Alice Waters, chef, restaurateur, activist, founder of The Edible Schoolyard Project
Patrick Blanc, botanist, ecological engineer, and vertical gardener
Will Allen, pioneer of urban farming movement
Stephen Henderson, Pulitzer Prize-winning editor, Detroit Free Press
This panel discussion focused on the idea of green urban spaces, although it seemed that those in attendance were most interested in urban farming. Coming from the east coast, and living in densely populated cities, “green space” can be an oddly foreboding concept, my mind tends to assume projects of urban renewal, attempts at sustainable condominiums, and various forms of eminent domain used to sweep clear neighborhoods in favor of parks and golf courses. This panel proved to be nearly the opposite of any such expectations. Instead, the focus remained on food sustainability, youth education and hope. Moderator Stephen Henderson set the tone of panel when he opened with a nod to Detroit’s “20 square miles of potential”.
During the discussion, Alice Waters spoke to the audience via Skype, as she was in Washington DC, having just received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama. She spoke a bit about The Edible Schoolyard, and her dream of every public school growing its own food and using it for free school lunches. While a beautiful and inspiring goal, it was impossible not to wonder how such a project would work in Detroit. Would farms be located on closed DPS properties? How could anything be founded, much less funded and sustained with the school system’s enormous budget deficit? Unfortunately, Waters had to catch a plane (back to Detroit) and could not stay for the Q&A portion, leaving my questions unanswered.
Patrick Blanc, spoke of his experience as a vertical gardener, which overlapped with Will Allen’s vertical farming model in Milwaukee. The notion of vertical growing, either as gorgeously designed gardens on buildings or as the space conserving hubs of productivity on an urban farm, seemed to be a reaction to the common density of most urban areas. One notable theme from the evening was that given Detroit’s lack of density, it is a model city for urban farming. While Waters and Blanc captivated the audience talking about their work throughout their lifetimes, all of the questions in the Q&A were aimed at Will Allen, the Macarthur Prize winning former basketball player turned urban farming legend. One refrain throughout the answers was that urban farming takes time and patience, but can yield incredible results. Like the Edible Schoolyard, Allen’s farm started with a program to educate youth, and over time the city of Milwaukee came to embrace the idea of rural within and urban landscape.
It will take time, Allen intonated, and there are all kinds of obstacles—city ordinances, unsuitable soil, the lack of advocacy for urban farming in Washington. Like crops, bureaucracy and change take time. In that sense, all three speakers on the panel are stubborn in their idealism and steadfast in their creativity. With that kind of patience and persistence, it seems clear that Detroit could well be at the forefront of a movement of sustainable urban living. As a city, we would do well to heed Allen’s advice about community engagement turning the tide in support of urban farming models; as he said, “If people in one neighborhood are suffering, everyone feels it”. In some sense, that led me back to the idea of Waters’ Edible Schoolyard, and the potential for school partnerships with local Detroit farmers. It can be easy in some sense to get frustrated at a lack of immediate change, particularly in the face of a seeming quagmire of issues. However, this panel proved that so much is possible through collaboration—no one can build up these kinds of dreams alone, and Waters, Allen and Blanc all seem to believe in the work being done here in Detroit.
*Credit Line for Free Press Photos: Courtesy of Culture Lab Detroit photo by John Froelich/Free Press
*Credit Line for Free Press Photos: Courtesy of Culture Lab Detroit photo by Mina Magda/BFA.com