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.