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Detroit Mercy Law’s Urban Agriculture course gives students a new perspective on the city’s legal landscape

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July 10, 2017
Urban Landscape class group photo

Something extraordinary is happening in neighborhoods all around the city of Detroit. Hundreds of lots formerly plagued by abandoned houses and crab grass are now home to chicken coops, flower and vegetable gardens, and large-scale drip irrigation fields blooming with crops of all kinds. While the majority of “urban gardens” are the result of residential cooperatives, dozens of farms have also set up shop in Detroit.

Urban Landscape Class with horseMost of these small farms spring from a desire to put vacant land to use and provide healthy and sustainable resources to the surrounding community. However, actually starting and maintaining a thriving urban farm comes with significant legal considerations and challenges.

To better understand these challenges, University of Detroit Mercy School of Law recently offered an immersion course in urban agriculture. Through a series of guest speakers and site visits, students learned about the legal issues that face urban agricultural entities. Land acquisition, zoning for livestock and produce, insurance and liability for small farmer-retailers, water management, and green development were among the topics covered in the course.

“It is very important that we, as future lawyers and advocates, be able to understand the communities we are helping and what areas of law are important to these community members,” said Emina Alic, a 2L student in Detroit Mercy Law’s evening program. Alic completed the course, which was limited to just six students.

“This course opened up my eyes to the many different areas of law that are out there,” Alic said.

Co-taught by Professor Jacqueline Hand and Adjunct Professor Amanda Gregory, the weeklong summer course addressed pressing needs for a growing industry, not just in Detroit, but in urban areas across the country.

Urban Landscape Class with turkey“One of the real benefits of exploring agricultural law and food law with students is the way it illuminates the overlap between a particular industry with a variety of areas of legal practice, while also bringing a lens of community engagement and awareness,” Gregory said. “Our students have gotten to compare nonprofit law to traditional corporate law and see that the law surrounding urban agriculture encompasses land use, contracts, environmental issues, civil rights, human rights, legal practice ethics, insurance, tax, corporate formation and a veritable grocery list of other topics.”

Students spent half of each day in the classroom, welcoming guest speakers like Detroit City Planner Kathryn Lynch Underwood and Kibibi Blount-Dorn, program director of the Detroit Food Policy Council. The other half was spent visiting small farms and agricultural businesses in the city, from famous landmarks like Eastern Market, to hidden treasures like the Detroit Abloom Project — a cut flower business in the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood.

At Eastern Market, students examined the market’s role as a small business incubator, while the trip to Detroit Abloom explored land acquisition and the ways in which a for-profit business could be used to support a nonprofit. The class also visited Pingree Farms, where they learned about the challenges of supporting livestock and crops in an industrial setting, and RecoveryPark, a produce farm employing veterans, ex-offenders, challenged workers, those in recovery and other marginalized citizens.

Alicia Schomaker, a 2L student in Detroit Mercy Law’s evening program, described the impact the course had on her. “The class was not only a wholly riveting experience but it truly highlighted the history, sheer passion, and relentless perseverance of the urban farming community,” Schomaker said, adding that touring RecoveryPark was a particularly “eye-opening and emotional experience.”

Urban Landscape Class with goatsHand observed that the class was “a wonderful learning experience for the professors as well as the students. The format allowed us all to become more deeply aware of the social justice issues surrounding food and economic development, and let us interact with Detroiters who are working to make the city a better place for all of us."

The urban agriculture course was funded through a grant from the Dewitt C. Holbrook Memorial Fund. The grant supports Detroit Mercy Law’s Legal Immersion Detroit project, which aims to further legal training and education in Detroit and encourage students to commit to the city and legal reforms that will increase opportunities for all Detroiters. The program supports Detroit Mercy Law’s mission by advancing its commitment to service in the city of Detroit.

Next summer, the Legal Immersion Detroit project will fund a second immersion course in immigration law. Detroit Mercy Law’s immersion project is a pilot program available to second year law students, but the School hopes to make it a mainstay of its curriculum in the future.

— By Amanda Vanover. Follow Detroit Mercy on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. Have a story idea? Let us know by submitting your idea.

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