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Page last updated at 21:07 GMT, Thursday, 5 August 2010 22:07 UK

Planting Detroit

Detroit, Michigan
The struggles of the auto industry have decimated Detroit, leaving behind miles of waste land and abandoned homes

By Katty Kay
BBC World News America, Detroit

John Hantz is soft spoken, meticulously polite and ferociously ambitious. For his latest plan, he has to be. This multi-millionaire, financial tycoon wants to turn destitute Detroit into the world's largest urban farm.

Drive through Detroit and immediately you see the scale of this city's problems. There are burnt out houses, piles of rubbish and empty lots on every block. Anyone who can seems to have fled.

The city was built for two million but now has a population of only 800,000. So 40,000 acres of Detroit now stand unused, home to weeds, broken glass, even pheasants.

John Hantz
I want to show Detroit is open for business
John Hantz

Mr Hantz's scheme is to take that land and turn it into a hi-tech farm, growing a mixture of vegetables, fruit and trees using the latest agricultural science and tapping into America's growing obsession with local and organic food.

"One of the first things we will do is plant orchards, trellis orchards and what we want to do is more than beautification, we want to be about the learning around urban agriculture."

In place of the trash piles and vacant lots he envisions rows of neat apple trees, indoor salad farms and acres of walnut groves.

He also hopes this beautification will help stem the urban flight by making Detroit a prettier place to live. That, in turn, could push up local house prices which have plummeted.

"I believe people will want to live next to this," he says.

A long-time resident of the city, Mr Hantz is so convinced the scheme can help revive Detroit that he is willing to put $30 million of his own money into it. But can something that sounds so fanciful possibly work?

History of failure

Over the decades, grand schemes to renovate Detroit have come and gone, leaving almost no improvement. There have been shopping centres, sports stadiums and even casinos.

None have made much impact on Detroit's 28% unemployment rate.

Mr Hantz's farm only plans to employ 500 people over the next 10 years, so it is hardly the solution to that chronic joblessness. But he hopes it will be a start, one business idea that will spark other entrepreneurs.

Urban farm
An example of Detroit's already burgeoning urban farm movement; the Peace and Unity Community Garden

"At the moment the perception is that Detroit is not open for business. I'm not going to employ everybody; I'm not that smart or talented. I'm just one idea. I want to show Detroit is open for business."

It hasn't been an easy start. Mr Hantz planned to have the first plot tilled and seeded by this summer but so far he hasn't even managed to buy the land.

He puts it down to the frustrations of dealing with Detroit city officials. But he's also up against fierce opposition from the local community who insist his millions would be better spent buying the land and giving it to existing networks of urban gardeners.

They fear Mr Hantz's mega scheme, which will be a business not a charity, will simply employ cheap labour from out of town.

John Hantz got the idea for an urban farm on his daily commute through his rundown hometown. Every year, he said, he hoped it would get better, but every year the destitution got worse.

Stopping at a red light one day, he realised that if he wanted his city to change he would have to do something himself. But as he readily admits, turning urban decay into a flourishing farm is not for the fainthearted.



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