Urban Gardens Grow Detroit Communities

Dec 20, 2017 10:30 AM ET

Urban Gardens Grow Detroit Communities

Detroit’s urban garden scene continues to grow in impact, bringing neighbors together and supporting the underprivileged with access to healthy produce. General Motors contributed a small part in fueling this movement through the donation of its steel shipping crates repurposed as raised garden beds. Five years later, 2,000 of the automaker’s crates are home to plantings in 33 different gardens.

Instead of recycling the metal crates, GM prefers this direct reuse, saving energy and resources while supporting the community. Below is a look at how each of these gardens have taken their impact to the next level over the years.

Cadillac Urban Gardens, the first to use GM’s crates as raised garden beds five years ago in an acre of the former executive parking lot of a Cadillac assembly plant, has since replicated its success through the launch of 30 offshoot gardens. Today, schools and churches tend to the 331 planters, with fruit, vegetables and herbs free for neighborhood residents to pick.

“Kids who were 12 years old are now coming back to the gardens as college students and acting as youth leaders and mentors to younger generations,” said Sarah Clark, the director of garden programs for the Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision.

Buckets of Rain moved into the city about the same time in 2012 to use an acre and a half of property for urban farming. The 800 crates GM donated enabled the nonprofit to fill the buckets with compost versus worrying about soil toxicity on the vacant lands.

Today, a new program called “Clinic to Farm to Table” enables doctors at a free health clinic to write “prescriptions” for patients with health issues such as diabetes, obesity or hypertension. These patients then visit the garden for a week’s worth of the recommended vegetables.

“Nearby soup kitchens continue to benefit from our free produce, and now we’re excited to expand our impact to even more community members in need,” said Chris Skellenger, founder of Buckets of Rain. “Next year, we anticipate 100 patient referrals from one clinic alone.”

John Bradburn, GM’s global manager of waste reduction and Buckets of Rain board member, connected the group with a pharmaceutical company that donated thermal containers for people to transport their produce. The team also uses a GM shipping container for secure garden supply storage.  

The RenCen Rooftop Garden, located on a parking garage adjacent to GM’s headquarters, began in 2014 with 16 GM crates. Three growing seasons later, the garden has tripled in size and includes a living wall made from 13 interlocking crates that house pollinator plants, including wildflowers for monarchs and plants that bloom at night for bats. Beehives located next to the garden produced nearly 90 pounds of honey in 2017.

The team harvested broccoli, tomatoes, eggplant, green beans, garlic, squash, beets and herbs, thanks to organic compost from Detroit Dirt made from tons of food preparation scraps and coffee grounds from RenCen restaurants. An Italian restaurant inside the headquarters used the produce in its menu items, making a donation equal to the food’s value to a nearby warming center in return.

“We continually improve upon our garden here, from supporting wildlife habitats to advancing our landfill-free program through a growing composting initiative,” said Collette Kent, sustainability coordinator at the GM Renaissance Center. “Our partnership with the warming center across the street is another way to help serve the community.”

Michigan Urban Farming Initiative, an all-volunteer nonprofit working to debut America’s first sustainable urban agrihood, provides free produce to 2,000 households within 2 square miles annually. GM supports this initiative through ongoing employee volunteerism. The company is also supporting the rehabilitation of a formerly abandoned apartment complex into a community resource center on the grounds by donating office furniture through a partnership with Green Standards and providing upcycled materials for the building’s insulation and décor.

Thanks to a number of dedicated nonprofits, engaged community residents and companies committed to giving back, Detroit’s urban garden movement will continue to grow.