Published on Sustainable Cities

The North American Urban Agriculture Experience

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In a country where, in some places, a burger barely costs a dollar while a bag of baby carrots is priced nearly thrice as much, there’s plenty of work to be done to make healthy foods affordable – and accessible. There is no denying that food insecurity (of which cheap and nutritionally inadequate junk food is a major manifestation) is a concern in the US. In fact, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) nearly 14.5 per cent of Americans experienced food insecurity at some point in 2010.

To fight this, many cities across the US are assessing their food production potential and creating special legislation for promoting urban agriculture. Let me clarify that “urban” agriculture does not imply turning down high-density buildings in the city centers to build farms. As an urban planner I am a supporter of higher densities. However, the leftover land around the cities or the residential open spaces with no other obvious use could be used as productive fragments of land within the cities. But more on this later - maybe another blog entry!

In the US, urban agriculture began at the grassroots level as a social justice movement to combat food insecurity among under-privileged communities. Within a couple of decades, a growing demand resulted in local governments making an active effort to support urban agriculture. Sometime ago I documented some of New Orleans’ urban farms with my video camera.

The New Orleans effort is commendable. Especially since urban agriculture is not just about food security: it does great service to the cause of sustainable cities. At the most basic level, purchasing fresh and locally grown produce reduces energy needs and costs associated with long distance travel and refrigeration. City residents also benefit from cleaner air and cooler temperatures in the summer. Also, urban agriculture provides a great opportunity to convert unused land and water resources for food cultivation.

Based on my experience, ongoing urban agriculture efforts within the US can be categorized into three groups. Increasingly, cities are creating urban agriculture plans, food policy councils, and maps of potential locations for urban farms.

Urban Agriculture Plans

Oakland, California has an outstanding urban agriculture plan called “Transforming the Oakland Food System: A Plan for Action.” The plan includes a preliminary assessment of Oakland’s privately owned vacant plots of land, slope analysis of identified sites, and food policy recommendations. According to the plan, more than 800 acres of public land with slopes under 30% exist in Oakland, which are suitable for urban farming. There are many other examples of such inventories, which can be replicated in urban agriculture projects internationally. A few other cities across the US have similar land inventories identifying properties suitable for urban agriculture including Portland, Oregon; Vancouver, British Columbia; Seattle, Washington; Somerville, Massachusetts; Cleveland, Ohio; and New York City.

Policy Interventions
Two years ago, the State of Maryland introduced a legislation called House Bill 1062, authorizing local governments to give a five-year property tax credit for urban agricultural property. The State has defined priority areas that qualify for the credit, in order to promote smart growth. These are developed communities, with existing infrastructure, in which the State wishes to concentrate new investment as a way to combat sprawl and negative environmental impacts of greenfield development. Qualifying sites must be between one-eighth of an acre and two acres and be used exclusively for urban agricultural purposes.

Maryland State recognizes urban agriculture as a collection of various actions including stormwater abatement and groundwater protection. In addition, community development activities, such as food donations and food canning classes are also envisioned and allowed. Moreover, economic development activities including employment and training opportunities, direct sales to restaurants and institutions, and temporary produce stands for the sale of produce raised on the premises is allowed.

Urban Planning Tools to Support Urban Agriculture
Increasingly, cities across the United States are passing amendments to their zoning regulations in order to allow cultivation of local food. These zoning amendments envision urban farms in all parts of cities, and in some cases permit the sale of excess produce in local markets.

In many cities, small CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) have emerged in backyards of residential neighborhoods and are demanding that city governments grant them permission to sell their produce. Various cities are establishing novel zoning overlays to enable such entrepreneurial approaches to urban food production: The Boston Redevelopment Authority has established an Urban Agriculture Rezoning Project to explore ways to amend the city’s zoning code to better support urban agriculture. San Francisco has also passed a zoning amendment to facilitate food cultivation and sale in all neighborhoods.

A few developing countries are way ahead of the US in terms promoting urban agriculture. However, I am optimistic that the scenario is rapidly evolving here and efforts to reduce “food miles” will gain momentum as urban America realizes the value of growing food in its own backyard.


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