How American Cities Can Promote Urban Agriculture

In his original plan for the city of Philadelphia, William Penn declared that every home should have ample space “for gardens or orchards or fields, that it may be a green country that will never be burnt and always be wholesome.” Before militiamen or throngs of protestors, the Boston Common nourished grazing cattle. Urban agriculture has cropped up again and again in cities throughout American history – from “relief gardens” for the poor in the 19th century, to “victory gardens” of World War II – and for good reason. If embraced and encouraged, urban agriculture can create economic, cultural, environmental and educational benefits. In recent years, various cities have developed good urban agriculture programs. By distilling their successes and struggles, my colleagues and I identify a series of best practices in this area.

Tailoring Programs for Varied Communities

“Urban agriculture” is an umbrella term encompassing a wide array of practices. Good programs take account from the start of community preferences that vary. Beekeeping or backyard chickens, for example, might be considered progress in Portland but backwardness in Baltimore. Controversies often arise, but they offer opportunities for dialogue. When disputes erupted about the 140-acre Hantz Farms proposal in Detroit, for example, officials convened public meetings to fashion a vision of urban agriculture. Cities like Portland and Vancouver have formed urban agriculture task forces composed of private citizens, government representatives, and organizational partners to advise the cities on planning and code issues.

In most cities, urban agriculture of some form is already practiced, whether regulations officially enable it or not. It is important to take stock of these existing operations and practices. Important elements to consider include: the number of gardens and gardeners, their demographics, the type and location of existing gardens, popular agricultural practices, and where space exists to expand urban agriculture. Numerous cities have benefited from conducting “urban agriculture land inventories,” in which mapping professionals use satellite imagery and public records to determine which publicly-owned plots are best suited to urban agriculture.

Communities should develop an independent agency or department to manage urban agricultureBecause urban agriculture is a multi-faceted process, many city agencies currently regulate its disparate aspects; Parks, Public Works, Environmental Protection, Sustainability, Health and Sanitation, Land Banks, and other departments all have their hand in working with growers. Centralizing this authority under one department can streamline regulation and simplify the process of establishing gardens and farms. Boston’s Grassroot program, Chicago’s Neighborspace program, and New York’s Green Thumb program are all excellent examples.

Municipalities should audit existing codes and laws. Although most relevant regulations will be found in local zoning ordinances, other codes might have unexpected effects on urban agriculture – including ordinances regulating produce sales, market stands, shade trees, and noise. In Los Angeles, a near-forgotten, yet narrowly-worded, 1946 “Truck Gardening Ordinance” threatened to limit agricultural sales exclusively to vegetables before it was amended by the city’s governing body. Municipalities should also be aware of state and federal regulations that might affect agriculture policy decisions. Right to Farm laws typically operate at the state level and may restrict localities. Notably, Detroit and other large cities in Michigan had to postpone regulation of urban agriculture until they were exempted from their state’s Right to Farm rules.

Ways to Facilitate Urban Agriculture

Although public sentiment should determine where urban agriculture is appropriate, there are opportunities to incorporate some form of agriculture or gardening in every land use zone. Cities from Seattle to Philadelphia have incorporated urban agriculture into existing land use codes. Small acreage projects unlikely to create nuisances include backyard gardens typical of single family homes and should be permitted virtually anywhere. Yet large acre, high nuisance projects – such as multi-acre urban farms relying on heavy machinery or animal husbandry – are better suited for the city edges or industrial zones.

While permitting urban agriculture outright in this fashion has proven successful, other creative ways that cities have enabled urban agriculture include:

  • Creating new zones for urban agriculture specifically, as in Boston and Cleveland.
  • Permitting urban agriculture as “conditional” or “accessory” rather than primary use. This allows local planning and zoning boards to maintain control over how such uses are developed, without restricting them. However, this approach can become too cumbersome and likely to disproportionately burden applicants with fewer resources.
  • Land can be directly supplied — through adopt-a-lot programs and leasing underused spaces to citizens or qualified urban farmers. Offering flexible, medium- to long-term leases is critical, as security of land is vital to the success of urban farms.

Good Management to Sustain Citizen Projects

Finally, municipalities must take steps to ensure that citizens practicing urban agriculture do so responsibly. Some of the most effective approaches include:

  • Passing or revising codes that limit the use of pesticides and fertilizers
  • Enforcing time restrictions on the use of noisy farm equipment (although this is not typically an issue on small plots where hand tools are most common)
  • Providing training opportunities through city departments or local cooperative extension services
  • Requiring preliminary testing of land and monitoring of soil toxicity, soil nutrition, and any utility lines running through a property
  • Offering  access to rain barrels or municipal water hookups
  • Including urban agriculture in all future urban planning efforts, including master plans.

Why Growing Urban Inequality is as Much About White Affluence as Minority Poverty

American cities have long been unequal places – with big class and racial gaps that often overlap. Residents of particular neighborhoods often experience many severe deprivations all at once. Scholars try to understand these overlapping urban inequalities by mapping concentrations of racial and ethnic groups along with those areas that experience concentrated poverty, using U.S. Census data to identify areas that are both majority non-white and where more than 40% of residents are poor.

But the other side of the urban inequality story receives less attention. Although concentrated poverty in America’s urban centers has garnered much interest from researchers and policymakers, much less attention is paid to areas of concentrated white affluence. A failure to look at both sides of growing urban inequality is problematic because the growing advantages enjoyed by affluent white urbanites often come at the expense of imposing ever greater disruptions and disadvantages on poor, minority residents.

The Growth of Racially Concentrated Urban Poverty

According to Joseph Cortright and Dillon Mahmoudi, economists and regional development experts at City Observatory, the number of high-poverty neighborhoods across the United States has tripled since 1970. “This growing concentration of poverty,” they conclude, “is the biggest problem confronting American cities.” Furthermore, as my own research in Lexington, Kentucky has shown, racially concentrated areas of poverty are not only at an all-time high, they have also been underestimated for a long time.

Racially concentrated poverty is especially worrisome because it clusters the most disadvantaged people together and multiplies their troubles. Residents of such areas must deal with more health problems and crime, educational deprivation, and lower life expectancies. To address these problems, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has tried to disperse poor people to less disadvantaged areas. In partnership with cities across the country, the Department has undertaken projects like the demolition and redevelopment of public housing. This approach has the effect, however, of placing extra burdens on the most vulnerable, poor, and marginalized urban residents.

What is more, my research in Lexington demonstrates that areas of racially concentrated poverty have expanded, not shrunk, as the city has implemented this kind of plan to disperse poverty. My findings suggest the unworkability of policies that attempt to alleviate concentrated poverty simply by dispersing poor people. For example, HOPE VI is a program that was developed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the 1990s. In Lexington and other areas, this plan aimed to revitalize the public housing projects in U.S. cities by converting them into mixed-income developments – housing that serves not only low-income but also moderate- and high-income residents as well. But so far, this approach has not worked.

In Lexington, HOPE VI projects were built on the former sites of the Bluegrass-Aspendale and Charlotte Court public housing projects. These efforts demolished more than 1000 public housing units and opened the areas to new, mixed-income housing. But this redevelopment failed to reduce concentrated poverty. The problem, of course, is that moving the poor around in space does not make them any less poor. In Lexington, areas of racially concentrated poverty have actually grown over time, as poor residents simply clustered in other parts of the city after being displaced. In turn, the “redeveloped” neighborhoods they left behind have begun to gentrify with an influx of young, predominantly white urbanites. The failure of this approach in Lexington and elsewhere flows from the obvious fact that displacing poor people is a misconceived spatial solution to problems that are fundamentally social.

The Flipside of Concentrated White Affluence

As concentrated urban poverty continues to grow, especially for racial minorities, it represents only one side of the story of rising U.S. urban inequality. It is equally important to consider the flipside of racially concentrated affluence. Alongside growing urban poverty, cities have also experienced the growth of disproportionately white neighborhoods with median household incomes more than twice those of the citywide median. Indeed, in Lexington, racially concentrated affluence is not only far more prevalent than racially concentrated poverty, it has been this way for a long time.

Affluent areas rarely, if ever, receive the same amount of critical scrutiny as neighborhoods populated by poor people of color. It might seem obvious that policymakers see little to worry about for affluent areas. Yet these wealthier and whiter neighborhoods are implicated in the spread of urban poverty. For one thing, as my research shows, over 40% of all residential properties in Lexington’s poorest areas are owned by people outside of those neighborhoods. The already limited financial resources or poor renters flow out to the bank accounts of richer owners living in other areas around the city, or even beyond the city’s borders. Outward flows of money not only reproduce poverty in poor neighborhoods, they can also subsidize wealthy white enclaves at the city’s fringes. Consequently, even though racially concentrated poverty and affluence seem very different, analysts need to keep in mind that the social and economic forces creating both are in many ways intertwined. Understanding the basic and dynamic connections between places and sets of social conditions allows analysts to avoid the misleading either/or dichotomies that too often mark discussions of the causes of urban inequalities.

Rather than seeing concentrated poverty as the opposite of gentrification or other manifestations of urban inequality, these processes should be understood as part of the same system – where poor, non-white residents and neighborhoods are repeatedly put at a disadvantage and drained of resources, while at the same time affluent, mostly white people and their neighborhoods gain more advantages and extra resources. Extreme urban poverty and affluence may seem worlds apart, even in the same city, but they are actually intertwined by complex economic and social linkages that researchers must investigate so policymakers can take them into proper account.

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