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From garden to growth: This urban garden cultivates young leaders

Can a garden grow more than plants?


In Detroit, 48% of households face food insecurity




Cadillac Urban Garden

Have electricity for a week or eat. You know?


Like, those are real struggles that we had.


In the Mexicantown neighborhood, two University of Michigan alums are working witH Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision (SDEV) to help provide fresh produce, foster community, and mentor the next generation of changemakers




Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision

We’ve had a lot of hardship, we’ve had foreclosures, we’ve had job losses, we’ve had all kinds of things. So we believe that Detroiters are just interested in learning more about what they can do for themselves.


In 2012, U-M Urban Planning grad student Sarah Clark hatched a plan with SDEV to repurpose an old Cadillac factory parking lot… into a community garden…





Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision

There’s a really nice marriage of the University of Michigan and all of its resources

financial resources and grants, we’re getting almost all of our plants from University of

Michigan’s campus farm, students as volunteers, and then all of our community partners.




Cadillac Urban Gardens

There’s not always good produce around here.



This is like a place where people depend on




My family did have food insecurity at one point, maybe even a tiny bit now. The garden 

has immensely helped with that.


At age 15, Dolores Perales began volunteering at the garden





Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision

Curiosity got the best of me, and I wandered over, and lo and behold, there was actually a community garden here. There was literally nothing here before.


Sarah became the first person that actually started to teach me a little bit about the environment. After volunteering here, I started to realize my passion about the environment and see that there’s so many things that I could do within that field.


Dolores followed in Sarah’s footsteps… receiving a Master’s in Urban Planning from U-M and mentoring high school students



Being a part of MANRRS, that’s Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences at the University of Michigan, played a pivotal part.


Her focus on scientific research and environmental justice issues has inspired a third wave of volunteers and interns to become the community’s new leaders




Cadillac Urban Garden

Delores used to be my supervisor. Now I’m, like, the new Dolores, I guess, like the new supervisor.




Cadillac Urban Garden

I’d usually tend to stick to myself and like, only speak when I needed to. But from being here at the garden, I’ve learned to engage more, you know, be more open to others.


The garden has supported more than 950 residents with more than 4000 pounds of produce each year


What I’m doing here is, like, I’m feeding families, and families that I don’t even know

but families that look a lot like mine and that possibly struggle a lot like mine, too.



Now that I’m doing more with it, I’m starting to lead a research group. Like, instead of being a part of the team that’s making it, now I’m leading one, it’s very crazy.


Six students have gone on to study in environmental fields and have become the first in their families to go to college



I’ve never been so happy. Like, coming here, definitely changing as a person.



It’s not just plants, but there’s a lot more you can take home from here at the garden.

Video Produced by Jennifer Howard, Michigan Media All photos by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography
By Greta Guest, Michigan News

DETROIT—Yahir Hernandez thought he was signing up for just a routine summer job at the Cadillac Urban Gardens in southwest Detroit when he was 15.

Back then, the job appealed because he worked with his hands planting, caring and harvesting plants—and everyone he met at Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision had “really good vibrant personalities. I can’t remember a day where I didn’t enjoy it or was bored.”

Yahir Hernandez sitting in the garden

Yahir Hernandez, 19, started working at Cadillac Urban Gardens on Merritt four summers ago. He’s now a sophomore at Michigan State University.

The next summer, he was hired as a field supervisor and his responsibilities—and leadership potential—grew. He learned how to engage with the community and volunteers through garden tours and giving them tasks in the garden, but more importantly just talking to them about how they’re doing. Then he took on some air quality research and started leading a team.

Now 19, Hernandez just finished his first year of college at Michigan State University where he studies biosystems engineering.

“The garden really interested me in the environmental aspect of things and it, I mean, they really focus on helping the world in the environmental aspect while also helping community members at the same time,” he said. “There’s definitely a lot more than just plants here.”

Sarah Clark in the urban garden

Sarah Clark had the idea to take a former Cadillac executive parking lot and turn it into a one-acre urban garden located in Mexicantown. That was 10 years ago when she was earning her master’s in urban planning from U-M. She’s now the director of Land and Water Programs at Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision.

Cadillac Urban Gardens on Merritt, a one-acre urban garden located in Mexicantown, was the brainchild of a University of Michigan graduate. Sarah Clark earned her master’s in urban planning from U-M and is now director of Land and Water Programs at Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision. She had the idea to utilize the former grounds of the Cadillac Clark Street plant’s executive parking lot as something better.

“We call it a living laboratory where we’re not just growing fruits and vegetables, but are growing community leaders from young people to all ages,” Clark said.

The garden provides food security for residents with little access to garden space or fresh produce and has become a model for sustainable gardening practices as residents grow and harvest produce within walking distance of their homes.

Raised beds in the urban garden

The one-acre lot that has grown fruits, vegetables and young leaders in southwest Detroit since 2012.

Monica Botello, who lives a few blocks away from the garden, stopped by recently with her daughters. “Knowing that it’s fresh cut makes a difference,” she said. “It’s healthy and having the space being used is awesome.” She especially likes the onions and peppers.

In 2012, as a community collaboration between Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, the Ideal Group, General Motors, residents, nonprofits, businesses, schools and other local community organizations, the garden was developed with and for the community in mind.

Over the past decade, the garden has:

  • Repurposed 331 shipping containers from GM and turned them into raised beds to grow fresh peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, kale and other vegetables and fruits the community can harvest without cost.
  • Attracted volunteers and visitors from the state, the country and the world who have donated more than 60,000 service hours while working alongside community volunteers who guide the work.
  • Implemented efficient water use by building rain catchment systems.
  • Provided tons of free, fresh produce to local residents. In 2020 alone, 1.9 tons (3,805 pounds) of fruits and vegetables were distributed to more than 700 Detroit residents.

“We don’t just grow produce, but leaders and environmental stewards who have already begun to enact change regarding food access and health across southwest Detroit,” Clark said.

Dolores Perales sitting in the garden

One such leader is Dolores Perales. She found out about the garden in 2013 when she was a sophomore at Detroit Cristo Rey High School looking for some service hours required to graduate.

Perales, who was the environment and community sustainability specialist and a current volunteer at the garden, found the combination of a community garden and industrialized space very intriguing. She found herself drawn to the garden, volunteering every weekend and learning more about the environment.

The urban garden made me realize that I was so much more than a person within my community. It made me realize that I could make a direct impact on people.

-Dolores Perales, who came to the garden as an intern in 2013 and went on to earn degrees from Michigan State University and the University of Michigan.

She said Clark was the first person who taught her about the environment and what to do with the spaces you’re in and how that can impact people.

“I saw that there was a bigger opportunity to learn more directly within the environmental field and actually make an impact in it. So after volunteering here, I kind of had my mind set that I wanted to go into the environmental field,” Perales said.

Painted tires used as planters with flowers

Old tires dumped in the area were painted by students and put to new uses at the Cadillac Urban Gardens.

She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies and sustainability from Michigan State and then went on for dual degrees from U-M—master’s degrees in environment and sustainability and in urban and regional planning.

“I was really interested to see how built environments can impact quality of life and health, and then how community intersected with all of that,” Perales said. “The urban garden made me realize that I was so much more than a person within my community. It made me realize that I could make a direct impact on people.

Crops in the garden

The garden provides free produce to people who live in the community. In 2020 alone, 1.9 tons (3,805 pounds) of fruits and vegetables were distributed to more than 700 Detroit residents.

“So definitely having this garden in this space has eliminated that price barrier by allowing residents to come pick fruits and vegetables completely for free, without question or cost, and to integrate these items into their diets when otherwise they may not have been able to do so.”

Andrea Mendez carrying plants in the garden

Andrea Mendez, helps to supervise the summer interns and volunteers at the garden. She plans to study food science at Michigan State “to increase access to healthy food.”

Perales, a southwest Detroit native, also secured plants for the garden from the U-M Campus Farm, which now supplies all plants at no cost. That allowed the garden to put more money toward interns. She also led a project in which interns took rubber tires dumped in the area, painted them and hung them with old hoses around the fence line of the garden.

And these connections that Clark and Perales have with U-M are helping to sustain the garden and community.

Raquel Garcia in the sunlight in the garden

Raquel Garcia, executive director for Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, said the long-standing relationship between U-M and SDEV has helped to support the garden through grants, plants from the Campus Farm and technical support.

“Being a student at the University of Michigan and a staff member at Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, helped us to bring so many resources to southwest Detroit,” Clark said.

Other projects have included capstone projects done by graduate students at U-M and involvement in volunteer events such as U-M’s Detroit Partnership Day. Clark also has an interest in mitigating challenges in environments such as flooding and reducing the urban heat island effect.

Raquel Garcia, executive director for Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, said the long-standing relationship between U-M and SDEV has helped to support the garden through grants, plants from the Campus Farm and technical support. U-M Poverty Solutions has also supported other projects in the neighborhood such as parks and gardens, she said.

“All of those projects include participation from residents and youth. So they’re all led by residents—they design it, they tell us what they want,” Garcia said.

The group also collaborates with Community Action to Promote Healthy Environments, a community-based participatory research partnership based at the U-M School of Public Health, whose goal is to improve air quality in Detroit.

The garden operates from April through October. Clark said it would become a year-round garden if they can obtain a greenhouse.

Cherry tomatoes and peppers in a bucket

Some of the garden’s most popular items include cherry tomatoes and peppers.

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