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Elena Torres Ruiz

Inventing the Moral City – Detroit’s Remaking Through Urban Agriculture?
Elena Torres Ruiz (Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society/ LMU Munich)

What will the city of the future look like? A growing number of scientists point to urban
agriculture when they reply to this question. As urban agriculture garners more and
more attention in the media, the socio-political interpretations have taken on a distinct
narrative: in the U.S. journalists and scholars hail urban individuals for taking control over theirfood supply and connect them to a larger national discourse about community foodsecurity, nutrition, and health.

Urban agriculture activists express a shared sense of alienation from one of
the most basic needs – food – and many journalists and scholars take kindly to the
interwoven criticism of agribusiness. Consequently the narrative has become a story
about emancipation through growing crops. The crop garden has come to personify
an accomplice in reversing the implicit loss of power over one’s food supply.
Simultaneously, the cultivation of food is helping American cities reverse their
negative image of the crime-ridden food desert. At this moment in history, cities are
seemingly becoming a green utopia of self-sufficiency, cooperation, and ethical
consumption. Or are they?

Detroit, Michigan, has seen a continuous economic and demographic decline
since the withdrawal of the automobile industry and serves as my case study in
exploring these developments. In this paper, I investigate the efforts of activists,
urban planners, and real-estate investors to revive a major postindustrial city through
urban agriculture. A social, cultural, and environmental historical lens helps me
compare and contrast the highly moralized, current approaches to urban agriculture
in Detroit. I problematize the seemingly progressive image of this cultural practice,
questioning its function within the larger efforts to increase property values.
Furthermore, I argue against the idealization of urban agriculture and place the
activities within the context of the currentfood reform movement. Here it becomes apparent that urban agricultural practices serve vastly different purposes depending on the practitioners and is thus becoming an increasingly contested field.