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Transformational Collaboration:
How Brands Are Helping to Create the US’ First Sustainable Urban Agrihood

In the wake of deindustrialization and economic decline, community initiatives have been crucial for helping Detroit get back on its feet. The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI) is a volunteer-based non-profit working to revitalize Detroit’s North End neighborhood by using urban agriculture as a platform to promote education, sustainability and community, thereby empowering communities and addressing deeply rooted social issues.

In the wake of deindustrialization and economic decline, community initiatives have been crucial for helping Detroit get back on its feet. The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI) is a volunteer-based non-profit working to revitalize Detroit’s North End neighborhood by using urban agriculture as a platform to promote education, sustainability and community, thereby empowering communities and addressing deeply rooted social issues.

MUFI has been focusing on the redevelopment of a two-square-block area in the city’s North End, positioning it as an epicenter of urban agriculture through adaptive reuse of existing infrastructure. The non-profit uses the space to demonstrate best practices for sustainable urban agriculture, effective strategies for increasing food security, cost-competitive and scalable models for blight deconstruction and innovation in blue and green infrastructure.

As Sustainable Brands prepared to take its annual flagship event to Detroit later this month, it saw in the MUFI project an opportunity to dig in and help contribute to the revitalization of the city, on the ground.

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Brands Are
Collaborating on
America’s First
Sustainable Urban 'Agrihood'
SB'17 Detroit
"As a convener of top sustainability experts, we're often behind the scenes, facilitating information exchange & education and reporting on the projects, successes, failures, and challenges of others. I felt we really needed to roll up our sleeves and get a project going that we could rally the support of the SB community to get behind,” said Jonathan Reese, Director of Business Development at Sustainable Brands. “My desire was to not only try to facilitate our community to be one of action, but for SB as a company to take action on a project that would have ongoing impact and leave a legacy in the next city in which we were going to be hosting our flagship conference.

"With its diverse array of needs, it directly lends itself to a main premise of the project: showcasing how different companies can collaborate to bring about positive community change,” Reese added. “In a world where there's so much competition, we wanted to show the power of collaboration."

To date, the project has attracted interest and investment from companies including BASF, General Motors, Green Standards, Herman Miller and Integrity Building Group, to name a few.

How did you first learn about MUFI?

Dave Darovitz, General Motors: GM first got involved with MUFI in 2014 to restore a sea shipping container into a two-bedroom home. Since then, GM has become MUFI’s largest supplier of employee volunteers.

Gabe Wing, Herman Miller: Herman Miller was connected to MUFI through our client, GM. GM is using our rePurpose program to help divert more than 2,000 tons of used product from the landfill by donating to 100 Michigan-based non-profits.

What about the MUFI project inspired your company to get involved?

Darovitz: The need in Detroit neighborhoods like the North End are great, such as easy access to fresh produce. The uniqueness of using agriculture in innovative and transformative ways appeals to me professionally and personally, along with the desire to give back to the community.

Wing: I grew up in the Detroit metro area. The MUFI urban agrihood project felt like a way to help make a real difference in my hometown with an organization that was doing things, not just talking about doing things. I believed that this project could become a model to help other cities to begin their own revitalization efforts.

Brian Mooney, Integrity Building Group: We are inspired by new and exciting developments that change the fabric of Detroit. The efforts of MUFI have energized the North End, which we see has untapped potential.

What is your company’s role in the project?

Darovitz: General Motors is in the midst of transforming itself from a traditional automotive company to a business that will redefine personal mobility. Enabling more collaboration among employees is a cornerstone of the transformation, so GM has set out to redesign our work environment. GM has partnered with Herman Miller and Green Standards to repurpose tens of thousands of pieces of office furniture and equipment that were displaced by the transformation into $1 million of in-kind donations over the next two years. The pilot GM rePurpose program is expected to benefit about 100 Michigan-based community organizations, with a focus on Detroit. One of the organizations we will supply gently used office assets is MUFI.

Wing: We helped redesign the used GM furniture to fit MUFI’s needs. Our design team met with Tyson to understand how the MUFI team would use their space. We were then able to redesign our modular frame and tile Ethospace product into new configurations that supported the MUFI team’s needs.

How does your company's involvement align with its purpose/sustainability goals?

Darovitz: We are committed to strengthening our business while reducing our environmental footprint and maximizing our social impact. Employees enjoy working for companies that give back, and customers increasingly want to buy from businesses whose values match their own. We are helping ‘redefine the good life’ in three main ways:

  1. Mobility solutions that leave a smaller footprint
  2. Manufacturing vehicles in a responsible way
  3. A mindset that centers on serving and improving communities

In short, we are seeking safer, simpler and better ways to move humanity forward.

Wing: At Herman Miller, we believe the future quality of human life is dependent on both economic vitality and a healthy, sustainable natural environment. Our sustainability strategy, Earthright, begins with three principles: positive transparency, products as living things, and becoming greener together. We have sharpened our goals around the smart use of resources, eco-inspired design, and becoming community driven. Most importantly, we are finding new ways to involve more employees, suppliers, and customers. It was immediately apparent that the MUFI project touched many key parts of our strategy. This project is an exciting opportunity to work together to make a difference with other organizations by combining the unique skills and talents of our companies.

Mooney: As a company that focuses on historical renovation and complex projects, we have always felt restoring, repurposing and saving the history of Detroit has a powerful sustainability message.

Once the construction of the new campus is complete, how do you see your company's involvement/relationship evolving?

Wing: Post construction, I think one of the ways we can continue to be engaged is to help share the story of MUFI and work to try and replicate this successful model of collaboration in another city.

Mooney: We have been strong supporters of the North End and hope to continue with the development of the area for years to come

What lessons have you learned/challenges have you encountered throughout your partnership with MUFI?

Wing: This project confirmed that you absolutely need champions to make something like this happen. Tyson and the MUFI team created a compelling vision of how an urban agrihood could help transform Detroit. GM and BASF were both able to harness the passion and energy of their companies to help gather the resources to make this happen — extremely quickly. Finding those leaders is an absolute must.

What do you see as the role of this partnership/project in the rejuvenation of Detroit? Has your company explored other potential partnerships for this purpose?

Wing: The MUFI project has so many exciting elements to help revitalize Detroit. I think the most important thing is the sense of community that the farm has created. Food brings people together and Tyson’s organization connects with people inside and outside the city, makes them want to be part of a group working at the intersection between health, nutrition, sustainability and community. We are working with another urban farm, Urban Roots, located in Grand Rapids, MI that shares a similar mission.

Mooney: Yes, we have multiple projects in the works and are working on developments throughout the City in this model.

What advice would you give to other companies interested in embarking on a public-private partnership such as this?

Wing: Don’t wait to get started. There are projects like this everywhere. Go get connected to your community and work to figure out how your organization leverages its unique skills to help design a better world.

Mooney: Organize early, set your goals, work with partners that can help steer the development model and the City partnership, and be adaptable.