The city of Flint, Mich., often conjures up images of destitution and dereliction. But some community members are working hard to clean up the area's gritty image by creating gardens and green spaces in once-vacant lots, according to a recent New York Times article.

One of those citizens is Harry Ryan, who four years ago decided to plant gardens in place of 10 contiguous lots where houses once stood.

Why do it, you wonder?

Because “it needs to be done,” Ryan explained to the Times.

Ryan was able to plant the garden after receiving permission from the Genesee County Land Bank in 2005, which has been working with communities to restore or demolish foreclosed properties.

He started his project by first clearing the land of East Piper Avenue garbage and overgrowth. Other neighbors such as Rose Barber and Andre Jones soon joined the effort. For example, Jones used his shovel to unearth sidewalks that had been taken over by soil and weeds.

As a result of the community’s hard efforts, the area now has a cleared sidewalk, a vegetable garden, an open green space where there are plans to build a playground and a bunch of fruit trees.

“This is a Golden Delicious tree,” said Ryan, reading the tree tag. “This is a Warren pear. That’s a McIntosh. This is a Mongolian cherry tree. ...”

Today, the garden continues to expand, feeding local neighbors — often free of charge.

Green spaces in Flint are so widely available in part because of the recession's effect on jobs and people's ability to buy homes.

According to the Times, Flint’s population has dropped from approximately 200,000 in 1960 to a depressingly low 110,000 today. That huge decline in population has left the city with a lot of open land, which until now has been left to its own demise.

But Flint is hardly alone. So-called “shrinking cities’ are popping up across the country. In some cities, government officials and residents are taking advantage of the opportunity by taking back the land and building green spaces.

Recently elected Mayor Dayne Walling said he’s hopeful Flint will become a sustainable city by 2020 with the help of a reinvigorated downtown that emphasizes greener neighborhoods with bigger backyards.

The city will be helped in part by General Motors’ recent announcement that it will invest $230 million in four local factories as part of its plan to build a new generation of fuel-efficient cars, according to the Times.

But despite Flint’s noble effort, it’s clear the city will be fighting an uphill battle for some time as it continues to suffer from a decimated tax base, a 25 percent unemployment rate and drastic cutbacks in municipal services, among other things.

Still, Flint residents are hopeful. And, in the meantime, they are finally getting some access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

“We’re down, but we’re not out,” Walling said. “And that’s a classic American story.”

Planting hope with a handful of seeds
Flint, Michigan, rebuilds with verdant gardens and green spaces.