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Flint: Mowing Weeds, Planting Seeds, Growing Citizens

A down-and-out town finds strength in its people and governments

November 5, 2010 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Catholic Charities operates a garden program that is helping to revitalize Flint.

FLINT—"I don't move. I improve"

That's the spirit, and the saying, now spreading through Flint as a sense of hope takes hold in this hard-pressed place. Friends, families and neighbors are rebuilding fragmented neighborhoods, bringing strength and opportunity to their land and each other. In the process, they're raising property values, attracting urban pioneers, and cultivating a quality of life that will endure future economic ups and downs.

And, they are starting to build a new, urban, agricultural economy in what was once a vital center of the U.S. auto industrry.

Suburban sprawl and the loss of tens of thousands of General Motors jobs in recent decades left Flint with some 6,000 abandoned homes and 18,000 abandoned lots, according to a recent USA Today interview with former Genessee County Treasurer Dan Kildee. Like most American cities, Flint was already weak from the white flight of the 1950s and 1960s.  From 1960 to 2008, Flint lost 43 percent of its residents.


Yet, rising up now through the cracked concrete of Flint's faded industrial glory is a new sense of community power and future economic potential. It's all coming together around simple yet profound acts like mowing weeds and planting seeds.

Four key components are at work, building a strong foundation for community development around land use and good food:

  • Local government innovations around managing abandoned property.
  • Creative collaboration among organizations.
  • People-to-people power of elders, youth, and neighbors working together.
  • A sense of ownership-building citizen engagement in policy changes that support the community's new direction.

Local Government Innovation
Christina Kelly is lead planner for the Genesee County Land Bank, which is making much of this community development possible by taking charge of abandoned properties. One of the Land Bank's programs is called Adopt-a-Lot. The free program allows neighbors to make good use of some of the 3,200 parcels that have come under Land Bank ownership.

The Land Bank's Clean and Green program takes it another step, offering support and a little money to community groups that apply for the opportunity to develop gardening, beautification, and other projects on Land Bank-owned property. About 29 community groups now maintain some 800 lots through Clean and Green.

Ms. Kelly describes the neighborhood transformation that can happen. It starts with the care of a few Land Bank lots, which inspires many others in the neighborhood to step up, too, with more pride and care for their own places. Gardening on the lots, both flowers and food, is a key element that attracts and unites neighbors.

One neighborhood in the Thread Lake area, in the southern half of the city, now has a senior housing complex and other renovated property, after the Clean and Green program prompted other people to take more care. The neighborhood self-improvement attracted a local developers' investment in property renovation.

"It's not a coincidence that the neighborhood changed that much," Ms. Kelly said. A 2006 Michigan State University study, for example, estimated the land bank's activities in Flint had by then already boosted property values countywide by more than $100 million.

The Thread Lake area transformation started with one woman, Barbara Griffith Wilson, and partners who led the Clean and Green charge on several Land Bank-owned lots.

"After the Clean and Green group started mowing and planting gardens, the standard of maintenance in the neighborhood went up," Ms. Kelly said. "People started painting their houses ... with people out and about mowing and kids wearing their green (Land Bank) shirts, it showed that people are there and they care."

The transformation is profound and growing, Mr. Kildee told USA Today. "The Land Bank is changing the conditions and aesthetics in Flint. Where once there was an abandoned house, there's now a community garden."

Creative Collaboration
About 70 percent of the gardens on Land Bank properties are food gardens, Ms. Kelly said.

The opportunity to grow food and improve diets has become another main branch of Flint's recovery, providing meaningful work for youth and neighborly connections in addition to nutrition. Urban gardening is also the seed of new economic potential for the region as demand and need grow for healthier food and for the economic benefits of buying from local growers, both urban and rural.

Most of the farmland in Genesee and surrounding counties is still devoted to global market commodity crops like corn and soybeans. That's despite the fact that two-thirds of those farms lose money even with federal subsidies, which one-third receive, according to an analysis by researcher Ken Meter of the Minnesota-based Crossroads Resource Center.

Flint's urban residents are leading the movement to start growing food for expanding local markets, particularly the fruits and vegetables most needed for improving diets. And they're doing it thanks to Land Bank programs that provide access to property and to a number of organizations, including the Land Bank, that are combining their resources to have the greatest effect with limited funds.

That group of groups has taken on the name of Edible Flint after starting off as the "urban agriculture collaborative," which originally formed to address city zoning that prohibited a lot of urban farming.

Edible Flint is "a food-growing network;" that is, everyone involved is focused on supporting urban gardeners from startup to harvest and uses of that food. About 25 organizations, including the city parks and recreation department, participate regularly. They develop and coordinate things like training, urban garden tours, and other events, and the use of a bank of tools that one group loans.

Most recently, Edible Flint celebrated the launch of the Edible Flint Co-op, a group of about 20 growers from Flint and northward, toward Saginaw, selling their products at the Flint Farmers Market under the Edible Flint label.

"This is one of the most important things we can do to support growers who want to increase production or supplement their income," said Joanna Lehrman, a member of the co-op's planning group, in a statement.

The cooperative marketing and branding idea comes in part from Detroit, where a citywide network of urban gardeners has in recent years been earning money and promoting urban gardening under their own Grown in Detroit label.

"Edible Flint is a very grassroots, action-oriented team," said Terry McLean of Genesee County Extension, which provides staff support to Edible Flint.

Integral to the passion that is the lifeblood of Edible Flint are the true stories of people, particularly youth, finding purpose and opportunity through gardening. There's also the real empowerment that residents are gaining with new control they're finding over their destiny. The city and its new mayor, for example, are paying serious attention now to old zoning that prevents new gardening innovations because neighbors pursuing these projects are beginning to make themselves heard.

People-to-People Power
One of the leaders of this movement is Jacky King who, along with wife Dora King, operates a self-defense program for local kids in their community of Beecher, on the northern edge of Flint in Mount Morris Township.

The Kings' self-defense program starts with the King's Karate studio, where Jacky and Dora have for years taught the marshal art to youth and engaged kids in community service as part of their tuition. The program now extends to their Harvesting Earth Farm, which started across the street from the studio on lots the Kings and their karate kids reclaimed from among so many up and down the street and around the neighborhood that are blighted and used as dumping grounds.

At Harvesting Earth Farm, kids learn the self-defense of healthy food, Jacky says. "Good eating is good self defense," he said. The youth involved in the project, about 80 in the summer, also learn how to make money and build a future. They sell food they grow at a farmers market, which they helped set up down the road. They also learn that they can put their foot down right in their neighborhood and build a life and a community there.

"I say to them: You're lucky we've got vacant buildings here," Jacky said. "They're not vacant in Grand Blanc (more affluent area southeast of Flint)." He encourages the kids to stick around and make a go of the pioneering opportunity they have. "Our soil is as good as anything around," he said.

Kings Karate and Harvesting Earth Farm are among several innovative and organized efforts in the Flint area to bring youth to the garden and help them build confidence, relationships, and job skills.

The Mr. Rogers Garden Program, operated by Catholic Charities, is another that has for more than 10 years involved local youth in gardening to build their personal, community, and job outlook. Program director Greg Gaines and his team work with youth at two garden sites: Ebenezer Ministries in Burton and Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Flint.

Not far from the Kings' Harvesting Earth Farm is Carolyn Meekins and her Urban Youth Outreach garden and greenhouse project on Philadelphia Boulevard in Flint. Neighbors and church members help maintain 11 vacant lots that the project covers. Food is free for the taking, and often brings different generations together in a safe place where people can get to know one another and work together.

It's a powerful connection that researchers are starting to quantify for those who need more evidence. The big outcome is called "social capital," that great asset of people and relationships upon which cities and nations are built. Coming together in the garden builds social capital where economic downturns and exploitation have left poverty and disassociation, or a great lack of the mutual support needed for individuals and families to thrive.

Other studies, some based on Flint community gardening research, find that people begin to eat better, improving diets with fruits and vegetables, the more they have opportunities to garden and to grow community in gardens.

Ownership and Empowerment
It's not surprising, then, that issues close to Flint's community gardeners are now rising to the top of local officials' priorities; people are making themselves heard and calling for action that supports the social capital, job potential, and improved public health that is coming from gardening.

A major issue that has brought crowds to public meetings is zoning, how rules written in the 1960s for an industrial city lag far behind Flint's current reality and the new uses neighbors have for property long ago designated as "commercial" or "residential." The idea that people would want to farm in those areas was decades away.

Ms. Meekins and her Urban Community Youth Outreach garden and greenhouse program ran up against those rules in a big way a few years ago when the program tried to erect a passive solar greenhouse, or "hoophouse," on a vacant lot. The old zoning rules allow for something like a hoophouse as an "accessory structure" on a lot with a residence. But the rules have no provision for putting up such a structure on a vacant lot.

The gap in the rules threw Ms. Meekins and crew into a legal limbo that cost them upwards of $20,000 and three years of meetings and paperwork headaches to finally get a variance, or one-time exception, that allowed for the hoophouse.

The problem with that outcome is bigger than the big expense of time and money. The problem is that others will face the same confusion and costs when they try it also. The Mr. Rogers program is another group that has erected a hoophouse and found uncertainty from local officials, who didn't block the project but didn't clear the way either.

The issue is still open in Flint, but two developments are promising.

One is an in-depth review of Flint's urban agriculture zoning barriers and options commissioned by the Genesee County Land Bank. The Flint Urban Agriculture Legal Framework report provides a solid context and set of facts to help neighbors and officials navigate future changes to zoning ordinances.

Another is the promise from Flint's new mayor that urban agriculture zoning will be a key part of the city's considerations as it updates its master plan, which is as old as the zoning ordinances.

The master plan update, now starting, will also include big questions about whether and how to "shrink" Flint to its actual post-industrial size by bulldozing some neighborhoods rather than trying to patch together their remnants.

The master plan process will be another opportunity for Flint's increasingly active and empowered residents to decide if they will move, and how they will continue to improve their city.

Patty Cantrell founded the Michigan Land Use Institute's Food and Farming program in 1998. She now operates her own local food and economics consulting company. RegionalFoodSolutions.com, where this article was first published. Reach her at patty@regionalfoodsolutions.com.

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