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The importance of community engagement: Hantz Farms (Detroit)

The example of Hantz Farms in Detroit underscores the importance of adopting a more inclusive, human-centered design approach to revitalizing local economies by nurturing smaller-scale homegrown efforts, vs. imposing large-scale efforts from the top.

Photo of Preetum Shenoy
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This is perhaps less of a piece of inspiration per se, but more of an anecdote underscoring the importance of adopting a more inclusive, human-centered design approach to collaborate with community stakeholders in the design and development of solutions to revitalize a local economy. (Which, I realize, probably goes without saying for this crowd, but there are no shortage of stories chronicling how even the best of intentions by individuals and organizations failed for overlooking this very critical step of input and engagement.)

Take, for example, the story of John Hantz, a 20+ year resident of Detroit and entrepreneur who amassed wealth of over $100 million in the financial services industry. In his latest endeavor – Hantz Farms – he’s looking to invest $30 million of it to create the world’s largest urban farming business as a means of revitalizing the inner city and creating a sustainable source of income and fresh, local food, for a region that’s been bereft of both for decades. Since he announced his plan in 2009, however, he’s been met with much resistance from the local community, many of whom fear that this is Hantz’s heavy-handed attempt at a large-scale “land grab” and a “corporate takeover of the urban agriculture movement in Detroit" – with power shifting from the local smallholders to those with the deeper pockets (potentially threatening the several smaller, grassroots urban farming initiatives already underway.) While this is just one story (and it sounds like Hantz has nevertheless been able to progress his ideas somewhat over the last 2 years, albeit slowly), I have no doubt that this is broadly applicable to other communities in decline / disrepair. In this era of “Occupy Wall Street” and the Arab Spring, rife with heightened tensions between “the haves” and the “have nots” and the widening gaps between them, it will be that much more important to engage the local community in designing solutions so they have a stake in their own future – fostering a sense of empowerment, ownership, accountability, and dignity.

Lesson learned? Don’t underestimate the pride and the intrinsic ingenuity and capacity of a community, and their desire to have a stake in innovating towards a better future for themselves, versus merely accepting large-scale solutions plopped in from the top-down from better-resourced entities that may be more detached from the daily, local realities. Big ideas are great, but make sure they're as inclusive as possible in engaging local stakeholders and amplifying their own good ideas in the process, rather than potentially steamrolling over them. 

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Photo of Fred

My recent trip to Detroit showed me that the "intrinsic ingenuity and capacity" you mention above is alive and well in Detroit. In addition to your excellent example, I think that Wayne State University's Detroit Revitalization Fellowship Program - that connects mid-career professionals in fields like business, law, architecture and urban planning with public and non-profit organizations - will bolster local efforts to create growth and opportunity in Detroit. Please see the following web site for more details: http://wayne.edu/detroitfellows/


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