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TED2017

Devita Davison: How urban agriculture is transforming Detroit

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There's something amazing growing in the city of Detroit: healthy, accessible, delicious, fresh food. In a spirited talk, fearless farmer Devita Davison explains how features of Detroit's decay actually make it an ideal spot for urban agriculture. Join Davison for a walk through neighborhoods in transformation as she shares stories of opportunity and hope. "These aren't plots of land where we're just growing tomatoes and carrots," Davison says. "We're building social cohesion as well as providing healthy, fresh food."

- Food activist
At FoodLab Detroit, Devita Davison supports local entrepreneurs and imagines a new future for food justice. Full bio

I'm from Detroit.
00:13
(Applause)
00:15
A city that in the 1950s
was the world's industrial giant,
00:18
with a population of 1.8 million people
00:24
and 140 square miles
of land and infrastructure,
00:27
used to support this booming,
Midwestern urban center.
00:32
And now today,
00:37
just a half a century later,
00:39
Detroit is the poster child
for urban decay.
00:41
Currently in Detroit,
our population is under 700,000,
00:46
of which 84 percent are African American,
00:50
and due to decades of disinvestment
00:53
and capital flight
00:57
from the city into the suburbs,
01:00
there is a scarcity in Detroit.
01:04
There is a scarcity of retail,
01:07
more specifically, fresh food retail,
01:09
resulting in a city
where 70 percent of Detroiters
01:14
are obese and overweight,
01:18
and they struggle.
01:21
They struggle to access
nutritious food that they need,
01:23
that they need to stay healthy,
01:27
that they need to prevent premature
illness and diet-related diseases.
01:30
Far too many Detroiters
live closer to a fast food restaurant
01:35
or to a convenience store,
or to a gas station
01:41
where they have to shop for food
01:44
than they do a full-service supermarket.
01:46
And this is not good news
about the city of Detroit,
01:51
but this is the news
01:56
and the story
02:00
that Detroiters intend to change.
02:01
No, I'm going to take that back.
02:04
This is the story
that Detroiters are changing,
02:07
through urban agriculture
and food entrepreneurship.
02:11
Here's the thing:
02:16
because of Detroit's recent history,
02:17
it now finds itself
02:19
with some very unique assets,
02:22
open land being one of them.
02:25
Experts say that the entire cities
of Boston, San Francisco,
02:28
and the borough of Manhattan
02:33
will fit in the land area
of the city of Detroit.
02:35
They further go on to say
02:39
that 40 square miles
of the city is vacant.
02:40
That's a quarter to a third of the city,
02:45
and with that level of emptiness,
02:47
it creates a landscape
unlike any other big city.
02:49
So Detroit has this --
open land, fertile soil,
02:54
proximity to water,
03:00
willing labor
03:02
and a desperate demand
for healthy, fresh food.
03:03
All of this has created
a people-powered grassroots movement
03:07
of people in Detroit
03:12
who are transforming this city
03:13
from what was the capital
of American industry
03:15
into an agrarian paradise.
03:19
(Applause)
03:22
You know, I think,
out of all the cities in the world,
03:23
Detroit, Michigan, is best positioned
to serve as the world's urban exemplar
03:27
of food security
and sustainable development.
03:33
In Detroit, we have over 1,500, yes, 1,500
03:36
gardens and farms
located all across the city today.
03:41
And these aren't plots of land
03:46
where we're just growing
tomatoes and carrots either.
03:48
You understand, urban agriculture
in Detroit is all about community,
03:51
because we grow together.
03:56
So these spaces
are spaces of conviviality.
03:58
These spaces are places
where we're building social cohesion
04:01
as well as providing healthy, fresh food
04:05
to our friends, our families
and our neighbors.
04:09
Come walk with me.
04:13
I want to take you
through a few Detroit neighborhoods,
04:14
and I want you to see what it looks like
when you empower local leadership,
04:17
and when you support grassroots movements
04:21
of folks who are moving the needle
in low-income communities
04:24
and people of color.
04:28
Our first stop, Oakland Avenue Farms.
04:30
Oakland Avenue Farms is located
in Detroit's North End neighborhood.
04:33
Oakland Avenue Farms is transforming
into a five-acre landscape
04:38
combining art, architecture,
sustainable ecologies
04:43
and new market practices.
04:47
In the truest sense of the word,
04:49
this is what agriculture
looks like in the city of Detroit.
04:51
I've had the opportunity
to work with Oakland Avenue Farms
04:56
in hosting Detroit-grown and made
farm-to-table dinners.
05:00
These are dinners
where we bring folks onto the farm,
05:05
we give them plenty
of time and opportunity
05:08
to meet and greet and talk to the grower,
05:11
and then they're taken on a farm tour.
05:14
And then afterwards,
they're treated to a farm-to-table meal
05:16
prepared by a chef
05:22
who showcases all the produce on the farm
right at the peak of its freshness.
05:24
We do that.
05:30
We bring people onto the farm,
05:31
we have folks sitting around a table,
05:33
because we want to change
people's relationship to food.
05:35
We want them to know
exactly where their food comes from
05:39
that is grown on that farm
that's on the plate.
05:43
My second stop,
05:47
I'm going to take you
on the west side of Detroit,
05:48
to the Brightmoor neighborhood.
05:51
Now, Brightmoor is
a lower-income community in Detroit.
05:53
There's about 13,000
residents in Brightmoor.
05:56
They decided to take
a block-by-block-by-block strategy.
06:00
So within the neighborhood of Brightmoor,
06:05
you'll find a 21-block microneighborhood
called Brightmoor Farmway.
06:07
Now, what was a notorious,
unsafe, underserved community
06:13
has transformed into a welcoming,
beautiful, safe farmway,
06:18
lush with parks and gardens
and farms and greenhouses.
06:23
This tight-knit community
also came together recently,
06:27
and they purchased an abandoned building,
06:30
an abandoned building
that was in disrepair and in foreclosure.
06:33
And with the help of friends
and families and volunteers,
06:37
they were able to take down
the bulletproof glass,
06:41
they were able to clean up the grounds
06:43
and they transformed that building
into a community kitchen,
06:45
into a cafe, into a storefront.
06:49
Now the farmers and the food artisans
who live in Brightmoor,
06:52
they have a place where they
can make and sell their product.
06:56
And the people in the community
06:59
have some place where they can buy
healthy, fresh food.
07:00
Urban agriculture --
and this is my third example --
07:04
can be used as a way to lift up
the business cooperative model.
07:07
The 1,500 farms and gardens
I told you about earlier?
07:12
Keep Growing Detroit
is a nonprofit organization
07:17
that had a lot to do with those farms.
07:19
They distributed last year
70,000 packets of seeds
07:22
and a quarter of a million transplants,
07:27
and as a result of that last year,
07:31
550,000 pounds of produce
07:33
was grown in the city of Detroit.
07:37
(Applause)
07:40
But aside from all of that,
07:46
they also manage
and operate a cooperative.
07:48
It's called Grown in Detroit.
07:52
It consists of about 70 farmers,
07:54
small farmers.
07:57
They all grow, and they sell together.
07:59
They grow fruits,
08:03
they grow vegetables,
08:05
they grow flowers,
08:07
they grow herbs in healthy soil,
08:09
free of chemicals,
pesticides, fertilizers,
08:12
genetically modified products --
08:15
healthy food.
08:17
And when their product is sold
08:19
all over the city of Detroit
in local markets,
08:21
they get a hundred percent
of the proceeds from the sale.
08:24
In a city like Detroit,
08:28
where far too many, far too many
African Americans are dying
08:31
as a result of diet-related diseases,
08:36
restaurants, they have a huge role to play
08:40
in increasing healthy food access
in the city of Detroit,
08:43
culturally appropriate restaurants.
08:46
Enter Detroit Vegan Soul.
08:49
Yes, we have a vegan soul food restaurant
in the city of Detroit.
08:51
(Applause)
08:56
Yes, yes.
08:57
Detroit Vegan Soul
is providing Detroiters the opportunity
09:00
to eat more plant-based meals
09:04
and they've received an overwhelming
response from Detroiters.
09:07
Detroiters are hungry
for culturally appropriate,
09:11
fresh, delicious food.
09:14
That's why we built a nonprofit
organization called FoodLab Detroit,
09:16
to help small neighborhood
burgeoning food entrepreneurs
09:20
start and scale healthy food businesses.
09:23
FoodLab provides
these entrepreneurs incubation,
09:26
hands-on education, workshops,
09:30
technical assistance,
access to industry experts
09:32
so that they can grow and scale.
09:36
They're very small businesses,
09:38
but last year, they had a combined revenue
09:40
of over 7.5 million dollars,
09:43
and they provided 252 jobs.
09:45
Listen.
09:49
(Applause)
09:50
These are just a few examples
09:53
on how you expand opportunities
09:57
so that everybody can participate
10:01
and prosper,
10:04
particularly those
who come from neighborhoods
10:06
that have been historically excluded
from these types of opportunities.
10:10
I know, I know.
10:14
My city is a long way from succeeding.
10:17
We're still struggling,
10:22
and I'm not going to stand here
on this stage and tell you
10:23
that all of Detroit's problems
and all of Detroit's challenges
10:26
are going to be solved
through urban agriculture.
10:29
I'm not going to do that,
10:32
but I will tell you this:
10:34
urban agriculture
has Detroit thinking about its city
10:36
now in a different way,
10:39
a city that can be both urban and rural.
10:41
And yes, I know, these stories are small,
10:46
these stories are
neighborhood-based stories,
10:48
but these stories are powerful.
10:51
They're powerful because I'm showing you
how we're creating a new society
10:53
left vacant in the places and the spaces
that was disintegration from the old.
10:57
They're powerful stories
because they're stories about love,
11:03
the love that Detroiters have
for one another,
11:06
the love that we have for our community,
the love that we have for Mother Earth,
11:08
but more importantly,
these stories are stories
11:12
on how devastation, despair, decay
11:15
never ever get the last word
in the city of Detroit.
11:20
When hundreds of thousands
of people left Detroit,
11:25
and they left us for dead,
those who stayed had hope.
11:28
They held on to hope.
11:31
They never gave up.
11:33
They always kept fighting.
11:34
And listen, I know,
11:37
transforming a big city like Detroit
to one that is prosperous,
11:38
one that's functional, one that's healthy,
11:42
one that's inclusive,
one that provides opportunities for all,
11:44
I know it's tough,
11:48
I know it's challenging, I know it's hard.
11:49
But I just believe
11:52
that if we start strengthening
the social fabric of our communities,
11:54
and if we kickstart economic opportunities
in our most vulnerable neighborhoods,
11:57
it all starts with healthy, accessible,
12:02
delicious, culturally appropriate food.
12:06
Thank you very much.
12:11
(Applause)
12:12
Thank you.
12:18

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About the speaker:

Devita Davison - Food activist
At FoodLab Detroit, Devita Davison supports local entrepreneurs and imagines a new future for food justice.

Why you should listen

Detroit is a legendary food town, and it's thanks to small, locally owned businesses that range from streetside barbecue tents to neighborhood bakeries, shops and delis -- even small farms. At FoodLab Detroit, Devita Davison helps locals with ideas for a food business to take their dreams into delicious reality, by connecting them with business advice, help with compliance and licensing, space in professional kitchens, marketing ideas and more. The nonprofit focuses on entrepreneurs and communities who have been traditionally under-resourced, aiming to build power and resilience for people around the city.

FoodLab's vision is to cultivate, connect and catalyze, to use food as an economic engine, to form a supportive community of entrepreneurs and to make good food a reality for all Detroiters.

More profile about the speaker
Devita Davison | Speaker | TED.com