Urban Food Hub Developing in North End of Detroit

The idea of an Agri-Hood in the past has always been a suburban context.  Agri-Hoods have popped up around the United States over the past few years, most of them still in the planning or construction phase.  I have viewed Agri-Hoods as America’s new “golf course community”, where houses on large lots meander between green areas, ponds, orchards, vegetable gardens, and greenhouses.  Instead of a Par 3 behind your house, you might have a grove of apple trees.  Agri-Hoods are a fascinating idea, however two major issues have come up so far:

  1.  Agri-Hoods perpetuate urban sprawl that has plagued North American cities for the past 70 years.  The low density nature of Agri-Hoods mean that they are entirely car dependent, and they are not likey to have public transportation as an available mode of connectivity.
  2. In current Agri-Hoods, the amount of agriculture in comparison to residential is minimal.  Some Agri-Hoods feature less than 10% of agriculture in comparison to residential.  “Greenwashing” becomes an issue since developers are capitalizing on a trend to sell real estate.

In Detroit, the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI) is creating what they call America’s first urban Agri-Hood on a 3-acre development site.  MUFI is a non-profit organization that “engage members of the Michigan community in sustainable agriculture”.

The  Agri-Hood in this context is very different, where an agricultural community hub is being built on the North Side of Detroit to generate urban renewal and provide sustainable healthy food to the local community.  A dilapidated three-story building will be re-imagined as a Community Resource Center that will include operational space for the non-profit organization, along with multi-purpose rooms for culinary and agricultural education, and industrial kitchens for business incubators.

MUFI Community Resource Center - Image credited to MUFI

MUFI Community Resource Center – Image credited to MUFI

Across the street from the Community Resource Center is MUFI’s 2-acre urban farm that has already produced over 50,000 pounds of produce for the local community.  This food is distributed to households in a 2-mile radius through a “pay-what-you-can” model, local markets, restaurants, as well as churches and shelters.

While I’m not sure if this should be classified as an urban Agri-Hood just yet, it definitely is a Food Hub, where produce is grown and then distributed in an organized network throughout Detroit.  The development concepts display a small orchard and vineyard on two other properties behind the urban farm, so the tentacles of an urban Agri-Hood are spreading.  This is a great case study that demonstrates how culinary uses can be used to positively generate urban renewal, all while feeding the local population.

Check out the MUFI website to see the site development plan and read more about this exciting project.

MUFI Urban Farm - Image credited to MUFI

MUFI Urban Farm – Image credited to MUFI

Growing Pains for Detroit’s Urban Farms

CityLab wrote a great article last month on the challenges of urban farming in Detroit. Many of the issues spawn from the regulatory process of the Detroit Land Bank, a public entity that manages vacant/underutilized properties.  While the Detroit Land Bank has nearly 100,000 properties up for sale, the amount of paperwork required and the time it takes to purchase property from the Land Bank has been a hindrance to many.

One of the most interesting quotes that I came across in the article is based around urban farming and land values:

Previous research, synthesized in a literature review by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, noted a link between community gardens and farms and increased property values within a 1,000-foot radius. The relationship is especially pronounced in disadvantaged areas, the researchers found.

This is promising research that can be employed by community groups and economic development agencies who have been advocating and pursuing the implementation of urban farms in lower-income neighborhoods.

Read the full CityLab article here.

Kimbal Musk Taking a Leap with Urban Farming

Urban farming seems to be a hot trend over the past year.   And you know the concept has some traction when one of the infamous Musk brothers is attempting to capitalize through a business venture.  Kimbal Musk, the brother of Tesla and SpaceX’ Elon Musk is attempting to start-up an urban farm and incubator hub called “Square Roots”.

According to an article from Inc. Musk is setting up the urban farm prototype in Brooklyn, New York, and he hopes to roll it out across North America if it proves to be a successful model:

Each food entrepreneur will have access to a mini farm the equivalent of two acres of land, but the gardens are built vertically in a shipping container, taking up less than 320 square feet. They are climate-controlled and hydroponic, allowing for a year-round growing season using 80 percent less water than an outdoor farm.

“The aim with the campus is to create an environment where entrepreneurial electricity can flow,” says Peggs.

Entrepreneurs will be trained to grow hydroponic, non-GMO food year-round and sell it locally, assisted by technologies like Freight Farms–which makes tools for fresh food production–and ZipGrow–which facilitates vertical farming. Musk hopes to roll this model out to other cities, saying each campus can contain between 10 and 100 farms.

The overall idea is that Square Roots will allow entrepreneurs to develop their vertical farm start-up into an actual business within the incubator space.

I know many urban farms that have started up in previously used industrial buildings, harnessing the large warehouse areas for hydroponic farming, but this is one of the first large-scale endeavors to grow produce in shipping containers.  The containers will be located within an old Pfizer factory in Brooklyn.  With such a large glut of shipping containers in North America (due to higher volumes of imports than exports), this makes a great re-use of the containers.   I do wonder whether the shipping containers could be located outside, or they are required to be within an industrial building.  We have already seen shipping containers used as housing and shopping spaces, but urban farming seems like a logical choice if you can properly maintain the temperatures required.

Combined with his previous venture of a farm-to-table restaurant, it seems that Kimbal Musk is attempting to become to food sustainability, what his brother is to cars and space exploration.

Square Roots Urban Farm - Imaged credited to BusinessInsider

Square Roots Urban Farm – Imaged credited to BusinessInsider


Food Access in Suburban Denver, How Lakewood is Going All-In with Urban Farming

There was a great article in the Denver Post last week on the City of Lakewood, CO and how they have partnered with the University of Colorado to investigate and create a strategy “in order to increase production, availability and consumption of locally grown, affordable and healthy food”.

A little bit on Lakewood first.  It is a city of about 150,000 residents directly SW of Denver.  It’s median household income is $53,000, below the State average of $58,000, and well below Metro Denver’s $63,000 median household income.  More than 10% are below the poverty line.  It isn’t as wealthy as other cities in the Metro Denver region, especially those in the NW portion.  It is a working class suburban type of city.

I visited Lakewood back in 2010 when I was doing work for the City and County of Denver.  Nothing of significance stood out now that I think back six years ago, except for Belmar, a very cool and progressive mixed-use development that took a derelict shopping mall and transformed it into a suburban community hub of retail, dining, residential, office, and entertainment.  The former Villa Italia Mall was razed, and the 104-acre site became an urban, pedestrian friendly downtown for a city that never had a central meeting place.


Belmar, Lakewood, CO – Image credited to CNU.org

The project has become a huge success, with over 2,000 residents in the master development, and businesses that employ more than 3,000 employees.  Lakewood was one of the pioneers in suburban mixed-use town centers that now dot the North American landscape.

Lakewood is now pursuing something a little different, but just as innovative.  Sprout City Farms has become a success story in Lakewood, providing upwards of 2,5000 pounds of food annually from their urban farm, into the hands of local residents who have limited access to fresh produce.  This has led to the partnership with the University of Colorado, to investigate the sustainability of food production in the city, and how “the city could facilitate an increased production of local food”.

The results display:

That many Lakewood residents must often travel several miles to get to a grocer to have access to fresh food. Students mapped areas of opportunity that had potential for a community garden and discovered that if the city used all of its available parcels for urban farming, it could grow more than 91 million pounds of produce each year — enough to feed 90 percent of the city’s population.

I’m unsure of whether “available parcels” are undeveloped lots that are both public and privately owned, or only city-owned.  For this exercise, lets assume it means city-owned. Obviously many of the available parcels of land that are under city control can be used for higher and better uses, such as affordable housing, commercial development, community space, parks, etc.  Some may also not be suitable for urban farming. If only 25% were implemented as urban farms, you could still generate 23 million pounds of produce.  Not too bad at all.

As I had discussed in a previous blog post, many of these vacant lots can be used as temporary farms.  Then once there is a more desirable development use for the land from an economics standpoint, the urban farm can be moved to a different location within city boundaries.  Policy must be set to ensure that if an urban farm is under operation, the land cannot be developed for another use until a suitable site is chosen for replacement.


Sprout City Farms – Image credited to FarmShares

The City of Lakewood will now take the study from the University of Colorado and decide how to move forward with the information.  It will be intriguing to see what occurs over the next few years knowing that the City has shown innovation in the past from a development perspective.  This could very well lead to a similar legacy for planning staff and council.


Urban Farming and Food Hubs in Michigan

Detroit has quickly become one of the leaders of urban farming in North America.  With such a large amount of vacant land in the city due to blighted property, former industrial lands, and uninhabited homes, there is ample availability to transform these sites into indoor and outdoor urban farms that grow produce year round.  Many investors have been striking deals with the City of Detroit over the past several years to acquire properties for localized urban agricultural uses.  This includes fields, hydroponic farms, greenhouses, and processing facilities.

In 2015, Inhabitat reported that Detroit was home to more than 1,000 community gardens, which typically supply food either free or at a low cost to food banks and community groups for distribution.  Local community farming has become so popular, city planners and council are becoming continually involved in figuring out how much land should be allocated for urban farming uses, making sure to keep vacant land available for other commercial uses.


Small-scale Urban Farm in Detroit – Image credited to Inhabitat.com


Where it gets interesting is that there are now local entrepreneurial for-profit organizations that are sprouting up around Detroit and throughout Michigan due to the proliferation of urban farming.  Food hubs have increasingly become established to collect and distribute produce within the local communities.  The thought process is that many smaller farmers have a difficult time getting their product to stores and markets, so food hubs become the connection point between the grower and consumer.  Many large scale agricultural companies have their own distribution networks, so food hubs fill the role for smaller local entrepreneurial enterprise.  Stores and markets who would rather obtain fruits, vegetables, and other local goods (rather than out-of-state items) can connect with food hubs to obtain a wide variety of local food on a consistent basis.  Food hubs can also connect restaurants to local goods in a manner that would be much more difficult and time consuming than in the past.  In short, food hubs gather and distribute local food to local markets in a highly efficient manner.

One of the largest food hubs in Michigan is located in Traverse City, Michigan which is approximately 4 hours NW of Detroit.  Cherry Capital Foods tagline is “we put the to in farm to table”, aptly describing how they connect the dots between food producer and consumer.  From the Cherry Capital Foods website:

Cherry Capital Foods is a unique food distributor based in Traverse City, Michigan. We work with farmers, growers and producers both locally and regionally but only from the state of Michigan.

By focusing on local and Michigan sources, we encourage the growing focus on regional foodsheds as well as support the Michigan economy and environment. We keep duplicate trucks off the road and create efficiencies for our food providers and our customers. One refrigerated truck, one delivery, one invoice – multiple, independent food sources.

Cherry Capital Foods is primarily a food distributor, helping our customers and our farmers figure out how to source local food and how to provide local food to the marketplace. We help customers find specific Michigan products and also help producers find unique customers. We help our customers educate their guests and shoppers about which farms they are buying from, as we keep all farm products separate in our warehouse and inventory.

Our product categories include:

  • Produce: fresh vegetables and fruits. Many fruits also offered frozen and dried.
  • Proteins: tofu, beef, veal, pork, lamb, rabbit, chicken, duck, turkey.
  • Eggs: chicken, duck, quail.
  • Dairy: milk, butter, and cheeses from cows, goats, sheep.
  • Value Added items for both retail and food service.
  • Wine (through our sister company, Up North Distributing).

The Cherry Capital Foods 60,000 SF warehouse and distribution center is located in a renovated hockey arena, a very innovative transformation of space since both previous and current use requires high levels of refrigeration.

Michigan previously was not the first place to come to mind when discussing local agribusiness innovation.  There is really a great entrepreneurial spirit that has come about over the past 5 to 7 years due to tough economic times for many of the cities and communities throughout the State.  It has forced them to be innovative and think outside-the-box.  There are things that are happening in Detroit and around Michigan that need to be studied, as there are applications and implementation techniques to be put into use in other similar cities who require economic diversification, food security, and entrepreneurial growth.

A Produce Park for Local Residents in Louisville

In a previous blog post, I had profiled the West Louisville Food Port in Louisville, Kentucky.  The Food Port will be a transformative Culinary Oriented Development that will focus on everything from farming and processing, to culinary education and retail.

It was recently announced that a community orchard aptly titled “Produce Park” will emerge across the street from the Food Port.  Why have derelict lots just sit empty in neighborhoods that are in need of revitalization?  Why not use them for community uses?  Louisville is progressively putting together a catalyst project with Produce Park, a community-oriented orchard that will provide the local residents with a central gathering space that will provide fresh produce annually.

From Insider Louisville

A partnership between Louisville-Jefferson County Metro Government, the University of Kentucky, architectural firm Gresham Smith & Partners and the nonprofit Louisville Grows has turned a once-vacant lot into “a garden of Eden,” said Valerie Magnuson, executive director of Louisville Grows.

Produce Park is a community orchard and garden that is located at 437 S. 30th St. across from the future $56 million West Louisville FoodPort. The park, which Louisville Grows will maintain, will feature fruit trees, fruit bushes and shade trees. Several small peach trees already are bearing fruit.

“There’s going to be a tremendous hub right around here around creating local food,” said Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, noting that the area is “about ready to take off in a huge way” when workers break ground on the food port this fall.

Produce Park is meant to serve as a gathering space for nearby neighbors to hang out, and residents will be able to pick any food that grows there, creating access to fresh fruit including peaches, cherries, apples, strawberries and plums in an area of town that qualifies as a food desert.

The City is using a $30,000 grant from the Bloomberg Fund to initiate the development of Produce Park.  Louisville Grows will fundraise the additional funds needed for supplementary items such as signage, bike racks, continued upkeep, etc.   Government and private grants such as the Bloomberg Fund are likely going to be the incentive required to get these types of projects started.  A question I raise is whether they should be included into the budget of parks departments?  Especially if they are a public use.

It will take several years for fruit trees to start producing fruit, but the seeds are in the ground you could say.

This neighborhood is increasingly becoming a hotbed for culinary based functions, with Produce Park, the planned Food Port, and the popular incubator Chef Space which is Louisville’s first kitchen incubator for budding culinary entrepreneurs.


Chicago and Urban Agriculture

I was recently reading that Chicago has quickly become one of the top US cities for urban farming/urban agriculture.  There is of course the Chicagoland shining star, “FarmedHere”, a fully organic indoor vertical farm in Bedford Park, Illinois.  They have accomplished a great task of reducing the time, cost, and ecological footprint of delivering fresh produce to consumers throughout the Chicago Metro area by growing their microgreens and herbs hydroponically.  By implementing strategic distribution methods, they have been able to get their fresh produce in over 100 markets and groceries in Illinois.


FarmedHere Facilities in Bedford Park

One of the more recent initiatives that has been picking up steam are “closed loop” food incubators.  Chicago has a great case study in the cheekily named “The Plant”.  Bubbly Dynamics purchased an old pork processing and packing plant that was slated for demolition back in 2010, and have spent the past six year transforming the facility into what they call a living laboratory for urban farming and food production.

When completed, The Plant will be transformed from an energy-intensive pork packing facility into a living laboratory that explores closing waste, energy, and material loops. Waste products and materials from one business will be utilized by another, significantly minimizing or eliminating what ends up in the landfill. Food waste that can’t easily be reused (along with over 10,000 tons per year of food waste from other nearby businesses) will be fed into an anaerobic digester. This machine will create a biogas that can be used to produce both heat and electricity for the building. The businesses located at The Plant will essentially be powering their operations via their own waste!

The Plant currently houses over a dozen small food businesses, including farming, baking and brewing. Plant Chicago partners closely with Bubbly Dynamics and tenants of The Plant to close waste loops in the building. Through technology research and holding up The Plant as an example, Plant Chicago and Bubbly Dynamics can show the world a future of closed loop, net-zero urban food production.

Aside from closed-loop food production, The Plant is also very active for the promotion and education of local agribusiness, aquaponics, hydroponics, and one of my favorites, mycology.  They also host outdoor and indoor farmers markets that feature The Plant resident entrepreneurs, as well as other local and sustainable food businesses.

The Plant is a great example of urban revitalization, community engagement/agri-education, and the conversion of a previously dilapidated building into an anchor of a neighborhood.


The Plant, Chicago – Credited to bfi.org