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.

Urban Planning Solutions for Food Deserts

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Grocery options are limited on the far South Side. (Image: Zol87 CC by/nc)

What is a ‘Food Desert’?

A generally accepted definition of a food desert is: an area where low-income people have restricted access to fresh fruit, vegetables, and other nutritious food within a convenient traveling distance. When I think of food deserts, I also jump to include areas where culturally diverse foods are not available for those who would eat them. If there’s a large Chinese migrant population in a city and there are no Asian supermarkets- that seems to be a problem.

Areas that have restricted access to healthy food tend to have a higher change of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, and other malnutrition-related diseases. Studies have also shown that children who eat a healthy diet have better performance in academic and social endeavors.

Opportunities for Change

This is an area of interesting debate. Many cities, Detroit for example, have rushed to small-scale urban agriculture and farmer’s markets to combat the ridiculous gaps in supermarket locations. Some claim that this is the best solution. Small scale, locally owned and operated, businesses may offer economical boosts outside of healthy living.

Others do not agree. Some recent studies have shown that Big Box stores like Walmart solve the food desert issue because people actually use those models of food distribution. It’s great to have a dozen farmer’s markets in the area, but if no one goes to them then the food still isn’t accessible.

Urban Planning Endeavors

The laws and principals that govern the way a city is constructed have a huge impact on where commercial and residential venues are located.

There are also often laws that govern the sale of alcohol and other non-desirable items within so many feet of schools and churches. These restrictions sometimes make it difficult to encourage or allow grocery stores to come into an area. A recent article on the city of Houston showed that simple changes in the city’s alcohol sale laws will allow for grocery stores to move in, while keeping bars and convenience stores out.

Transportation is a huge barrier to accessing healthy food. It’s built into the general understanding of what qualifies as a food desert. If you live 2 miles from the closest grocery store in a city that has poor public transportation and you have no other access to a vehicle- how are you going to get your food items home? Transportation infrastructure that supports people moving from densely populated, low-income areas to retail locations that offer healthy options have had success across the country. The CDC has a nice list of some examples.

Sometimes, local government does decide to step-in and offer incentives for retailers providing healthy foods to come into an area plagued by convenience stores and fast food chains. In LA, a measure was passed that placed a moratorium on new fast food restaurants. It successfully led to the opening of a new grocery store in the area.

Revitalizing blighted lands (abandoned buildings and lots, etc.)- again in LA and in Michigan- has had some success in turning these locations into thriving community gardens.  A Michigan Farm Bill (2013) exempts cities with populations over 200,000 (Detroit, Ann Arbor, Lansing, Flint, etc.) from the previous restrictions on agriculture in city limits. This now legalizes the 355+ community gardens and farmer’s markets in Detroit alone and allows for regulations regarding noise complaints and other farm-related things.

Many cities across the country have taken some steps to improve food security in their most needy communities. To locate food deserts in your area, check out this map from the US government.

Keep in mind- this map may consider convenience stores as ‘grocery retailers’ and might not wholly reflect the need of the area.

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