Cities should be doing everything in their power to facilitate localized food production, and a key component of that is enabling urban agriculture and community gardening. Peak oil, the breakdown of our industrial food system, the high cost of sustainably produced food – these and other factors lend to an urgent need to use every plot of available city land for food growing.
Sharing is a critical component of urban food growing. First, food growing is labor intensive and requires that community members collaborate and share skills and knowledge. Sharing is also critical to land access; the people who will suffer the most from a food crisis are the urban poor who have less access to resources and tillable land. Much of the land that could be cultivated is owned by middle- or upper-class urban residents, private vacant lot owners, and government entities. A key question for cities is: how can the city incentivize the sharing of land resources to ensure that everyone is nourished?
Mike Lieberman in his New York City fire escape garden. Photo credit: Urban Organic Gardener.
Here are a few suggestions for ways that cities can adopt policies to facilitate the growth of urban agriculture and community food growing spaces:
Offer property tax incentives for vacant private lots that are used for urban farming: Cities should offer private land owners a property tax discount during years when an otherwise empty lot is used for food growing. The Williamson Act in California already provides property tax incentives to preserve land as agricultural in rural areas, and a similar policy should be applied in urban areas. Generally, land has higher income earning potential when it is built up with strip malls and housing developments. But it doesn’t always make sense to assess a property based on this potential value when the land is actually being used for a more modest activity, like agriculture. Even if a piece of land will eventually be developed, landowners should be rewarded for putting it to productive agricultural use in the meantime. Such a tax incentive could dramatically multiply the amount of available land for community gardening and urban farming.
Conduct a land inventory and prioritize the use of city-owned land for urban farming: Cities should conduct inventories of land available for urban food growing, and prioritize the use of public lands for food growing. In 2009, Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco, California, asked the city "to conduct an audit of unused land – including empty lots, rooftops, windowsills, and median strips – that could be turned into community gardens or farms." (Yes, he even asked for a survey of windowsills!) In other cities, private groups have conducted such inventories. In Brooklyn, New York, an organization called 596 Acres has identified and created a map of 596 acres of vacant publicly owned land. In Oakland, California, geographer Nathan McClintock published a report and interactive map of public lots available for urban farming.
Conducting land inventories for urban food growing is not a new idea. During WWI and WWII, to relieve burdens on the railroads and reduce demands for materials used in canning and processing, the U.S. government encouraged the cultivation of yards and unused plots of land. Up to 44 percent of the country’s vegetables were produced by individuals and families in small “victory gardens” during WWII. Community organizers were sent out to survey available land for urban and suburban food growing. The National War Commission used the slogan “put the slacker lands to work,” implying that any tillable lands not being used for food production were, basically, slacking off.
Create definitions of “community gardening” and “personal gardening” in the zoning code and allow such activities in every city zone: Many cities simply do not know where to fit community gardens into the zoning picture and, as a result, sometimes community gardens have had to jump through extensive legal hoops to get a permit for operating. Cities should recognize that individuals and communities that produce food for their own consumption or for charitable/educational purposes are providing a public good. Cities should create definitions of “community gardening” and “personal gardening” in the zoning code and specify that such uses are a permitted activity in every city zone. For example, community gardens in Oakland are now permitted in nearly every zoning except certain industrial zones.
Create a simple permitting procedure and allow commercial food growing in every city zone: The next logical step after enabling food growing throughout a city is to allow people to sell the veggies they grow. In some cities, urban farmers growing produce for sale have had to pay thousands of dollars to obtain conditional use permits. However, given the low margins of urban food production and the high social value of localized food systems, a city should require no more than a simple administrative use permit and charge no more than $100 or $200 in permit fees for someone wishing to engage in commercial food growing. For example, in Oakland, it is now possible to get a $40 home occupation permit to sell produce grown in one’s backyard.
Allow people to plant vegetables in sidewalk/parking strips: It is often illegal for people to plant vegetables in the strip of land between a sidewalk and the street, or a permit is required to do any landscaping other than grass. Seattle, Washington, recently changed this law, allowing anyone to plant vegetables in the sidewalk strips in front of their homes. A sidewalk strip could become a micro-community garden for neighbors to enjoy together.
And, for heaven’s sake, allow people to plant vegetables in front yards: Front yards are another ideal spot for community food growing, and cities should not fine and penalize people for planting front yard veggies. A Berkeley, California, resident was fined $4,500 for his front yard veggies, and an Oak Park, Michigan, resident was charged with a misdemeanor for planting a front yard veggie garden. An outright ban on front yard vegetables is bad policy. If a city is worried that front yard vegetable gardens could give the appearance of blight if neglected, the city should simply impose requirements that front yard vegetable gardens be reasonably well-kept and that a significant amount of dead plant material may not be left in the yard for too long.
Subsidize water for urban farms and community gardens: Water is typically subsidized for rural farmers, and the same should apply to urban farms. Cities should at least offer water discounts to organizations that designate land for publicly accessible community food gardens. Cities could also offer rebates and subsidies to urban farms that make use of recycled grey water or that capture and store rainwater that would otherwise drain to the sewer system. Such incentives could make water access more affordable to urban farms, while reducing the impact on the city’s fresh water resources and stormwater run-off.
Create reasonable policies for urban livestock raising: The ability to raise one’s own eggs, milk, and meat is critical to a more sustainable food system, since the majority of such products are currently produced by large-scale factory farms. Cities should give residents the right to raise their own livestock, within reasonable limits to ensure the wellbeing of animals and to ensure a low impact on surrounding neighbors. A group of students and faculty at the University of Oregon have produced a very helpful guide to Local Land Use Laws to Allow Urban Microlivestock which includes a sample ordinance for cities. Cities should also create guides and resources for urban livestock raisers, such as the helpful resource created by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture.
Exempt certain chicken coops and goat shelters from building and zoning permit requirements: It can be unclear at what point a small chicken coop or goat shelter has become a “structure” or “building” subject to regulation and permitting requirements from the local building and planning departments. Most people build their own simple coops and shelters, and are sometimes surprised to learn that a local building department would have required a permit for such a building, or they may be surprised to learn that the planning department must approve the size and placement of the construction. Cities should define the size and placement of certain small chicken coops and goat shelters, such that residents can construct them without obtaining any permits.
Limit the right of homeowners’ associations to prevent home food production: Currently, most homeowners associations have the right to make rules about how homeowners use their properties. Some homeowners' associations have been known to tell residents that they cannot keep chickens and bees, or that they cannot grow edible plants in their front yards. Although it would be preferable to make state laws to curtail homeowners’ associations’ powers in this regard, each city can also pass laws that allow people to grow and raise their own food as a right.
De-pave paradise and put a tax on parking lots: The City of Philadelphia imposes a tax on properties based on the size of impervious space on the property. This tax serves to prevent stormwater floods and incentivizes capture, storage, and percolation of rainwater. Because urban farms allow almost all rainwater to percolate, Philadelphia’s tax system creates a huge incentive for property owners to replace paved spaces with urban gardens. Although most residences and commercial properties are required to provide some parking areas, such a tax would encourage property owners to at least remove any unnecessary pavement and replace it with gardens.
Community organizations partner to construct an urban vegetable garden in Ft. Myers, Florida. Photo credit: Gabriel Kamener. Used under Creative Commons license.
The Sustainable Economies Law Center has created a wiki Urban Agriculture Legal Resource Library to collect legal resources and sample ordinances. If you are interested in contributing to this library of resources, please contact Janelle Orsi.