Growing Detroit

By Kiley Jacques

Motor City is poised to become the epicenter of urban agriculture.

It’s no secret Detroit has suffered. The postindustrial city’s economic and demographic downturn has left it in a compromised state for decades. But in a two-square-block area of its North End, change is afoot.

In 2011, the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI), an all-volunteer nonprofit organization, purchased a defunct apartment complex at auction. And ever since, MUFI president and co-founder, Tyson Gersh, has been building something altogether new—the nation’s first urban “agrihood.”

7432 Brush Street is a distressed property in Detroit that was purchased by MUFI in October 2011. It was built in 1915 and used continuously until circa 2009. The goal is to restore the structure to a community resource center that will help foster sustainability and urban renewal.

There are about 200 agrihood models currently operating in rural and suburban areas around the country, but this is the first infill-style model. “To take it a degree further,” says Gersh, “we wanted to make it a sustainable urban agrihood, to tie into some certifying designations, and to give companies an opportunity to participate.”


Tyson Gersh is the co-founder and president of MUFI—a volunteer-run 501 (c)(3) nonprofit based in Detroit’s North End community that uses urban agriculture as a platform to promote education, sustainability, and community in an effort to empower urban communities. Photo: Ara Howrani

The mission is multifold: to use urban agriculture as a platform to promote education, sustainability, and community; uplift and empower urban residents; address Detroit’s social issues; and potentially serve as a model for the redevelopment of other urban communities.

To that end, MUFI is developing a three-acre agriculture campus on which there are multiple projects underway. Ultimately, the campus will comprise an urban farm, fruit orchard, community garden, children’s sensory garden, rainwater harvesting cistern, and a shipping container house—combined they demonstrate an “adaptive reuse of the built environment.” Gersh explains: “We are repurposing the existing land and the infrastructure in a way that is serving a different need than its original intent but is still functional . . . [and] in a way that will serve a blue or green goal.”

Each project has been taken under the wing of a corporation for sponsorship and implementation.

For example, General Motors is behind 40-foot two-bedroom shipping container house (p23)—the inside of which was roughed in by volunteer employees at GM’s Detroit-Hamtramck plant. In fact, the company has provided hundreds of employee volunteers to work on various projects at the farm. Currently, it is transforming its offices at several campus locations and has recently announced a program for nonprofit organizations to obtain free office furniture and equipment. MUFI is a benefactor. “This donation will save us thousands in office equipment purchases we’d otherwise have to endure,” says Gersh.


The produce from the farm goes to individual households using a pay-what-you-can model, as well as local markets, restaurants, and food pantries such as churches and shelters.
Photo: Michelle and Chris Gerard

Of the existing buildings on the property, Gersh says it has been challenging to figure out ways to use them productively. “The default is to demolish them, which tends to be expensive and, at the end of the day, just neutralizes the problem without adding direct value. We are trying to repurpose that existing infrastructure.”

Hence the transformation of a long-vacant three-story building into a Community Resource Center (CRC)—MUFI’s most recent undertaking. With support from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), principal sponsor and USGBC Platinum-level member BASF Chemical Company, BorgWarner, USGBC Gold-level member General Motors, USGBC Silver-level member Herman Miller, and Green Standards, among others, the new 3,200 sq-ft center will be a space for educational programs, events and meetings, and MUFI’s operational headquarters. It will also house two commercial kitchens to service a new café and to enable future production of revenue-generating product lines made from farm ingredients.

The café will be located inside a 1,700 sq-ft greenhouse located on vacant land next to the CRC. It will follow an adjusted buyers’ club model, the idea being to make it accessible for the neighborhood while generating revenue for MUFI. Gersh describes it as self-subsidizing and says it’s an example of “infrastructure that has relevance to both our existing neighborhood and those who want to explore it.”

In essence, the former food desert is growing into a food hub.


The gardens serve as a resource for the public to plant their own plants, grow their own food, and learn the skills from knowledgeable individuals at MUFI.
Photo: Michelle and Chris Gerard


How did BASF come to the table? Business strategy and sustainability manager Doug Brown explains how he and his colleague, Brooke Gast, wanted to do something beyond building exhibit booths at conferences—so-called “one-and-done engagements.” So Gast did some homework. And the pair put roots down in Detroit, where it became evident that Gersh’s project was where they wanted to concentrate their efforts.

MUFI will deconstruct this defunct building down to its foundation, installing a rubber (or possibly another nonpermeable material) membrane over it, thereby effectively converting the basement into a retention pond. Photo: Ara Howrani

MUFI will deconstruct this defunct building down to its foundation, installing a rubber (or possibly another nonpermeable material) membrane over it, thereby effectively converting the basement into a retention pond. Photo: Ara Howrani

Brown is excited to rehabilitate the onsite “shells.” “Tyson is part owner of the land, and he is on board with us leveraging our best and brightest technologies,” he says. For the CRC, core materials supplied by BASF include advanced insulation; liquid-applied weather air barriers; drywall with Micronol, a small bead that absorbs and releases heat based on temperature settings; no-VOC paints with antimicrobials; solar glass films; and Green Sense concrete pervious pavement, among others. “Everything we put in there will have some sort of demonstrable sustainability contribution,” says Brown.

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum is the goal. The plan is to make this “the most sustainable campus/neighborhood that has ever been seen—a model of sustainable urban infrastructure.”
Like Gersh, Brown values alliance. “We can’t go do it alone,” he says. “This is a great way for us to engage other partners, other material suppliers, and really test the boundaries of true collaboration.” He wonders if corporations large and small can come together in a space like MUFI’s agrihood. “It’s an exciting business model; we can do it on a small scale with a big impact. Ideally, we do this and some great partnerships are formed and we repeat it. The potential is immense.”

With its mission to “push sustainability forward faster,” Sustainable Brands—a global community of business and brand strategy, marketing, innovation, and sustainability professionals—got on board, too.

Jonathan Reese, director of business development, says the company is committed to building a legacy and that MUFI’s agrihood is an exceptionally inspiring endeavor, given its transformative effect on the community. “This project brings a lot of the community out,” he says. “People attach to growing plants and they attach to food. It’s a great equalizer—everybody needs to eat and everybody likes good food.”

Reese notes the importance of the agrihood’s location. He is aware of the growth happening in Detroit, and he has witnessed the sentiment shared among people involved in building the city back up: “Their pride is palpable. That has been very inspirational to me.”

He has also been impressed by the project’s novelty in terms of Sustainable Brands’ own scope. “We are in uncharted waters,” he says of their decision to back MUFI’s work. “We wanted to find a project that would get people involved, do good, and spread virally.” They also sought something scalable.


This shipping container, which offers 320 sq-ft of living space, two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a bathroom, will house an intern (“student caretaker”) who will live in the home year-round while managing the farm and conducting agricultural research.

Reese sees his company’s role, in part, as covering and conveying the process as MUFI grows to include the CRC. Sustainable Brands’ B2B news media platform will run an ongoing series of stories about the project and the companies supporting it. “We want to look under the hood to see the mechanics of the project and how all of these companies have come together,” he says. The hope is to reach as broad an audience as possible. As Reese points out: The greater the number of people who see it succeed, the greater the number of people empowered to try it.

What of MUFI’s impact to date? A recent survey examined the number of people who have purchased property in the area because of the agrihood. Residents were asked if they would be in the North End if not for the farm. Those who answered no were then asked how much they spent on the purchase of their homes and how much on home investments. The total figure is well over 3 million dollars. “This neighborhood would not see that degree of investment otherwise,” notes Gersh.

One man’s rallying call has become a shared source of pride—a “real-life legacy.” Gersh is quick to credit those who have come to his table. “What we are doing is pretty unusual,” he acknowledges. “I think the companies should be applauded for stepping in and taking the risk to support something innovative. Much in the way Detroit was built to support the corporate sector, we are now at this interesting intersection of [what] a postindustrial urban environment is going to look like . . . we are right at the edge of that. And having these companies back our cause and help us push forward is really cool.”

Adaptive Reuse

The foundation of a defunct building has been repurposed for use as a rainwater harvesting cistern. Waterproofed, filled with water basin matrixes, capped with a permeable membrane, and tied into an automated irrigation system with built-in moisture detection technology, it irrigates automatically, thereby mitigating stormwater runoff on the municipal end, reducing MUFI’s reliance on the grid, and optimizing irrigation practices.

A shipping container home is MUFI’s answer to the need for demographic-appropriate housing. The majority of the existing housing stock consists of massive 100-year-old homes that have been divided into rental units that are extremely expensive to heat. The call for smaller, more cost-efficient housing has been made. Heeding that call, the shipping container home serves as a scalable model. It was built atop an existing foundation by laying canal tubes inside the footprint of the crawl space and sitting the home on top of those—floating it in the center, like an island, and then connecting it to the existing foundation. It’s a way to circumvent the reels of red tape associated with removing existing foundations and utility lines, and using existing infrastructure to serve a purpose.