Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login
A 140-Acre Forest Is About to Materialize in the Middle of Detroit (theatlanticcities.com)
163 points by kdazzle on Oct 25, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 86 comments

Personally I think this is an excellent idea. If nothing else growing hardwords on unused land at least puts it to use. The fact that they are going to leave all of the streets in place means it is going to become quite strange to drive around in. When I was growing up in Vegas, before it covered the valley, aggressive developers had gone out and put in streets where "new developments" would someday be, and driving around had that weird feeling of sort of a maze race track. Hansel and Gretel probably will feel right at home :-).

Your comments on Las Vegas reminded me of a recent set of photos in Wired: http://www.wired.com/rawfile/2013/09/michael-light-aerial-ph...

I wonder who will be responsible for maintaining the streets? My guess is that will still fall on the city of Detroit (because the farm is paying taxes).

They could always let them go back to gravel roads; much cheaper to maintain, and if they're just for traversing through the hardwoods "forest", your top speed should be no more than ~20 mph.

And they might have to abandon some streets and only keep up the ones necessary to get around from property to property. We might even see some gravel roads in some places. :/

This isn't a forest. It's a for-profit business that happens to be a farm in the middle of a major city.

That said, I'm really excited about this. The project is removing blight and contributing much needed tax dollars to the city.

Is "for-profit" incompatible with "forest"? It certainly doesn't seem to be....

Not in American English. But:

From Bouvier's Law Dictionary, Revised 6th Ed (1856) [bouvier]:

  FOREST. By the English law, a forest is a circuit of ground properly under 
  the king's protection, for the peaceable living and abiding of beasts of 
  hunting and the chase, and distinguished not only by having bounds and 
  privileges, but also by having courts and offices. 12 do. 22. The 
  signification of forest in the United States is the popular one of an 
  extensive piece of woodland. Vide Purlieu.

The term "woodlot" might be more correct, in American English, both for describing the commercial nature and capturing the fragmentation.

Of course not, you need only drive around the managed forests in Oregon to see some. (and it really tweeks your brain to see a forest where all the trees are exactly the same age for the most part!)

Obligatory video:


Before anyone freaks out, note that (as ChuckMcM said) all these trees are almost exactly the same size/age. This isn't an old-growth forest -- it's a lot closer to harvesting a field of corn.

Kinda cool and creepy at the same time. It sets of my creepy vibe a bit to have such an efficient machine for destroying living things. For a tree, it doesn't seem so bad, but what would you think if there was a slaughterhouse machine that processed cows or chickens like that? Hell, for all I know there already is one. I know my food has to come from somewhere, but I don't think I'd like to watch a machine like that at work.

It makes me a little sad that the machine looks like a steam shovel, and not a mech suit with chainsaw hands.

Wow. That might be the most amazing machine I've ever seen. Even if it was an old-growth forest, I'd still just be impressed.

Did you actually think that they were somehow planting an "old-growth" forest?

What made you think that? I said nothing of the sort.

Judging from the comments on the video, there are plenty of people who do.

I've seen a lot of tree farms in Scotland and they were quite insane, literally impossible to walk through in some cases because the trees were so closely spaced, with no other vegetation at all (how they manage to get enough light to live I have no idea). Very, very, unpleasant places.

I wasn't sure if that sort thing counts as a forest though, or whether there was some implication of a more varied natural ecosystem.

[That's an extreme example and there are better sorts of managed woodlands of course, e.g. Japan is famous for them.]

We only have a tiny amount amount of "old growth" forests in Scotland - about 1% of land area with a total of almost 18% being forested, the difference being the "tree farms" (not what they are called here, but that's really what they are).


There are groups trying to restore the ancient Caledonian Forest:



There are also attempts to restore wildlife as well - the White Tailed Sea Eagle has been re-introduced as well as beavers in one location. Some people even want to have wolves and lynxes brought back...

Unfortunately game keepers and land owners try as hard as they can to sabotage these reintroduction programs. Reintroduction of White Tailed Eagles into the east of Scotland has been set back somewhat by the destruction of the nest this year: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-tayside-central-228725...

I don't know what the Norwegians must think; they give us these birds as part of a big expensive reintroduction program and then a bunch of rich toffs go around shooting them and destroying the nests because they think they might disturb their grouse shoots.

That's a real shame - I think I saw a White Tailed Eagle on a back road in Fife and it was huge - it was sitting at the side of the road and took off just before I got to it.

These would be known as 'forests' at the larger scale, but they're actually a collection of Forestry Commission plantations. I agree they are very very unpleasant places, and it's incredibly eerie to walk through a dark woodland where nothing grows at ground level, no birds sing in the trees and there's no sound whatsoever. Thankfully most of these have reached the end of their lives (the timber is ready to be harvested) and modern planting (where they're replaced) is more enlightened and aims for a diverse ecology.

The Forest of Dean is an interesting planting. It's mostly an older trees - they were planted in the late 1700's to provide timber for the next set of wooden warships, once they matured: 150-200 years after planting!

Imagine if more companies were in the business of adding trees rather than removing them.

> "planting 15,000 trees, and mowing regularly."

I guess the idea behind the mowing is that you want to prevent the weeds from choking out the saplings? Otherwise "mowing" and "forest" seem kind of mutually exclusive to me.

In this area, if you just let some land go that started as grassland, in the first couple of years it will be mostly weeds, then for the next several years it will become overrun by shrubs, such as [1]. At the height of this phase, the land is essentially uncrossable on foot, covered with 10-15 foot tall sharp, spiky plants that are not very hard compared to most wood, but certainly much harder than your skin.

Over the next couple of decades, the trees will start getting a foothold, starting with the faster growing trees, which crowd out all the nasty shrubs but still produce a dense group of small little trees just barely spaced out enough for an adult to get through, then eventually stabilizing on oaks and the other very tall, hard trees, culminating in what one traditionally considers a "forest", something you can walk through because it's mostly very large, mature trees spaced dozens of feet apart. This will take a century or two to progress to the final stable state, depending on how tenacious the smaller trees are.

But if you want to jump straight to that and avoid the middle bit, it takes some maintenance. I assume the promise is a combination of a promise to do that maintenance, and probably to maintain some trails through it.

I could have sworn I learned a term in school for this sort of "biome progression" to what I thought was the "terminal biome" (the final, stable biome that results) but Google does not agree. Anyone who remembers their biology better than I, I'd be much obliged for the term.

[1]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elaeagnus_angustifolia

Given a few years, softwoods (pines - fast growing) will grow, then hardwoods (oak/hickory - slow growing) will begin to appear in abundance. Hardwoods are more valuable, but softwoods grow quickly and have less market value.



I think the term you were looking for was a "climax community."


I see Google says the idea has fallen out of favor, though even when I was taught it I was taught that the oak trees will still fall, creating clearings, which then march back through the same progression, so even then it was only notionally "climax".

I hope the company is interested in harvesting the hardwoods, which will allow for more biodiversity, less ecological disruption, and a more aesthetically pleasing environment. Hiking through a constantly harvested pine tree forest is not very enjoyable. In any case, letting nature do its thing, somewhat, is better than having delapidated houses strewn all over the place.

What you describe is almost identical to what is outside my window behind the house. This area used to be a large dairy farm and is now mostly proportioned into 10-acre lots. I assume that before it was subdivided, it was mostly cattle pasture and some mature trees. Now, the area behind my house slopes rapidly from tall grass (we leave it in a natural state) to short thorny shrubs to a grove of mature oaks and mostly young elm trees. The older ones have fallen to Dutch Elm disease.

In the years I've lived here I have been amazed at how rapidly trees grow. The bottom of our pasture was mostly tall grass and a few tiny saplings. They are now approaching 10 feet tall and need to be bush hogged because they are interfering with the growth of grass. At the same time, the undergrowth in the area we have left untouched (the rest is horse pasture) is amazing. There are wild apple trees, enough wild grapes that I made a 5-gallon batch of wine a few years ago, raspberry bushes and stuff I can't even name.

tl;dr - I'm seeing that in my backyard right now.

I guess you are talking about succession.

15000 trees over 140 aces is approximately 1 tree per 20x20ft square. That doesn't resemble my own idea of 'forest', but it's not stretching the definition that far.

That seems roughly right for large-ish oak trees, the sort of forest I spent my childhood running around in. Of course there are hundreds of different sorts of forests.

Oaks are so beautiful and grow so quickly. Definitely my favorite tree. Hardwood trees will grow to have wider canopies so that plot size definitely makes sense.

When the trees mature, their canopy will fill that space.


I would really love it if they took this a step further. Instead of buying a big block that can become a massive park like Central Park in NYC or Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. It would be more interesting if they created a "graph" of park nodes linked by park edges so that there isn't a separation between the two. For an example of what such a project could look like check out this proposal for the city of São Paulo called Ecos na Paisagem:


Additionally, Park Avenue was on e an example of this when it used to be a park that stretched from Central Park to Battery Park:


Park Avenue is interesting but I would like to see a picture not one saying "this is not it".

It's remarkably hard to find images of what it used to look like. I've seen some before. Here's what one section looked like in the 1870s when the railroad run underneath it:


Here's park avenue in the 1920s:


Park Avenue (used to be 4th Avenue) has probably changed more than most Avenues in NYC. Here are some images of when railroads ran down it.


You may also enjoy seeing these photos of the NYC mansions from back in the day:


If someone could post a link to a Google Maps view of the area, that would be interesting to see.

This article has a map: http://www.freep.com/article/20131018/BUSINESS06/310180105

I grabbed that address and plugged it into Google Maps, so the pin here is the northern corner: https://www.google.com/maps/preview#!q=Mack+%26+St.+Jean%2C+...

Edit: and according to Google Maps, "Indian Village" (home of the developer) is literally the southwestern edge of the area.

PS: I know nothing about Detroit, this is all just looking at a map.

Ok, I had the weird experience of looking at the street view map, wanting to move forward and just, out of habit, used the WASD keys and damn if they didn't work just like they "should". Reminded me of the first time I used vi(1) and wanted to move the cursor and went with the rogue(7) keys and that just worked. Games as usability training tools for the win I guess.

Vi and Rogue were both influenced by the hardware of the old ADM terminals, which had the arrows printed on HJKL.

For reference, Belle Isle, which is across the street from the southern edge of the project, is a huge park owned by the city. There's deer and stuff living on it.

It was recently the subject of a conservative utopian fantasy.



That map is not quite right. I live not far from there.

Consider using and editing this map:


> "The lots being sold to Hantz Woodlands are in an area bounded by Van Dyke on the west, St. Jean on the east, Mack on the north, and Jefferson on the south. Although the Indian Village district lies within that area, no lots in Indian Village are included."


Not sure how to make this a nice link / highlight a region:


Waiting on Google to approve the edit to the map: http://fld.mn/HfX4. I used the street boundaries in this[1] article; it's the same boundaries other commenters quoted.

[1] http://www.mlive.com/news/detroit/index.ssf/2013/06/hantz_wo...

You nailed it there -- that is the correct location.

Although the entire section isn't going to be woodlands:

Hantz Woodlands' goal is to have at least 15,000 trees planted and 50 blighted structures torn down in two years on parcels of land that weave in and out of existing neighborhoods.

So it wouldn't be appropriate for Google to accept that edit.

For comparison, NYC currently has about 30,000 acres of public parks, and a several thousand acres of privately owned open space on top of that. The amount of parkland in NYC is greater than the total amount of land in most cities, period.

I'm wondering that if all of the spotlight on Detroit will also lead to enough canny entrepreneurs trying to revive it for a buck, leading to a phoenix-like (or Alex Murphy-like) resurgence a few decades down the road.

Will Detroit be the hot new startup city of 2045?

Quite possibly, and for a very important and underrated reason: the fights over water are already starting and are going to get bigger and nastier over the next few decades, but the cities on the shores of the largest freshwater supply in the world will be sitting pretty. Detroit may have to spend its forty years in the wilderness (rather more literally than that phrase is usually used), but there's really no question about it coming back eventually. Not with all that fresh water close at hand.

> the fights over water are already starting and are going to get bigger and nastier over the next few decades

What do you mean by this? Cities in North America tend to be on rivers, and isolated poor location choices (Las Vegas, Phoenix, a few CA cities, etc) don't translate to problems in other cities since they are on different aquifer. As far as I can tell, there is no threat to the water supply in most American cities. Egypt/Ethiopia's little water spat doesn't threaten water supplies elsewhere, fresh water isn't really a commodity like oil or iron is. If it was, there would be a killing to be made in fresh water arbitrage.

The water problem is a lot bigger than that. North American cities have mostly polluted the rivers they lie on and can't use them for a water supply. E.g. Atlanta gets its water from Lake Lanier, not the Chattahoochee. New York gets its water from the Catskills, not the Hudson.

Many cities are facing water shortages. Not just Las Vegas and Phoenix. The Colorado is tapped out, and California, Arizona, and Nevada have been fighting over it for decades. Rainy humid Atlanta was facing water usage controls for several years around 2007-2009. The Floridan aquifer is tapped out--developers are having to dig wells 1,000 feet deep these days to get water. Fracking is in danger of contaminating the Ogallala along with all the water that makes agriculture possible in the breadbasket. San Francisco is not yet in dire straights but Hetchy-Hetch isn't immune to the water problem.

These are all still localized problems, with local solutions (or that are in need of local solutions). Speaking about water shortages on larger scales seems to ignore the reality of how water supplies work.

Even if water was scarce in the US, it wouldn't be a problem in the US, at least in terms of residential use. Desalination costs less than a dollar per cubic meter, and a quick calculation based on existing pipelines gives me a price of about half a dollar to pipe that a thousand miles.

For comparison, water today, where I live, costs slightly under a dollar per cubic meter. So even if my calculation was off by an order of magnitude, desalinated water would be a reasonable option for all US households, well under other budget items like cost of food.

Industry that depends on cheap water might be different, but how much of that is stuck in places without good water supply?

What do you think about all of the dystopian scenarios with LA running out of water?

LA sits very close to the ocean, and at the same elevation. Desalinated water using current technology costs $0.75/cubic meter (recycled water even less), and your average person uses 100 cubic meters a year. So, we're looking at a cost per person of about $6/month for water. With conservation you could easily get that down to $3/month.

The US uses over 1 trillion cubic meters of water per year.

And? The people that need water can get it no matter what the supply is. The industries that use huge amounts of water can adapt their methods to be less wasteful. And it will never stop raining entirely. I don't see water shortages causing real problems in the US, as long as we can predict them early enough to build compensating infrastructure.

The amount of water that you need is a few orders of magnitude more than what comes to your house. Even if you're a full vegetarian, far more water is required to produce the food you eat; and if you eat meat, well, you couldn't afford any of it if water would cost a dollar per ton.

The water used to farm isn't critial enough to anyone's daily life to be fought over. Specific areas might suffer from drought but not the entire country.

I'm not trying to suggest that if normal sources of water magically disappeared then things would be okay. I'm just saying that under possible circumstances there won't be any reason to fight to the death over water. Because of the desalination option, water shortages wouldn't be able to threaten anyone's life, only force businesses to adapt or move.

Also according to http://www.waterfootprint.org/?page=files/Animal-products even without any efficiency improvements caused by high water costs, pig would be $3 a pound more expensive and cow would be $7 a pound more. Easily afforded.

For background see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colorado_River_Compact. Basically growth of southern cities has meant demand for water from the Colorado river has gone up while rainfall in the region has decreased. There is still a surplus right now, but that won't continue indefinitely.

While you make a good point about resources being finite, and people that can access those resources when said resource is scarce fair better than those who do not (especially water), you're point is actually a non point.

With such speculation, I could have a premonition of an alternative future where the initial settlers near all freshwater die, as the more aggressive and desperate peoples fight for the area, and this potentiality has as much merit as yours.

Also, why even say Detroit will come back if the original inhabitants are all but gone, and the area has been resettled by others? If Detroit's coming back in 2045, then [insert any maritime city/town/village/location/space] is too!

Actually it is becoming the hot startup city right now. There's a couple block area near Grand Circus Park that is full of startups, an accelerator (Bizdom) and VC's. Twitter, Uber and Stubhub have offices in the Madison building which is close to Tiger stadium. Google has a presence in Grand Circus (think General Assembly) around the corner.

Detroit is allowing experiments that I just don't see in other cities. I am personally excited about unearthing the many rivers that were buried.


Because so much of the land is empty the cost of unearthing the rivers in minimal. Years ago I did genealogical research in one of the city's older cemeteries and was just stunned to see this very pretty stream running through it with clear water. People laugh but Detroit could become America's Venice by 2045.

Course none of this is talked about by the national media at all.

Probably because it's coming about due to private enterprise I say this not to start a political fight, it's just that it really isn't something that's been attempted on such a scale before (unless I'm ignorant of history). If Detroit is to make a run at revival it will have to do so with a cooperative local government as well. The state's takeover has at least made a dent in the circus that was the Mayor's office over the past few decades which is a good sign. If the city goes back to hilarious levels of incompetence and corruption once the financial situation is solved then it's all for nothing but hopefully a little hope is enough to turn things around and I think it might do the job.

Well I am optimistic on the political front as well. Since the 1920's Detroit City Council members were elected on a city wide ballot. Because that took more capital than shoe leather they became indebted to their backers.

Now Detroit has gone back to districts. While it is quite controversial how those district lines were drawn the nature of candidates is changing. You've got school teachers and small businessmen running and they're doing it by depending less on radio and TV advertising and more on going door to door. We won't know for several years whether it makes a difference but I am hopeful.

There is also a young professional class downtown that weren't there a few years ago and are making their influence known in the mayors race.

That's not unlike what Tony Hseih is trying to do with the Downtown Project in Las Vegas.


For all Tony Hsieh's good intensions, Las Vegas does not have a water supply to justify the size of that city.

I've always wondered how the project is justified in environmental terms given the water situation there.

  The company has committed to... mowing regwlarly
I was a lot more excited before I read this. What's the point of a forest if you have to mow it? Seriously, though, sounds like a good idea.

I can't speak for that area specifically but I used to work at a county forest preserve during my summers in college. Typically when you are trying to restore a natural environment it takes a bit of work to make sure invasive species don't turn your forest into a bramble patch. One particularly common invasive species is Buckthorn that will choke out more desirable trees like Oaks which grow slowly. Mowing is one way that keeps the undesirable invasive species from taking over


Landscaping can help the area become a forest by limiting the species that thrive under full sunlight (weeds, mostly) until larger species form a canopy (trees, mostly).

EDIT: pmorici explains it better than I

There's some more info on the Detroit LocalWiki here - http://detroitwiki.org/Hantz_Farms. When I asked my friend about it, he responded with "long story."

It's amazing how many people are hung up on the "mowing" part of this. First, who cares? It's such a minor point. Second, this land is surrounded by neighborhoods with sidewalks (and even has homes interspersed between land parcels). Certainly, they should maintain the landscape near the sidewalks and adjacent lots that they don't own. It seems reasonable that the maintenance would include mowing. And maybe there's even more "mowing" than that but this obvious explanation is enough to justify their "mowing" comment.

Detroit should also invest in city parks of this size. For instance, the city of Cincinnati has benefited greatly from an abundance of large parks:


One well-known park came about after the purchase of a vineyard from Nicholas Longworth:


I live not far from here, and drive by it every day. The rapid pace of change in the city limits is unprecedented...in the last 3 years, perhaps. This city is rebuilding itself quickly after lying stagnant since the 1960s.

I hope the city has budgeted for adequate police coverage. Otherwise, they're building New Sherwood forest!

And this is how cities return to the land. Or at least, it's one way.

Wish every city did this.

Doing this is sort of like getting a robotic limb. I mean sure, a cybernetic arm may be really cool and futuristic... but it means your real arm got chopped off. They are carving this thing out of blighted urban decay. An urban forest may be nice, but what leads up to it is not the sort of thing that you want in your city.

This isn't to say that I'm not happy for them; I just don't want to find myself in the same situation.

You may as well argue against having parks because one happened to have been built on similar ground. This instance might just have been recovering from a bad situation, but that doesn't mean it's a bad idea in general. Granted, it would be better to set aside space for it at the planning stage.

> This isn't to say that I'm not happy for them; I just don't want to find myself in the same situation

I'm not arguing against this happening, I am happy they are improving their city. All I'm saying is that I hope I never find my citing in a position where we say "whelp, we have massive chunks of deserted unkempt land, lets knock down these abandoned condemned buildings and make a forest". While that action is an improvement, being in that position in the first place implies a shitty situation all around.

Kind of like how somebody getting a new fancy robot arm is great, but I certainly don't want to get one myself because that would imply that I had lost my arm.

You seem to have missed my point. Hypothetically, you don't need to be in that same situation to have a forest in your city.

1,500 lots is more like a bit of skin off the tip of your finger.

Turning 1,500 lots of urban decay in Detroit into forest is more like putting a band-aid on a gangrenous limb. 1,500 lots is only the size of the blighted land that is going to forest, a mere fraction of all the blighted land in Detroit.


From the article: "There are over 200,000 abandoned parcels of land and—by debatable estimates—30,000 acres of abandoned property" (this is according to the developer). Wolfram Alpha puts the entirety of San Francisco at 29,998 acres.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact