How the Mower Saved Detroit

Forget complex business plans, a political overhaul or massive infrastructure projects. Maybe what will help save the crumbling city of Detroit is a rotating set of mower blades.

Detroit has been on the decline, financially and population-wise, for many years for lots of reasons, not the least of which is the troubled auto industry. With numerous abandoned homes and vacant lots dotting the city, it might be difficult to really call Detroit a “city” anymore. Urban blight, maybe, but definitely not a thriving metropolis.

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. All that open space is like a blank canvas for a beautiful new painting. If a company can’t be lured to build its headquarters in Detroit, maybe that empty space would be better suited to a lush community garden, park or urban farm.

Flickr photo by Charles & Hudson

The Mower Gang

In 2010, the city issued budget cuts to ease the economic decline of the city, leaving parks and playgrounds abandoned, according to the blog Engaged Urban Design. Tom Nardone, the founder of the Detroit Mower Gang, seized this opportunity to help kids who still needed a safe place to play.

This is one gang the city really needs. The Mower Gang meets on Wednesdays in spring, summer, and fall and to mow the overgrown grass and reconstruct old play structures. Neglected urban grass on large swaths of land tends to be on the long side, though, so power equipment like zero turn Husqvarna lawn mowers is sorely needed. After all, the Mower Gang tends to the old Tiger Stadium and the Dorais Velodrome. However, the Mower Gang gets by with what’s on hand, and now companies like Husqvarna are sponsoring the volunteer group’s good works.


Other people have a larger vision for a greener Detroit. In 2009, financial-services entrepreneur John Hantz proposed transforming as much as 10,000 acres of vacant city-owned and private property into an urban farm, notes the Wall Street Journal. The Hantz plan now involves much less space (200 acres to start), with a focus on timber instead of food crops. But it’s a beginning.

The city, according to the Journal, has more than 200,000 vacant parcels that generate no significant tax revenue and would be costly for the city to maintain. Hantz wants to ease that burden by buying about 2,300 parcels and planting oak trees. The trees could be harvested and sold within 10 years to people looking for young trees. Fruit orchards and hydroponic vegetables could follow.

For a demonstration project, Hantz Farms recently bought three acres on a block that was mostly deserted, although trashy. Debris was cleared and hundreds of bur oak saplings planted.

Going Green

The Greening of Detroit focuses on green infrastructure that would reduce storm water runoff, improve real estate values and simply beautify neighborhoods. Its garden resource program helps thousands of gardens in the Detroit area. Shovels are at the ready to plant trees and create pocket parks, prairies and urban farms. The organization has a Citizen Forestry program for adult volunteers who learn about tree identification and maintenance. Even kids get involved through the Camp Greening program.

A little cooperation between visionaries, groups and ordinary citizens could turn Detroit from a decaying Rust Belt city into a green oasis.


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