Spring 2014

At a recent Service Day, Michigan Law students volunteer  at an urban garden in Detroit.

Reviving Detroit at its Roots with Urban Agriculture

Nicholas Leonard
Nicholas Leonard

Surrounded by a sea of crumbling concrete, the lush green landscape of the market garden on Plum Street sits as an oasis in a city forged of steel and cement. 

For many, it is merely one example of efforts to revitalize Detroit. For Nicholas Leonard, it is the very essence of the urban agricultural model that has inspired his professional career.

A 3L at Michigan Law, Leonard, like many residents of southeast Michigan, grew up calling Detroit home, despite living outside the city limits. Now, as he awaits his May 2014 graduation, Leonard is eager to return to the city and to the project that has played a leading role in his life for the past five years.

“Urban agriculture is on the verge of becoming a legitimized revitalization solution for depressed urban areas,” predicts Leonard, who was first captivated by the idea as an undergraduate at Kalamazoo College. “My inspiration for going to law school, at least in part, was to mend this disconnect between the City of Detroit and the urban agricultural community. They are both working toward the same goal—revitalized neighborhoods—but they are not working together as effectively as they could be.”

An advocate who can work with both parties—and think creatively about the law and how it can be used to not only support but also incentivize the revitalization effort—is essential, Leonard believes.

It is an idea he has spent half a decade developing, both as a law student and a volunteer with The Greening of Detroit and its offshoot, Keep Growing Detroit, two nonprofit agencies committed to improving the ecosystem and food sovereignty of Detroit.

“I remember The Greening of Detroit gave a presentation at Kalamazoo College, and I decided then and there that I wanted that organization and experience to be the focal point of my senior thesis,” says Leonard, who would later intern at the nonprofit. “I was intrigued by how they were using a common-sense solution to fight Detroit’s blight problem. The idea of Detroit residents using vacant land to redevelop areas of the city while solving food access issues and being cost-effective was very appealing.”

He continued to volunteer at market gardens and pop-up farm stands throughout law school, spending more than a few hours harvesting carrots in the shadow of the MGM Grand casino and selling greens at the foot of Michigan Central Station, Detroit’s once resplendent rail depot.

What started as an undergraduate paper topic has remained a constant theme throughout Leonard’s academic career, including his magnum opus of sorts, a note in the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law, Vol. 3, No. 2, entitled “Utilizing Michigan Brownfield Policies to Incentivize Community-Based Urban Agriculture in Detroit.”

“My note is a practical solution, not an academic exercise,” Leonard says. “It proposes that the City of Detroit, the legal community, and urban farmers look to Michigan’s Brownfield Redevelopment Financing Act to develop a revitalizing framework with which the city and the urban agriculture community can work together towards the common goal they already share, and how lawyers can help foster that relationship.”

Passed in 1996, the act authorizes Michigan municipalities to create brownfield redevelopment authorities to facilitate the implementation of brownfield plans, which are intended to revitalize former industrial or commercial properties that are functionally obsolete, blighted, or environmentally distressed. In turn, the act provides incentives to the private sector to play an active role in the revitalization process.

“A lot of cities are experimenting with zoning, but none are really incentivizing for a use like urban agriculture,” says Leonard, who also is in the Community and Economic Development Clinic. “Detroit’s urban agriculture ordinance is great, but what is needed is to move beyond merely accepting urban farming as a valid land use and instead making it part of the city’s strategic plan going forward.”

After graduating, he will begin an Equal Justice Works fellowship, with the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center in Detroit as his host organization. The fellowship will fund his project, which is focused on providing legal assistance to Detroit nonprofit organizations, community groups, and residents involved in urban agriculture in the city. John Deere, Lane & Waterman, and Schiff Hardin are sponsoring the fellowship.

“If the city really jumps on urban agriculture, we’ll see it take off and become a significant part of the local food economy as well as a major tool for combatting blight,” Leonard says. “The legal issues surrounding urban agriculture are so new, and because of that there is a lot of uncertainty for the urban agriculture community. If the city takes an active role in incentivizing urban agriculture, a lot of that uncertainty could be reduced, which could help establish an even greater infrastructure for urban agriculture to become a more prominent tool for urban revitalization.”