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.

Older African Americans More Physically Active in ‘Green’ Neighborhoods

Adults 50 and older are significantly less active than those younger than 50. Many fall short of the recommended 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous-intensity physical activity per week. However, they still can benefit from some physical activity. Even 15 minutes of daily, moderate-to-vigorous physical activity has shown reductions in all causes of mortality in adults 60 and older.

Growing evidence suggests that living in walkable neighborhoods with greenspaces such as parks and greenery is associated with physical activity. Yet, evidence of this association in older adults remains limited. In addition, few studies have been nationally representative, have focused on neighborhood walking (versus total walking regardless of location), or examined the differences in association depending on the greenspace type (e.g. open space and forest).

Researchers from Florida Atlantic University’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science are the first to explore whether greater amounts of neighborhood open space and forest are associated with neighborhood-based walking in older adults in the United States. Moreover, this is the first known nationally representative study to suggest that physical activity levels among older African Americans may benefit from greater amounts of neighborhood open space, including parks.

The study is based on a quantification of minutes of neighborhood walking from travel diaries from a sample of 73,523 adults ages 65 and older from 52,408 households. Researchers investigated whether these associations vary depending on income, race/ethnicity, sex, or neighborhood socioeconomic disadvantage.

Results of the study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicineshowed that open spaces, including parks, were associated with 5.4 more minutes of neighborhood walking per day in older African Americans. By contrast, forests were positively associated with more neighborhood walking among whites, where daily neighborhood walking increased by an additional three minutes.

“Although it may seem like an extra three to five minutes of walking per day may not be a clinically significant change in physical activity, it needs to be considered within the context of an additional 35 minutes of physical activity a week,” said Lilah M. Besser, Ph.D., M.S.P.H., first author and an assistant professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, FAU Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, and a member of the FAU Stiles-Nicholson Brain Institute and the FAU Institute for Human Health and Disease Intervention (I-HEALTH). “Importantly, our findings are significant in the context of the established health disparities between African Americans and whites, including greater cardiovascular risk factors/disease among African Americans, and the ever-pressing necessity for health equity.”

Similar associations were not observed for other racial/ethnic groups. However, greater neighborhood forests may be borderline associated with less neighborhood walking in Hispanics. When race and Hispanic ethnicity were entered as separate variables in the adjusted models, greater neighborhood forest was associated with less neighborhood walking in Hispanics.

“In addition to physical health benefits, spending time outside provides opportunities for social interactions with neighbors that can reduce social isolation, depression, and anxiety, which can be common in older adults,” said Diana Mitsova, Ph.D., co-author, professor, John DeGrove Eminent Scholar Chair in Growth Management and Development, and director, Visual Planning Technology Lab, FAU Department of Urban and Regional Planning. “In addition, greenspace exposure helps to restore attention and reduce mental fatigue, which may contribute to a better quality of life and successful aging in place.”

Besser and Mitsova suggest the possibility that a greater amount of neighborhood open space may promote physical activity among African Americans because of the geographic and financial accessibility of neighborhood open spaces/parks for physical activity compared with that of gyms and recreational facilities.

“Plans, policies and interventions that promote increased time spent in greenspaces and provision of more greenspaces tailored to the underlying neighborhood populations may provide population-level benefits to multiple aspects of health in older adults and may help to reduce health disparities and achieve health equity,” said Besser.

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