These Vacant Lots In Detroit Are Turning Into An Eco-Village

On former blighted vacant lots, a greenhouse, health food cafe, a marketplace for women-owned businesses, and a tutoring center will take root.

When the city of Highland Park, Michigan–a small city within Detroit–could no longer afford most basic services in 2011, it tore streetlights out of neighborhoods. On one dark block, Shamayim “Shu” Harris realized that neighbors could solve the problem themselves: working with the nonprofit Soulardarity, the community banded together to buy their own solar streetlights that run virtually cost-free.


Now, Harris is leading an even bigger push to turn most of her entire block into her vision of an eco-village. On former blighted, vacant lots, a greenhouse will let hungry residents grow their own food; an abandoned gas station will turn into a café serving health food. Inside a converted shipping container, a marketplace will sell products from women-owned businesses. A healing center will teach yoga and meditation. An abandoned house will turn into a “homework house,” where children will get meals and tutoring after school. Later, new buildings will add affordable housing.

Everything will run, as much as possible, off the grid, with features such as rainwater catchment and retention. “It’s cleaner, it’s better for us, it helps us to be more self-sufficient,” says Harris.

She wants her neighborhood to look like others in the city that managed to avoid blight. “We want to give the people what they deserve to look at,” she says, “the services they deserve to have.”

Harris began revitalizing the block nine years ago, when her two-year-old son was killed by a hit-and-run driver. In his memory, she built a park for neighborhood children on the vacant lots next to her home.

“I started taking care of all the other lots on the block,” she says. “Then noticing all the things that were breaking down in our city, the services that were limited. Things that were closing up. Then decided hey, us as a people, you know, the community can put it back together.”

The new project will take over another 14 properties, with the first phase of construction completed by September, continuing over the next four years.


Harris thinks the same thing could happen throughout Detroit and in other cities struggling with blight. When she started, she says, there was almost nothing left on her block. “Houses was tore down, it was just clay, dirt, nothing, glass, bathtubs,” she says. “Now it’s fresh grass, flowers, benches, things like that. So it took a minute. But I do think people will get turned on and they’ll see how easy it is to actually do–to buy the land around you and have a plan.”

She also hopes that the project helps people see Highland Park differently. “A lot of times, we get a bad rap. A lot of times, [the news doesn’t] show the wonderful things, they’ll show people getting killed, robbed, all of that stuff to the world. I want them to take a look at this. Come see this. Come see what we’re doing in our city–a beautiful thing.”

The project is crowdfunding on Kickstarter.


About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.