soon be a vegetable there.”

Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital
For chronic disease and obesity prevention, hospital gardens make great sense. Hydroponically grown vegetables cut hospital food costs by more than $20,000 a year, but Henry Ford’s 1,500-square-foot greenhouse and 90-seat demonstration kitchen do more than that: they educate.

“We want to help people learn to cook with fresh, healthy foods that will help them feel good,” says Michelle Lutz, who last year became Michigan’s first resident hospital farmer. Patients, staff, and even expectant fathers flock to the garden for respite. “When (visitors) take their first deep breath, and I can see the stress melt away,” Lutz says.

This spring, look for edible landscapes in raised beds on campus, and in the future, a greenhouse and gardens at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

“When you see living plants with a purpose, it’s faith in tomorrow,” says Lutz. “It’s a grower’s way of saying, ‘I’m planting a seed because I believe there is a future.’ ”