This past weekend I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the 1st annual Massachusetts Urban Farming Conference, presented by the Urban Farming Institute and City Growers, in partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR). The energy, enthusiasm and diversity of the almost 350 people gathering to support urban farming in Massachusetts was incredible (not to mention there was a wait list of 180 more!). Young and old. Men and women. Students and professionals. Seasoned, traditional open air growers and entrepreneurs with a creative vision to push our cities to their carrying capacity for farming (can you say rooftop farming!?). Black, brown, white and everyone in between. Every sector was represented and everybody was excited.
This truly amazing, dynamic crowd of people—all with an interesting story or idea to offer— was interested in one common goal: the ability to grow food in our urban communities. The underlying motivations were as varied as the people in attendance, but common themes included increasing food security within the communities (which, probably no surprise, includes many low-income households), an increasing desire for locally grown produce and diminishing tolerance for processed, cheap, corporate food, and an overall goal of self-sufficiency.
This all, of course, requires many things to come together. Financing and capital resources. Land access. Sufficient water infrastructure. Adequately clean soil. These are but a few of the typical hurdles facing any potential grower in an urban setting.
And, the one issue that naturally jumped out to me throughout the day (particularly in the final panel I attended): zoning and related regulations that are permissive enough to allow urban agriculture to take place. Even if an eager individual is able to find a suitable site to grow food and has the initial financial fortitude to do so, she must be allowed to farm or grow in the first instance. While growing certainly takes place in a city (like Boston) on some smaller scales (and has for more than 100 years), it is not necessarily lawful or easy, much less realizing its full potential.
Consider this. According to a report entitled “Zoning for Healthy Food Access Varies by Community Income”, issued in April 2012 by Bridging the Gap (a nationally recognized research program funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation),* data collected in 2010 from 175 communities across the U.S. indicated that while 93% of communities allowed fast-food restaurants, 78% allowed supermarkets or grocery stores, and 71% allowed convenience stores, only 40% allowed farmers’ markets, and merely 12% allowed urban agriculture (“allowed” in this report included permitted and/or conditional uses). And when comparing the higher income communities to lower income communities within this study, it becomes more sobering: 17% of the higher income communities allowed urban agriculture, while only 6% of the lower income communities allowed it.
So what can cities do to remedy the dichotomies between a desire and need to access fresh, local produce for all individuals (particularly low-income and other food insecure individuals), a willingness by many to grow their own food, and the availability of funding/land/infrastructure within city limits to grow such food? They can start with taking a look at the city’s zoning ordinances to see where improvements can be made.
It’s already happening in Boston. As I write this, a proposed amendment to the Boston Zoning Code, Article 89, is undergoing the public comment/hearing process. This is a citywide proposed zoning amendment (not neighborhood or zoning district driven, unlike other existing land use provisions) that would allow, among other things, urban farming to take place by right on all lots under an acre, in all zones. You can (and should!) follow it here via the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s website.
How this plays out in Boston over the next several months as it moves through the public vetting process and works its way towards approval (either as is or, more likely, with some re-drafting along the way) will become a barometer, it not model, of how and whether other area cities take on the task of incorporating urban agriculture from a zoning standpoint as the energy toward this kind of local food increases over time. There will likely be some friction from opponents who, for example, do not envision their city living to include large plots for growing produce (although it already exists on some level due to the city’s celebrated community gardens) or who have concerns about rooftop gardens. My personal feeling is that everyone’s vision of a city does not have to be mutually exclusive of the many uses that are well suited for urban life, including the growing of food.
Boston is not alone in addressing local food production with zoning. I leave you with a few links as “food for thought” to leave you inspired and informed as this wave of self-sufficiency starts to crest within the Commonwealth:
- Healthy Eating Active Living Cities Campaign in California
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Urban Food Policy blog
- Recover Green Roofs, LLC (one of the co-founders was a panelist—amazing local rooftop projects!)
- Sky Vegetables (also one of the panelists—more cool rooftop projects)
* The full cite for this study is as follows: Chriqui JF, Thrun E, Rimkus L, Barker DC, and Chaloupka FJ. Zoning for Healthy Food Access Varies by Community Income – A BTG Research Brief. Chicago, IL: Bridging the Gap Program, Health Policy Center, Institute for Health Research and Policy, University of Illinois at Chicago, 2012 www.bridgingthegapresearch.org
Copyright (c) 2013 by Kristen M. Ploetz and Green Lodestar Communications & Consulting, LLC. All rights reserved.