Detroit to Debut Mixed-Use Urban Agrihood

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Small but mighty Detroit nonprofit the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative is benefitting from the largesse of several companies such as GM and BSF in the development of a fledgling urban agrihood. . (Photo: Michigan Urban Farming Initiative)

By now, the portmanteau "agrihood" is firmly planted in the American lexicon. Just picture spacious, upper middle-class homes centered around working farms and sprawling community gardens instead of golf courses and tennis courts and you've got the general idea.

While agrihoods, pastoral planned communities, evoke a very specific type of place, they can be found sprouting up in various suburban and semi-rural areas across the country: Northern California; Virginia; Vermont; Metro Atlanta; Boise, Idaho. While some agrihoods are secluded and located at a purposeful/merciful remove from civilization, others offer more of an "in-town" experience while still offering semi-authentic down on the farm vibes. The Cannery, a 100-acre "farm-to-table new home community" built as a redevelopment project near downtown Davis, California, is the perfect example of a highly walkable, farm-centered residential development that's located within the confines of a small city. After all, there's a car wash and a Carl's Jr. just across the street.

Still, no agrihoods have truly identified as being truly "urban" until the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI) came along. In Detroit, a bruised and embattled city where urban agriculture continues to play a significant and somewhat unlikely role in its impressive rebound, the 5-year-old nonprofit is plotting to open what it calls the country's first "sustainable urban agrihood."

Urban agrihood campus, Detroit
The heart of Detroit's upcoming urban agrihood will be a long-abandoned 1915 apartment complex transformed into a community resource center complete with a cafe and office space for MUFI. (Photo: MUFI)

The heart of Detroit's upcoming urban agrihood will be a long-abandoned 1915 apartment complex transformed into a community resource center complete with a cafe and office space for MUFI. (Rendering: MUFI)

To be clear, the project, in reality, is less the stereotypical agricultural neighborhood as described above and more of an agricultural hub. The mixed-used development will be centered around a single 3,200-square-foot apartment building located on Brush Street in Detroit's North End. Purchased by MUFI in 2011 for a little over $5,000, the vacant three-story structure transformed into a community resource center, which also features a for-profit in-house café serving nutritious, hyper-local grub. Located just across the street on a previously abandoned parcel is MUFI's 2-acre urban farm, which grows upwards of 300 kinds of vegetables along with a 200-tree-strong urban fruit orchard.

As noted in a press release announcing the project, the produce grown at the farm is distributed to roughly 2,000 North End households, food pantries and churches located within a 2-mile radius of MUFI's nascent agrihood. Since 2012, the volunteer-staffed organization has grown and distributed upwards of 50,000 pounds of free, fresh produce to its neighbors. In a sense, it's these existing homes — along with the multitude of abandoned ones in the area awaiting new owners — that will compose America's inaugural urban agrihood with the upcoming community resource center, which will host community events and educational workshops and include two commercial kitchens, serving as its anchor.

"Over the last four years, we've grown from an urban garden that provides fresh produce for our residents to a diverse, agricultural campus that has helped sustain the neighborhood, attracted new residents and area investment," says Tyson Gersh, the 26-year-old co-founder and president of MUFI. "We've seen an overwhelming demand from people who want to live in view of our farm. This is part of a larger trend occurring across the country in which people are redefining what life in the urban environment looks like. We provide a unique offering and attraction to people who want to live in interesting spaces with a mix of residential, commercial, transit, and agriculture."

In bringing the North End agrihood to life, MUFI is working alongside German chemical giant BASF and Sustainable Brands, an organization described as "home for the global community of business innovators who are shaping the future of commerce worldwide." Also lending support is General Motors, Michigan-based furniture maker Herman Miller and Green Standards, a Toronto-based environmental firm that works with large corporations — like GM, in this specific example — to make sure that unneeded and unwanted office furniture and supplies that haven't met the end of their useful lives are repurposed and reused instead of landfilled. Through Herman Miller's rePurpose Program, these three companies will ensure that the community resource center is properly furnished.

As for the transformation of the forsaken, early 20th-century apartment complex into a multi-faceted agri-hub complete with a farm-to-fork canteen, Detroit-based Integrity Building Group is overseeing all architecture and construction aspects of the project, which, by the way, is due to wrap up in the spring.

Other projects MUFI-helmed redevelopment projects within the ‘hood include a shipping container-based homestead for student interns, a pocket vineyard and the conversion of a long-abandoned home's basement into a retention pond.