Brave Thinkers November 2010

John Hantz

The entrepreneur John Hantz wants to invest $30 million in a plan to reimagine Detroit. He's prepping vast swaths of abandoned land for what he hopes will become the world's largest urban farm—as well as an economic shot in the arm for one of America's most blighted cities.
Antony Hare

I’ve lived in Detroit for 20 years. To get to work, I leave the city and drive to the suburbs—the opposite of what most people do. I would take back roads and I’d look out the window and I’d tell myself, Something has to happen. Something has to change. One day I was sitting at a traffic light, thinking this through from an economics point of view, and I thought, What’s our problem? Why doesn’t it get better? Well, we have multiple problems, but one comes down to real estate. We don’t have scarcity. What I mean is, there’s no reason to buy real estate in Detroit—every year, it just gets cheaper. We’ve gone from 2 million people to 800,000. There are over 200,000 abandoned parcels of land and—by debatable estimates—30,000 acres of abandoned property. We need to create scarcity, because until we get a stabilized market, there’s no reason for entrepreneurs or other people to start buying. I thought, What could do that in a positive way? What’s a development that people would want to be associated with? And that’s when I came up with a farm. People often think you have to have a big solution to a big problem—why not keep it simple and start with a simple solution?

Now, I’m not talking about 10 chickens living next door to you. The farm—if it works—will replace burned-out neighborhoods. There could be orchards in one area; timber, tomatoes, and peppers in another. The produce would be sold locally, and the farm will be open to schools so that students can come to the fields and touch fresh fruit. It will have a huge research component that will deal with aeroponics and hydroponics and breakthrough ideas in the new urban-ag industry. The world is going to change, and Detroit could be a ground zero for new engineering and manufacturing of indoor growing systems. The farm would begin to increase the property values. Of course, if you want locally grown food, this addresses that, too. So there’s a business twist, an education twist, and a beautification twist. It could revitalize communities that are beginning to go down. It’s a chance for us to reinvent ourselves.

—As told to Eleanor Smith, staff editor, The Atlantic
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Eleanor Smith is an Atlantic senior associate editor.

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