KBB Collective | The Designers' Corner

Apr 08 2010

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Designers and food? Look at Detroit.

After sharing my initial thoughts from watching the film, Food Inc., I received a flood of responses about the connection between interest in Green Building and Eating Healthy. While I am still convinced that you cannot design a great kitchen without an appreciation and understanding of how to cook, I have some additional thoughts to add.

I had so many thoughts, in fact, that I went on The Approachable Architect Podcast to discuss them with my friend (and great architect) David Doucette. Listen now and I urge you to subscribe to his free podcast series while you’re at it.

Architects and designers need to care about food for a number of important reasons:

1. Our next generation of American cities cannot survive without farming.
The city of Detroit has been hit with nearly 30% unemployment, a disintegrating manufacturing base and a corresponding population. What was once the fourth most important city in the United States has, in just 50 years, declined to the point where Detroit could just vanish.


A third of the city of Detroit is now vacant land, leaving the remaining residents dispersed over the 139 square miles. The city was once home to 2 million people, and now it’s less than half of that (nearly the same amount as tiny San Francisco). In fact, you could fit Manhattan, Boston and San Francisco within the sprawling limits of Detroit and have space left over.

Because of this blight, every produce-carrying grocery store has left town. Detroit has become a “food desert” requiring most of its residents to purchase their food from liquor or convenience stores. Imagine the lack of quality and selection you’d have if forced to buy all of your food from a 7-11!

The only hope for Detroit’s survival is to embrace urban farming on a large scale, and that is exactly what is slowly happening. On the site of burned down homes are growing small half-acre farms. Larger 5- and 10-acre farms are taking root. Hantz Farms has become the largest landowner in the city teaching residents how to grow their own food. Currently, 15% of all of the food in Detroit is locally grown—if only out of necessity.


Detroit is the canary in the coal mine. Every other Rust Belt city faces the same eventual fate. You can read more about these efforts here.

2. The employment crisis cannot be solved without urban farming.
Urban farming turns out to be a great economic catalyst. Urban farming produces $5 of job growth for every dollar spent on food. Best of all, it keeps the money in the hands of the local community where it belongs. Workers of a range of skills can be involved and the startup costs are minimal.

A city like Detroit only has a four-month growing season. If they start to convert some of those abandoned buildings into makeshift greenhouses, they could extend that season to 10 or 12 months.


Imagine the jobs and economy created from converting the thousands of vacant buildings into farm facilities. Picture fields of tomatoes growing on vacant lots, acres of orchards thriving on former school grounds, trays of healthy mushrooms in damp basements and high-rise vertical farms on the walls of old hotels. The factory assembly lines that once produced cars could easily produce farm equipment (or better yet, wind turbines!).

3. Soon, buildings will produce their own food in the same way that (some) produce their own energy.
Just as we can now easily add solar panels to the roof of any building to produce electricity, so too should we use the building to grow food. Vertical gardens can repurpose and redesign the facades of buildings. Companies like Vert Landscapes are showing people how to do this easily. Not only does this create food and jobs, but these vertical gardens help insulate and shelter the buildings and absorb carbon dioxide. If a city wishes to meet any carbon reduction goals, the energy savings from green roofs and vertical gardens are vital to achieving them. New buildings should incorporate these concepts from the design inception. The real opportunity is to retrofit our existing buildings.

James Howard Kunstler (www.kunstler.com), the oft-controversial author of several books, including the brilliant Geography of Nowhere, has an interesting take on it. He once told me that he expects everyone will be involved in growing a portion of their own food in the near future. “Not me!” I thought. I hate gardening and dismissed him as a dystopian dreamer. Now I understand what he meant. In the future, out of necessity, we will all have to take part in harvesting our own food. After all, the average item on your grocery store shelf traveled 1,800 miles to get there. That is simply not sustainable.

I encourage you to rent the Oscar-nominated film that began this thread, Food Inc.

Rent it now on Netflix.
Purchase it now on Amazon.

For those of you interested in more, a companion book, Food Inc.: How Industrial Food is Making Us Sicker, Fatter, and Poorer—And What You Can Do About It, covers much more than the film could possibly present.

Eric Corey Freed

This entry was posted on Thursday, April 8th, 2010 at 6:00 AM and is filed under Green, Trends. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


  1.  Siobhan |

    Its hard to believe how hard the economy has hit areas, but this will always lead to creativity

  2.  Jason |

    Detroit is not as bad as it sounds. For example, we run a grocery store in downtown Detroit that has ready made meals, organic foods, fresh fruits, vegetables, produce, and even sushi. There’s other stores like us and more and more going up. Not to mention, Detroit has one of the best cultures for food. There’s also The Eastern Market which is a farmer market located right downtown. You can find anything there and the prices are amazing!