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Food & Drink > Grilled

Helping Detroit grow

Rebecca Salminen Witt talks about 20 years of the Greening of Detroit

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Published 9/22/2010

Today, urban agriculture is suddenly a buzzword, both a bright hope for Detroit and a lightning rod for attacks on "right sizing." But it wasn't always that way. When the Greening of Detroit was founded 20 years ago, the idea of ensuring plenty of greenery in the city was relatively obscure. Times have changed, and "the Greening" has grown with them. Recently, the group's president, Rebecca Salminen Witt, sat down to talk with us in Detroit's Romanowski Farm Park about Detroit's opportunity to turn open space to productive uses that are good and healthy for the city, and maybe even tackle food security in the process.

Metro Times: Urban agriculture isn't new. In Detroit it's as old as Detroit Mayor Hazen Pingree, right?

Rebecca Salminen Witt: It's not doing anything new. It's something that we forgot about for a while. There have always been gardeners here. Lots of Detroiters' families came from the South. They had a history of gardening. My mom's family came from northern Georgia. They were big gardeners. When I went to my grandma and grandpa's house, they had a great, big, huge side lot that was all a garden. They grew all of their food, and my grandma put stuff up in cans and in the freezer, and I think lots of Detroiters have that sort of history in their background. For a number of years, we turned our attention away, and it became more of a hobby. But that history has always been a part of us. And I think it's really cool that we've rediscovered it as not just a hobby but as a real way to do some great stuff for our city.

MT: Well, you couldn't have picked a better time to have a 20-year anniversary, could you?

Witt: [laughs] You know, I thank my lucky stars every day that we started when we did and that our founders gave us the name that they did. Greening of Detroit is such a great name: It describes what we do without being so specific that it boxes us in. When you hear our name, you get it right away what the Greening's about. We're really about making this city a clean, green place that we can all be healthy in and prosper. And, fortunately, right now, I think the whole world has come around and realized that to be really healthy and prosper, being green is one of the key things you've got to do.

MT: Of course, 20 years ago, I would imagine that as a low point for greening efforts.

Witt: It's funny, because we were really doing something that people thought was nice, but they didn't get why it mattered so much. It was just one of those things that was a hobby or interest that you could do in your spare time. I don't think people at the time gave it the weight it deserves. In the last few years, you can't open a magazine or turn on the television without somebody saying something about "green." Back in 1990, when we were first starting out, we were just kind of the weirdos. We were like the little weird "tree-huggers." We used to get these comments. "Why are they wasting their time doing that?" or "That's nice, but isn't that the city's job?" Now we've lasted long enough that now everyone has kind of come around and sees us as a leader in a movement that's really important. So, longevity has its benefits. [laughs]

MT: What were the founders influenced by? Environmentalism?

Witt: The founders definitely had a flavor of that among themselves. But our founder was Beth Sachs, wife of Sam Sachs, the director of the DIA at the time. She moved here from Minnesota and it was really evident to her that a city called the "City of Trees" — we were one of the original cities called that — didn't have the trees that it needed. In her mind, it was a really simple thing. You know what? This city is a beautiful city, once known as the Paris of the Midwest, it deserves to have all these trees. And if the city can't do it on its own, let's make a philanthropic organization to fill that gap. So it was just a really simple kind of reaction to what was really obvious to someone who'd moved here from a forested place and expected to see many more trees here. For a city to be a world-class city and healthy for its people it needed to have a full complement of trees. And we didn't have that then.

MT: Are we there yet?

Witt: We still don't have that. The Greening has planted more than 65,000 trees now in the city of Detroit, and we still have a long way to go. I would love to work ourselves out of the forestry business someday, but the truth is that trees are living things. They require care and maintenance and they have a lifespan and so there are always going to be trees to replace. We plant little ones, and it's important that they make it to maturity. They require a lot of care for the first three years or so to make sure that they get enough water and that they're pruned so they grow up straight and tall. In 1998, we realized we had learned to plant trees really well, and the trees were getting to the point where they needed additional care and pruning. We wondered how that was going to happen with the city forestry department declining. So we looked around for a good resource — and we realized that Detroit had a wonderful, huge resource in its young people. And they want to do things in their neighborhood. They want to have the opportunity to learn what it means to be a wage-earner. So, for the last 13 summers, through our youth employment program, we've made sure that we've had Detroit young people in the fields to water all the trees that we plant. This year, they cared for thousands of trees. We try to water on a weekly basis all the trees we've planted for the last three or four years. That program started with six kids. This year we had 160 kids in the field. And we're really proud of that kind of growth. And our main objective is they leave after the summer and they understand why it's important to be committed to your environment. Making a new crop of believers every summer — that's the real objective of that program.

MT: They used to joke that if you asked city kids where food comes from, they would say it came from the supermarket.

Witt: Absolutely. And, you know, the Greening started out as a forestry organization. We didn't have any business doing urban agriculture at first. We'd get requests from folks, for tilling or vegetable seeds. We kind of slipped into it gradually. At first we were saying, "OK, we'll help you on the garden, but where can we put the tree?" [laughs] There's got to be a tree planting somewhere in the vicinity to justify this gardening activity. About four years ago, our board did a new strategic plan. At that time, we addressed the question of whether to change our mission to involve all growing things, not just trees. We had gone to an ecosystem-based planting approach a while ago, which opened the door for us to do all kinds of shrubs, wildflowers, and maybe a few vegetables here and there. So we put the urban agriculture question before the board and they said, "Absolutely." And so that opened the door for us to really indulge in urban agriculture full-scale. One of the reasons we started down that path is because — we were right here in this park working with kids from O.W. Holmes Elementary School — and one of the kids asked one of my staff members what gas station she got her groceries at. She was our environmental education director, and she came back and was like, "OK, I know we've been carefully guarding against 'mission creep,' but this is a really serious issue and we should embrace it." And what is a nonprofit if it's not responsive to the community? Ashley Atkinson, our director of urban agriculture, had always worked in urban agriculture. So it was really easy for us to say, "We're going to start a new department." Seven or eight years ago, we had 50 or 60 gardens in the program, and this year we have more than 1,200 home, community and school gardens. So every year there's exponential growth in the program.

MT: That's amazing growth.

Witt: Well, folks love the garden resource program. It's a great program. It's a collaborative effort with the Greening, the Detroit Agricultural Network, Michigan State University and the Capuchin Soup Kitchen's Earthworks urban farm. The great thing about that program is, the more involved you become, the more resources you have access to. And the more resources you have access to, and the more connections you make, the more likely you are to become a part of the movement, and not just having a postage-stamp garden on the side of your house. We get people saying, "First you had me planting those weird tomatoes and now look at me: I'm selling stuff at market every weekend!"

MT: People really get involved.

Witt: Oh, nothing builds community like a garden. My goodness: You see a garden pop up in the middle of the community and suddenly neighbors who never knew each other are coming out to work together. The garden here is a great example of that. When we started this project, this park was 29 acres that was basically vacant. It had a basketball court with no hoop on it. It had three painted sewer tubes as playground equipment. That pavilion that you see out there was there, and that was it. We said, what about the idea of putting in a working farm in the middle of a recreation space? We did a design session where we asked the community to vote on what they wanted. So we basically brought together all these ideas of what cool urban parks can be. The agriculture part was a component of it, but we didn't overemphasize it. We asked community people what they wanted. And what was interesting about that project was we had more than 300 people show up over three days. That process was so rich and engaging: There wasn't anything they didn't like. They wanted everything. They liked beehives, playground equipment, soccer fields. The city saw that enthusiasm and that real desire to use what could be a real city center in a way that was a lot more useful to the community. The city came aboard full force to the project. We expected the process to take about five years; it took about a year-and-a-half. And the good thing about that was the kids who were little when they said, "We'd really like a slide," were still little when they got a slide. [laughs] Given that premise, what we've built here is a teaching pavilion, a teaching garden, a playground, five soccer fields that can draw 500 people on the weekends, renovated tennis-basketball courts, a renovated pavilion, a new pavilion, and, of course, we've put the farm and the orchard in. The orchard has 120 trees, several different species of fruit: apples, pears, tart cherries, apricots and more. It's just now getting to be really productive. The trees were all planted by the kids on Arbor Day. We started out with a half-acre. The farm is two acres now, and we can expand it probably to five acres.

MT: It's a fascinating story. You've grown from something like an NGO in Detroit for forestry to expanding into food and food systems.

Witt: And there's more. I told you about the kids we've started working with: That program has blossomed into a full workforce development program. In the last few years, we've not only been teaching kids, showing them the ins and outs of having a career in the green industries and being committed to the mission, but we also have an adult component, so the adults in that program have the opportunity to learn skills. We offer a formal certification for those guys, they can become landscape industry certified and go out and become gainfully employed in the green industry area. We recognized that the open space issue, all the vacant land in Detroit, was going to require a lot of hard work. We recognized that we could be a really helpful force, but you can't do it with volunteers only. And the Greening has done all its work with volunteers. But the scale of that open space issue and continuing agriculture and forestry issues, means we couldn't just do it in five hours on Saturday morning. And the workforce program gives us the opportunity to train people and get that really important and necessary work done.

MT: How are you celebrating 20 years?

Witt: We launched it actually in the fall of last year, and took a whole year to celebrate. We've done planting projects in celebration, education symposiums in celebrations, we've done gardens in celebration, and this event is the culmination of all that. Of course, we're using all local food, but it's just a big party to celebrate all the things we do. There will be trees there, an eco-village, we'll be training some folks there on what you can do in your own life to be green. For 20 years, what we've found over and over again is that the act of the Greening of Detroit is actually a celebration of Detroit: of what we've been and what we can be.


The Greening of Detroit's 20th anniversary celebration, Live Love Local, takes place 11 a.m.-5 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 25, at Eastern Market's Shed 5; $35 at the door, $25 in advance; tickets available at 313-237-8733. The event will feature food from two dozen Detroit eateries, cooking demonstrations, beer from Motor City Brewing Works, and live music from Blanche and Amp Fiddler.

Michael Jackman is associate editor of Metro Times. Send comments to mjackman@metrotimes.com.

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