In its heyday, Flint, Michigan had nearly 200,000 residents and was the governmental seat of one of the wealthiest counties in the country. Since those days in the early 1970’s, the population has dropped by 45% and poverty rates have skyrocketed. The future seems bleak. A 2008 Forbes article named Flint one of “America’s Fastest Dying Cities.”
Many people are working to halt Flint’s decline. The Downtown Development Authority has revitalized a moribund main street and the local land bank has repurposed many empty properties. The Genesee County Land Bank in Flint has been recognized by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government as a national model for getting vacant property and land back on the tax rolls.
“There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” – Robert Kennedy
Because of the population drop, the city has a large number of empty houses. Many of those empty houses have been demolished – 250 in 2008, 500 in 2009 – and more are scheduled for demolition in coming years. The empty lots left behind are often weed-choked and trash-riddled. Some people look at those empty lots and say they reflect the city’s soul. Others look at them and see an opportunity.
One of the bright spots in Flint can be found at the Farmers’ Market. Flint’s market has won national acclaim. It has been voted one of the top 10 large Farmers’ Markets in the country. Recently, the Farmers’ Market and another of Flint’s revitalization projects have joined forces. A co-op formed by 15 urban gardens built on land managed by the Land Bank has begun to sell their produce at the market.
The empty lots have drawn the attention of advocates for urban gardening. There are now more than 65 gardens on properties managed by the Land Bank. These gardens bring several benefits to the communities where they are found.
The positive aspects of community gardens are plentiful. The gardens improve the look of neighborhoods by replacing weedy lots with neatly cultivated gardens. They supply a fresh source of vegetables to households that have problems affording healthy eating habits. And, they bring a sense of community and self-reliance to neighborhoods that feel they have been abandoned by the government and the more affluent areas of the city.
There are other bright spots in the city, many of which are more significant, but these gardens are something people can do for themselves. This improves both community togetherness and optimism. This improvement may have great benefits in the long run.
There is one other quote by Robert Kennedy that is relevant to this story of urban renewal
“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total; of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”
Too many of us focus on grand schemes as the most significant actions we can take to improve this world when, in reality, it is the cumulative effect of changes to “a small portion of events” that mean the most when the history of these times is written.