Converting Urban and Suburban Lands for Growing Food


 

The following is excerpted from The Urban Food Revolution, published by New Society Publishers.

I felt just a little conspicuous walking through the South Side of Chicago; I was the only white person in view since I got off the bus many blocks away. I was headed to Growing Home's Wood Street Urban Farm in the Englewood neighborhood. "You must be going to the garden," a man said to me as I walked past a cluster of friends chilling on a porch a few blocks away from the garden. The garden and I are both relative newcomers to the neighborhood. Its parent organization, Growing Home, was started in 1992 by Les Brown, Director of Policy for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, but this farm has only been around since 2007. It's a beacon of hope and fresh food in a depressed neighborhood with few real food stores. A restaurant I passed on the way, Pappy's Restaurant, featured shrimp, fish, chicken wings, tacos and burritos. A "Fresh Meat" store had nothing but liquor ads in the window.

Hidden at the end of a cul-de-sac in a resolutely residential neighborhood, Wood Street Urban Farm's trim, neat rows of vegetables under hoop-house frames bespeak a new standard of eating and growing local. Through the back of one hoop house, I could see the homes right across the street. This two-third-acre site is a farm, but it is far away from typical farmland.

Three collegiate-looking young people are bunching turnip greens, mint and radishes for an upcoming farmers market on the north side of town. Selling produce at the various farmers markets is just one way the farm makes money to support itself.

The Wood Street Urban Farm provides job training through its non-profit organic agriculture business. Upstairs, in the brand new office building (finished July 2009), the day's training class breaks for an afternoon smoke. These trainees are people with employment barriers who are learning the basics of finding work. They look more like hip young people than farmers, but they're being trained for any job they can get that's food-related. This year has been better than last: one member of the class already has a job. Today's class is trying to figure out how to attract neighbors to the Wednesday veggie stall set up on the premises.

Before the spartan but classy new offices were built, vandalism was an issue with the farm's on-site trailer. Now things are better. In 2008 the farm produced approximately 5,000 pounds of produce; a year later it was double that. Spinach, lettuce, arugula, swiss chard, tomatoes, zucchini, beets, turnips, kale, mustard greens and collards all grow happily in the warm, moist hoop-house climate, oblivious to the traditional urban surroundings.

Wood Street Urban Farm is just one of many new intrusions of agriculture and food production into the urban food revolution landscape. To think of food production in cities as an intrusion is odd. Historically, food has been an integral part of city life; in fact, the first cities came into being to store and protect domesticated agricultural produce. In the developing world, live food is still everywhere in cities. Without that urban produce, many more people would be starving than already are.

Live food--cattle, chickens, orchards, pigs, vegetables--has been a major presence in cities through the ages. Only in very recent years has food production been pushed out beyond the city boundaries and processed food been brought in the back way--through suburban warehouses and hidden loading bays behind centralized supermarkets; now, food magically appears out of trucks, trains, planes and ships from places we know nothing about.

Today's challenge is to bring food back into our cities in a much more visible and tangible way, "past forward" to a 21st century model that feeds on the new technologies and the old reality that everything we eat has to grow somewhere--?the closer, the fresher.

 

Friction at the Edge

There were some good reasons why farmers left cities for the comforts of the country. But even in the country, especially at the rural boundary, you can feel the friction between urban dwellers and their farming neighbors.

"Urban infrastructure and rural infrastructure are diametrically opposed," says Kim Sutherland, a regional agrologist at the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture and Lands. "Farmers need easy access to their fields, and roads with little traffic. They don't want a lot of neighbors who will complain about noise and odors."

People with homes close to farms, especially farms with livestock, have to put up with noises, foul smells and bad air quality. One farm neighbor in Aldergrove, in the Fraser Valley east of Vancouver, filed a complaint with the Farm Industry Review Board about the dust made up of chicken manure, skin, feathers and feed that was settling on his house. He said the dust, which came from the fans on the side of his neighbor's chicken barn, gave his family breathing problems, irritated their eyes and throats, and caused flu-like symptoms. The review board, a quasi-judicial tribunal that balances "right to farm" legislation with excessive disturbances, ruled in favor of the farmer, but they couldn't remove the inherent conflict between these two land uses.

The common practice of manure spreading on dairy farms is another frequent cause of complaints. One resident in the Okanagan area of B.C. filed a complaint saying it was "like living in an outhouse" after manure had been freshly spread.

Noise--?from blueberry and cherry cannons, chickens being caught and moved in the middle of the night, or boisterous guinea fowl--is another reason more urbanized residents get upset with their farm neighbors. The city of Surrey, B.C. forces some new developments to include information on land title documents that a particular lot may be subject to agricultural "noise, smells and dust." Many municipalities have buffer zones of hedges, ditches or linear parks to reduce disturbances from farms.

Ironically, people who own small farmland plots mainly as a backyard for sprawling "rural lifestyle" houses tend to be reluctant to let farmers come and work their land.

 

Farming at the Urban Edge Adds Value Both Ways

But let's not forget that farms can add value to the residential communities around them. One study in Abbotsford, B.C. tried to quantify the benefits of farmland. After taking away a dollar value for the "public nuisance cost" of farms, it added up the "amenity benefits" (most notably, access to local foods, greenspace and rural lifestyle) and concluded that "the present value of the stream of public amenity benefits and ecological services provided by each acre of farmland in Abbotsford in 2007 is estimated to be $29,490." Comparing this to the net tax benefit from industrial and residential land, the study concluded that industrial land provided a benefit of only $14,000 per acre, while residential lands cost taxpayers $13,960 per acre.

This community benefit provided "free" by farmers has led to proposals for compensating farmers for providing those public benefits. It's a nice idea, but how would you quantify the payments, and where would the money come from?

Having farms close to cities also has advantages for the farmer. Farmers like Delta, B.C.'s Terry Bremner take advantage of their proximity to the city to add new revenue streams. He bottles and processes his blueberries on-site, sells his products at his own retail store, hosts classes, classic car shows and musicals, and rents out the barn for festivals. He got permission to rezone some of his farmland for these multiple uses so he could make a living as a farmer. He thinks all farmers should be able to carve off a small slice of their land for light industrial agriculture-related uses like a welding shop or warehouse. This would help them make a decent living.

"Doing something like that could give the farmer either more productivity or another $150,000 from commercial rental--that would keep him on the farm."2

Being at the edge of the city makes Urban Edge Agricultural Parks work in California. Pioneered by Sustainable Agricultural Education (SAGE) in a partnership with landowner San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, the 18-acre Sunol Agriculture Park, 40 minutes from Berkeley and 30 minutes from Oakland, provides land and infrastructure for four small organic farms run by city folk. The farmer leases the land, and SAGE provides a farm manager, fences, roads, irrigation and a watchful eye on maintaining hedgerows and natural habitats for pollinators and beneficial insects.

The current wave of urban farming is very much alive in Europe. In the UK, the first modern urban farm was started in North London in 1971. By the mid-1990s, 60 similar farms had popped up around the country. Some market gardens thrive on the edge of cities by catering to the luxury urban markets. Others, like the Wood Street Urban Farm in Chicago, grow food in poorer areas of cities, providing environmental education and engaging the community in ways a larger rural farm wouldn't.

Is turning suburban lots into farms undermining the need to densify suburbs to reduce automobile dependence and create walkable neighborhoods? Not at all. First, there is still lots of opportunity to densify suburbs along transportation corridors and around commercial/industrial centers. That's where density belongs. For those who lament that outer-ring suburbs are doomed to become abandoned ruins of a cheap-oil lifestyle, what better way to revitalize the ruins than to bring them back to life as suburban farms? New approaches to farming inside city boundaries are changing the meaning of "city boundary."

 

Cities Without Edges

Many cities are blurring the boundary line that used to dictate that food is grown "out there" and eaten "in here," give or take a few backyard gardens. Architect/designers André Viljoen, Katrin Bohn and Joe Howe make the case for an "edgeless city" in their book Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes. "The emerging 21st century city can be identified as 'the Edgeless City'.... The concepts of city boundary, greenbelt and suburb are all obsolete. Cities are becoming formless, edgeless and seemingly endless."3 These authors advocate for the creation of city-traversing open spaces providing a mix of leisure, recreational and green transportation uses. But their main focus is the introduction of agricultural fields into urban life--green strips farmed by local residents who rent the land and work it commercially for local food production.

When this happens, agricultural urbanism becomes a growth-containment mechanism. By integrating agriculture into suburban settlements, residents learn first-hand the value of preserving agricultural land. It's part of their lives, rather than the next land waiting for development at the city's edge. When we're all living with agricultural land in some form as part of our everyday lives, it is more valued and less in need of draconian protection measures. Still, it's hard for local governments under pressure to provide land for other community purposes, like low-income housing, to give the nod to urban agriculture uses.

Traditionally, many cities have had commercial suburban farms associated with prisons and mental institutions that provide food for the institution, with the added benefits of providing therapeutic healing and teaching responsibility, work ethics and self-sufficiency. The New Jersey Department of Corrections is the largest farmer in its state, supplying milk and processed foods to state departments at lower rates than commercial farms. The 800-acre Frontenac Farm in Kingston, Ontario is believed to be the largest urban farm in Canada. Bizarrely, it and five other prison farms across Canada are being shut down because the federal government believes they are too costly ($4 million a year) and that they compete with local farmers and don't provide relevant skills to inmates. How can they not provide relevant skills if they compete in the marketplace with other farmers?

 

Fed Up on the Roof

Some urban farmers and their farms are well disguised. Eli Zabar is a Manhattan baker, retailer and restaurateur. Up on the roof of a three-story brick complex on 91st St., under the eye of neighboring apartment buildings, his big commercial rooftop greenhouses cover raised beds pumping out herbs, salad greens, radishes and tomatoes. A compost grinder helps convert bakery and deli waste into compost. Exhaust pipes from the ovens downstairs keep the greenhouses at the precise temperatures that work for growing tomatoes in the winter.

Restaurants all over North America are doing the same thing--growing what they can on-site, either in a ground-level garden, or, like the restaurant at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel in Vancouver, on an upper-level courtyard. At the Uncommon Ground restaurant in Chicago, volunteers hauled six tons of topsoil up to planter boxes on a 2,500-square foot rooftop garden.

Converting a roof to a garden isn't easy. The weight of the soil and the constant human traffic up to a rooftop requires extra support, which can be expensive. One of Uncommon Ground's owners estimates he spent $150,000 on construction. "We resupported the entire building. We dug down five feet and put in all new posts and beams. That was all to support what we wanted to do on the roof.... My structural engineer said we could probably land the presidential helicopter on the roof."4 Uncommon Ground's roof also features a pair of beehives that produce 40-50 pounds of honey for the restaurant.

Brooklyn's Grange Farm has gone one better. Boasting the world's biggest rooftop farm--?on the Standard Motor Products building in Long Island City--its one acre of garden required 600 tons of soil to be hauled up six stories in a 91-year-old building. The Long Island Business Development Association was so impressed, it presented Gwen Schantz and the Grange Farm with its 2010 Green Business Award.

Or would you like rice with that? Mori Building, developer of Roppongi Hills in Tokyo, is using rooftop gardens to create "vertical garden cities" to add green space to a depressed area and dampen its intense urban heat island. The company's Keyakizaka complex rooftop boasts a seventh-floor rice paddy--yes, rice paddy--and vegetable plot. The paddy is small (155 square feet) and largely symbolic, but still capable of producing 135 pounds of rice, with elementary school students doing the planting and harvesting under the instruction of rice farmers.

There's lots of rooftop space potentially available. By one estimate, the 4.8 million commercial buildings in the United States have about 1,400 square miles of roof, most of it nearly flat. That's an area larger than Rhode Island. Not all of it is useful for rooftop gardening. Aside from the obvious structural loading issues, acceptable access to the roof is critical. In many multi-family residential or commercial buildings, occupants may not want urban farmers with wheelbarrows of compost and muddy tools traipsing through a public lobby. But even leaving out the roofs that are shaded, inaccessible, or structurally unable to support rooftop activity, that's a lot of growing space.

 

Finding Farming Space in Cities

Back at ground level, the lands most often being converted for urban farming are those that are underused (lawns, parkland, abandoned backyards and schoolyards) or eyesores (brownfields). In Milwaukee, Growing Power's Will Allen bought the last remaining farm in the city and brought it back to life as a 1.7-acre complex of greenhouses, compost production and aquaculture ponds.

To make space for livestock, a British company makes portable (designer!) hen-houses that sit happily on the front lawn. Hens are being kept by half a million British families; 10,000 of them are using these "Eglus," high-tech chicken coops with fox-proof runs.

Single-family homeowners are taking a second look at their lawns and wondering why they're working so hard on a manicured look when they could be reaping tomatoes and lettuce. Dan Goosen, general manager of Intervale Compost Products, says the average American lawn uses 8,000 gallons of water a year, compared to 3,000 for a one-acre organic plot. According to the EPA, one lawnmower can emit as much carbon in one hour as a car does in a 200-mile ride.

"There's so much land in cities we're spending money mowing," says Ward Teulon, who has a backyard food harvesting business in Vancouver called City Farm Boy. He used to be in the lawn care franchising business, opening new franchises across North America. He says his average clients were spending over $300 a year keeping their lawns mowed, weeded, fertilized and aerated. He offers to take over the land and start growing food, saving the homeowner those costs and paying her in all the produce she can eat.

Some food sources don't even need cropland allotted to them. Some cities are replacing decorative boulevard trees with edible fruit and nut trees, and new developments pride themselves on edible landscapes. Developers with projects in Vancouver's Southeast False Creek downtown housing development are required to include edible landscaping and food-producing garden plots for rooftops and courtyards. Rooftops feature espaliered fruit trees and raised vegetable beds, and courtyards are framed with blueberry and raspberry bushes and trellises supporting fruit-bearing vines.

 

Legalizing Urban Farming

Cities all over North America are struggling to figure out how to allow farm uses in traditionally residential, commercial or industrial neighborhoods. Baltimore, for example, is revising its zoning to officially recognize community gardens and urban farms; the change is expected to become law in 2011.

Cleveland has already added a new "urban garden district" designation in its zoning code that allows for both community gardens and urban farms. The code includes details about allowable structures, including chain-link fencing up to six feet high, something not allowed elsewhere in the zoning code. Cleveland's director of planning says there was initial public resistance to having farms in the city, but since the zoning changes were made, not one person has complained. Cleveland is now considering allowing an "agricultural overlay" on lands zoned for other uses, allowing temporary agricultural uses until other development takes over.

Philadelphia has changed its zoning code to open up residential districts to "agriculture and horticulture, except the commercial keeping or handling of farm stock or poultry; and except commercial greenhouses or establishments for sale of farm or horticultural products." This effectively allows community gardens but not commercial farms.5 Philadelphia's next step is to recognize urban agriculture as a primary land use in its new zoning code, including commercial farming. The goal is to bring local food within 10 minutes of 75% of residents.

Milwaukee has generous provisions for "raising crops or livestock" in residential districts, not just allowing community gardens but also a range of livestock unheard-of in most cities: cattle, horses, sheep, swine, goats, chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese or any other domesticated livestock permitted by the health department.

 

It's Hard to Lock Up Urban Farmland

The biggest issue surrounding converting urban lands for farm use is security of tenure. In Milwaukee, as in many cities, bringing in permissible zoning but only allowing short-term leases of city-owned plots for community gardens begs the question: how can a community gardener or urban farmer be assured they're not going to get kicked off the land just when they've got the soil built up and everything growing?

Cities are now recognizing that securing tenure for urban farmers is the key to opening the gates on urban agriculture. Serious urban farmers aiming at commercial food production look for underused lots that can be converted to growing food with some certainty that they'll remain as urban farms for many years.

That's where an organization in Chicago is showing the way. NeighborSpace has been working with community groups since 1996 to buy land on behalf of local partners and end the uncertainty about future possible redevelopment (neighbor-space.org). Their goals are a mix of conservation, recreation, preservation, community food production and beautification. Their sites, always public, also provide opportunities for socializing and educational activities. It helps that they get money and support from their founding partners, the city of Chicago, the Chicago Park District, and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. Those public entities set up NeighborSpace when they discovered that ­Chicago ranked 18th out of 20 similar-sized cities for open green spaces. By 2010, NeighborSpace owned or leased 61 sites, with another 20 under ­acquisition.

Yes, guerilla gardeners are jumping in and starting farms and gardens on rooftops and in underused lands all over our cities, asking forgiveness while politicians craft bylaws of permission. But serious food production on urban sites isn't going to happen until urban farmers are sure enough that land will be theirs for long enough to reward their investments in time and soil-building.

It's conceivable that small agricultural reserves inside city limits could one day become a new civic amenity as important as parks and school grounds. In the meantime, farm spaces will more likely be carved out of underused properties in both cities and suburbs, protected by zoning permission, and swarmed by city farmers eager to ramp up local food production. Declining cities, where vacant land is widely available, will have the easiest time converting to agriculture. But every city, even if it has to squeeze farm sites onto rooftops, is going to be looking for ways to grow more food closer to home. The reason is simple: people really want it.

 


Teaser image by Payton Chung, courtesy of Creative Commons license.