Strolling around his inner-city Detroit neighborhood, Mark Covington pauses to take in the view. The houses and shops that existed when he was a child are gone, replaced by empty lots, the buildings either burned down or demolished. In their place is wilderness. Tall grass, wild flowers and trees. "Just look at that," he says. "It could be a country road."
Such views are increasingly common all over Detroit, the forlorn former capital of America's car industry and now a by-word for calamitous urban decline. Once the fourth largest city in America, its population has shrunk from about 1.8 million at its peak in the 1950s to fewer than 900,000 now. Its streets are lined with an incredible 33,000 empty lots and vacant houses. City government is broke. The shells of dilapidated factories look out over an urban landscape that has been likened to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina – except Detroit's disaster was man-made and took decades to unfold.
Now the seeds of a remarkable rebirth are being planted – literally. Across Detroit, land is being turned over to agriculture. Furrows are being tilled, soil fertilized and crops planted and harvested. Like in no other city in the world, urban farming has taken root in Detroit, not just as a hobby or a sideline but as part of a model for a wholesale revitalization of a major city. Some farms are the product of hardy individualists or non-profit community groups. Others, like Hantz Farms, are backed by millions of dollars and aim to build the world's biggest urban farm right in the middle of the city.
Mark Covington, 38, is one of those 21st-century pioneers, though he stumbled on his role almost by accident. Finding himself unemployed after losing his job as an environmental engineer and living back with his mother two years ago, he started tidying up an empty lot near his Georgia Street home, planting vegetables and allowing local people to harvest them for free. An orchard of fruit trees followed, as did a community centre – made by converting a pair of empty buildings – which keeps local youths off the streets. The result is a transformation of the area around his childhood home. Local kids come to movie nights held amid the crops. Residents love the free, fresh food in an area where no major supermarkets exist. The Georgia Street Community Garden is never vandalized.
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