UM-Flint professor uses GIS to research foraging in Detroit

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Greg Rybarczyk of UM-Flint's Department of Geography, Planning and Environment
Greg Rybarczyk, assistant professor of geography, is researching foraging activity in urban areas.

If the Earth's population exceeds its carrying capacity during the next 100 years, one of the most important questions will be how to support the food needs of the planet.

This is a map of Detroit that shows how many people are actively foraging in each part of the city. The concentration is highest along the stretches of the river walk nearest to Belle Isle, and in Midtown.
This map shows data from Falling Fruit, which shows the concentration of foragers in different parts of the city.

Greg Rybarczyk, associate professor of geography at the University of Michigan-Flint, is currently investigating that query by researching an often overlooked food resource: edible natural food plantings. To date, the majority of researchers investigating food access have focused on large-scale supermarkets, community gardens and fast-food restaurants. Rybarczyk however has turned his attention to bridging the gap between comprehensive food providers and the public. "In food access research, little attention has been paid to urban foraging behavior and that is something that should be more thoroughly examined as an option," Rybarczyk said.

Rybarczyk is currently using geographic information systems and advanced spatial analysis techniques to help explain where people are currently foraging edible foods, and how to promote this in other Detroit neighborhoods to help people meet their daily healthy food needs. The results of this research may improve the understanding of ways to reduce food insecurity in marginalized neighborhoods. "One of the pressing concerns, as our population grows, is whether or not those in densely-populated urban areas, like Detroit, will be able to source and provide healthy food in the future, which ultimately affects the quality of life."

Heat map of the city of Detroit shows where the highest concentrations of edible plants are in the city.
This map uses more than 30 years of Greening of Detroit data to show edible tree concentration by type.

Rybarczyk was able to utilize funding from the Office of Research and Economic Development to obtain some "bikeability and walkability" data for Detroit. With the help of Marlena Janda, a 2020 UM-Flint graduate with a bachelor's degree in environmental science, he has combined that information with data that shows localized socioeconomic status, demographics, where plant resources and edible trees are located in the city, and where in the city people are foraging.

Greening of Detroit Citizen Forester volunteers demonstrate safety while rolling a tree into a hole where it will live. To the left of the hole is a pile of mulch and to the right is the dirt that has been dug from the hole.
Three Citizen Forester volunteers from Greening of Detroit demonstrate the safe way to plant a tree into its new home.

Surprisingly, Rybarczyk and Janda have identified that GIS "hot-spots" of edible plants and trees don't match where this activity is happening. They also found that people tended to forage more actively in neighborhoods with a higher perception of bikeability and walkability. "Existing research points to biophilic design – design of our built environment to focus on aspects of the natural world that contribute to human health and productivity – as having mood, psychosocial, and overall health benefits," Rybarczyk said.

Two demonstrators show how we measure the root ball of a tree so that we dig the hole properly for the tree. One volunteer is crouched by the burlap-wrapped roots, and another stands nearby with shovel in hand.
At the Detroit Puppet Company, Stathis Pauls explains how to measure the root ball and hole so that volunteers know how to best plant a tree for survival and longevity. Pauls recently launched a food forest with over 200 fruit and nut trees in the city.

For the next phase of the project, Rybarczyk plans to access public health data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey on Detroit and urban design indicators. He has also hired an intern to use ArcGIS Pro software to assemble publicly available geospatial datasets.

"Currently, we have a limited spatial understanding on how urban design, food access, and human health are linked. Through the application of spatial modeling and geospatial technology, we will highlight new insights to help planners and policy-makers consider natural urban edible food resources to alleviate food insecurity in Detroit," Rybarczyk said.

Rob McCullough is the communications specialist for the College of Innovation & Technology. He can be reached at