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Growing green in Detroit

A Rust Belt city discovers the benefits of urban gardening.

By Olga BonfiglioContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / August 21, 2008

CITY AGRICULTURE: The Cass Corrider community garden is part of the Garden Resource Program. Flowers and vegetables are planted and tended by neighborhood residents.

Photo by Olga Bonfiglio

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Detroit

Megan Kohn was watering the neighborhood garden in Romanowski Park when 8-year-old Saba and her friend Alea came by to see what was going on.

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After the girls asked to help, Megan directed them to get trowels out of her red truck parked 11 raised garden beds away.

As the trio cleared a bed for planting seedlings, Saba said, “I love gardening, It’s cool. It’s nice. And you can get your hands dirty without getting yelled at. You get to plant things and when they grow, you pick them.”

Such interaction between kids and adults is one reason that Ms. Kohn, an urban agriculture apprentice for the Greening of Detroit (www.greeningofdetroit.com), is encouraging families in the neighborhood to come to the garden to work, visit, and harvest fresh produce.

Another reason is that she and others see such urban gardens – 355 of them so far, planted throughout the 139-square-mile city – as vital to the revitalization of Detroit, often called a rusted out industrial city.

“Food is essential to daily life,” says Ashley Atkinson, director of urban agriculture for the Greening of Detroit, which started in 1989 as a reforesting program for the city’s neighborhoods, boulevards, and parks.

Today, with 25 percent of the land in the city vacant due to the removal of many residential and commercial buildings, Ms. Atkinson has been instrumental in developing gardening and youth education programs to help stabilize and redevelop neighborhoods.

“We have a good model,” she says. “People are coming across the country to see what Detroit is doing.”

The success of Detroit’s urban gardens is more than just food production, however. It’s about connecting people and restoring their confidence so that they can rebuild their neighborhoods. “We build relationships before we do soil tests,” says Atkinson. “That ensures that the gardens are scaled correctly and not too overwhelming to the people who will work on them.”

The Hope District is one example of how the project works. Located at a four-corner bus stop, the Hope District comprises gardens, storefronts, a farm market, entertainment, and a skills training center.

The Peace Zone for Life, a small wooded area, was created as a place for neighbors to settle their conflicts.

The Cadillac Garden, dubbed in honor of Detroit’s founder, grows herbs while Miracle Park features a 24-hour prayer circle surrounded by 21 new fruit trees.

The Butterfly Dream Garden provides residents with a space to draw their dreams on small billboards and then work to make them happen.

Mike Wimberley has taken the lead on these efforts and enlisted the aid of 60 to 70 percent of the neighbors. He also rehabilitates local housing and commercial properties through Friends of Detroit and Tri-County, a nonprofit organization that his mother, Lily Wimberley, founded in 1994.

“What we’re doing is to start with one block, and we don’t dare move until we take care of that one block,” he says.

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