If you unbuild it, they will come. Rabbit Island + Detroit.

We’re working on a new Rabbit Island conservation project and installation in Detroit. In the city’s September tax foreclosure auction of over 20,000 city owned properties we collaborated with a friend from Paris (which seems somehow fitting given that Detroit was settled by French missionaries) and purchased a vacant lot on the east side of Detroit. 1545 Pennyslvania Street. Have a look. 

We’re currently brainstorming several ideas for the lot but are thinking about transplanting young pines and other trees from Rabbit Island and simply walking away, leaving the parcel to its own fate. The context will be different than on the island, of course, which is important, yet restraint will continue to constitute the notable intention. A sign alluding to wild lands might be placed on the parcel stating only, “Leave No Trace”, and thus our claim will be staked.

The project will become, over time, an example of the ethic of Rabbit Island amidst the re-invention of an American city. It will be an ongoing exemplification of restraint and evidence of the opposite of traditional market forces; a decision based upon the widest possible balance sheet; a criticism, perhaps, of how American cities and suburbs were cut from the land in the first place.    

It is a pretty simple idea, which is why we think it should work. And it will only get better with time. The idea of Rabbit Island will spillover to Detroit, as it could any place. Art and the organization of land will further mingle and there will one day be an old growth climax-community stand of trees at 1545 Pennsylvania Street representing the bloodline of an unscathed remnant of Michigan’s north woods. Forever.

In the future it is our hope that when the parcels adjacent to ours come up for sale we will be able to buy them via a crowdfunded effort, have the property lines in the plat book removed in legal terms, and increase the size of the project. Un-subdivision will be thus exemplified. The concept will hopefully spread. 


+ The lot was purchased for $600 in the yearly Wayne County tax foreclosure auction.

+ We outbid someone who had bid the $500 minimum two minutes before the auction ended. (Gotcha!) 

+ Our taxes are $49 per year. 

+ We used www.whydontweownthis.com to search for and facilitate our purchase. Many thanks to Jerry, Larry, Mary and Alex at Loveland Technologies. These guys are on the forefront of some very big ideas. (See 1454 Pennsylvania on WDWOT?).

+ The Detroit land auction happens every year in September. This year 11,972 properties sold to 2,198 bidders while 8,686 went unsold at $500. It is estimated that 43,000 more properties will be seized by the city and added to the auction for 2013 due to failure to pay taxes. Get some friends together for next September and take a leap. There is so little downside. 

With the Rabbit Island + Detoit our fundamental proposition is that doing less is more with land in the context of the contemporary state of unbalanced and irrationally distributed subdivision and development, which has historically served markets before ecosystems and society. Some related essays can be found here, here and here

With this initial physical gesture we will be working to spread the idea of un-subidivision of land as a cultural premise that allows for better organization of the urban and the wild relative to one another. People living close to one another and sharing resources is better for the environment, of course, and undivided natural space is better for the environment, of course, but what we now have is a muddling of these pure ideas across much of our land, which is nuts from the perspective of the future. See this print of every street in America.

In a twist to this story there were a few other people who shared similar sentiments and purchased land in Detroit with the intention of not developing it and re-aggregating it on the map. It just happens that one of these people was John Hantz, a wealthy businessman and philanthropist from Detroit. Through his company, Hantz Farms, he just purchased more than 1,500 non-contiguous city-owned lots for $520,000, or about $300 per lot, between Van Dyke and St. Jean Street and Jefferson and Mack avenues, including the majority of the land behind our project at 1545 Pennsylvania–an open space which happens to be one of the largest open spaces within city limits. On this land his company will be planting an oak forest. After four years—if the company is still in compliance with all city-imposed conditions—it has an option to acquire an additional 180 acres within a mile of the original purchase site. A forest! 

Just think about it–a 140 acre oak forest three miles from the Detroit Opera House. This could very well represent the closest proximity of forest to Opera House in the world. The citizens of Detroit will benefit incredibly from this diversity as the ends of the spectrum from nature to higher civilization become bedfellows.

This is profound. This has never been done before in the context of a major American city. Hantz has executed a rational re-organization of land on a significant scale in favor of un-subdivision. He used an economic model favoring open space over development, combined, perhaps, with philanthropy. Regardless, this is an act seldom accomplished. He is using land for the benefit of both nature and society, on a large scale, in its near natural state, on property that was previously developed and divided. We tip our hat. It wasn’t without controversy, but he realized it.  

Another project underway as a result of the recent auction is that of Jerry Paffendorf and the guys at whydontweownthis.com. Their team collectively purchased 10 houses in the Springwells neighborhood of Southwest Detroit and are tearing them down. We can’t wait to see where this goes.

Though we found out about the location of the Hantz Farm deal after having sited and purchased our parcel, we surely assigned value to the lot we purchased in a similar way Hantz Farms did. Our interest stemmed from the simple fact that 1545 Pennsylvania was surrounded by significant open space with novel environmental potential. It struck us as a perfect opportunity to explore the concept of un-subdivision in an urban environment where the toothpaste was already very much out of the tube. 

Hantz Farms was also the subject of a July, 2012, Wall Street Journal article. It is worth a read and if you view the interactive map you will see that the backyard of the Rabbit Island + Detroit project is highlighted for purchase by the group. It can also be seen here, highlighted in yellow, on our Flickr page. 

Every person deserves to have access to open space which represents functioning natural systems. The larger the size of these open spaces, the better. These are ideas that are possible to reinvent on an significant scale at this moment in time in Detroit and other post-industrial cities across the nation, which is wildly exciting. The idea that we can fix our large scale development mistakes is even more so.  

Please check-in on the lot in 100 years and see if our thesis proves reasonable. And please get in touch if you’d like to collaborate.

p.s. We’re planning a camping trip! 

December 22, 2012