From Cars to Crops: City of Flint, MI Looks to Urban Agriculture for Economic Revitalization
November 7, 2013 | Trish Popovitch
Global competition in the automotive industry that began in the 1970s has resulted in catastrophic job loss, economic decline, depopulation, and elevated crime for Flint, Michigan over the past several decades. So now, the once thriving company town is looking to redefine itself by utilizing the city’s vacant land as an asset to support a new, sustainable economy based on urban agriculture.
The city recently adopted a comprehensive new master plan called Imagine Flint!, the first plan of its kind in over 60 years, with a focus on urban agriculture and other green industries as engines for future economic development. The plan designates a significant amount of land as “Green Innovation” zones designed to foster investment in sustainable urban agriculture.
Megan Hunter, Chief Planning Officer for the City of Flint, reflects on the new vision for this rust belt city.
“We have a huge amount of vacant land,” says Hunter. “It’s hard to manage, but it also presents the city with opportunities to think about how we could put it into productive use. We’re really inspired by the City of Detroit’s Detroit Future City Plan, which also looks at turning vacancy from a negative into a positive. Flint has a strong tradition of urban agriculture already existing in the city, so there are already examples of people taking advantage of that.”
The newly designated Green Innovation zones include twelve areas characterized by high levels of depopulation and property abandonment. The hope is that these areas can be repurposed as places that encourage sustainable, agriculture-based businesses. The types of sustainable industries that will be considered for the zones will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, according to the plan. Targeted sectors include local food production, environmental sustainability, alternative energy, and initiatives such as agricultural research, organic food processing, and other ventures with a reliance on natural resources such as aquaculture or renewable energy.
Several individuals have already approached the city with interest in purchasing land in the Green Innovation zones, says Hunter, who notes that carefully crafted zoning and land transaction decisions will be essential to ensure the compatibility of new businesses within the established community. The city is currently working to draft a new zoning ordinance based on the plan. Some of the business ideas have included edible forests, solar fields and storm water retention parks.
“Our hope is to determine what the opportunities are at the various sites,” says Hunter. “Some places are more likely to be candidates for larger agricultural use. If the soil is not contaminated, we would be able to market those sites for that use.”
One new planning technique featured in the plan is the Flint Land Use and Intensity Wheel. The wheel illustrates the potential of established neighborhoods to transition into different forms. This could mean if an established neighborhood experiences further property abandonment, it might become a Green Innovation area, using the abandoned land to cultivate new, green commercial ventures.
Overall, the plan, and specifically the Green Innovation zone idea, have been well received in the community. Stakeholders had the opportunity to provide input through multiple community workshops and open planning sessions. However, some Flint residents have expressed concerns about the plan.
“There are a lot of concerns from people who live in these communities that once were traditional residential areas,” says Hunter. “We really have to be conscientious about protecting existing residences from potential structures through the zoning process.” Hunter notes that demolition of abandoned properties will be necessary for plan implementation.
Terry McLean, Michigan State University Extension Educator and communications coordinator for the Edible Flint Coop, a cooperative of urban gardeners and farmers in the city, is pleased with the new plan.
“The plan will allow urban agriculture endeavors to essentially be legalized,” says McLean.
Mclean notes that when the last master planning process was done over 60 years ago, there were twice as many people in Flint, and General Motors employed over 80,000 people.
“Due to the loss of auto manufacturing, there are now fewer than 7,000 employees of General Motors today, and massive amounts of vacancies,” says McLean. “So, what urban agriculture has brought is the marriage of the reuse of vacant land and increased access to fresh food for folks at most risk for health disparities. Our mission is to support Flint residents in growing access to healthy food in order reconnect with the land and each other.”