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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Community Gardening : the Year in Review

This is the time of year that it seems like everyone has a list of top tens of everything and there are plenty of year in review stories. Here is my index of the year of the Community Gardening Blog. As I think back on 2011, I realize that a lot happened in the community gardening world, even more than I realized. Maybe that is why I haven't blogged as frequently as I would have liked; I was busy doing things. There were  a number of events starting with the New Jersey Community Gardening Symposium at the Frelinghuysen Arboretum but also including the annual spring events, Making Brooklyn Bloom and the GreenThumb GrowTogether as well as the ACGA conference held in New York City this past summer.

There was a lot of discussion and a lot written about plans and policies for community gardens and urban agriculture. In New York City we had a new "Rule" which passes for policy in this complicated city but of course isn't. So far there have not been any tests to see whether the Rule is strong protection for the gardens or not or what changes can be added to make it stronger. If this was a blog predicting what will happen in 2012, I would say that we will hear a lot more about this Rule. I can guarantee that you will hear and read more from me about policies in 2012.

With all of the talk of spending cuts coming from Washington and Albany there was on again and off again threat, worry and angst about whether the GreenThumb program will be cut a little, a lot or drastically. Nothing has happened yet although at this time it seems the cuts may just be a little. One of our wishes for 2012 is for more funds instead of cuts for GreenThumb. If only we has better news to report about the New York State Community Gardening Program. The coordinator left at the end of the summer for a new (not state) position and no one there answers the phone or replies to voice messages. The future for that program does not look so rosy.

We may have to include the New York State Community Gardening Program among those we have lost this year. We also marked the 25th anniversary of the loss of Adam Purple's Garden of Eden which was the first community garden loss that made headlines. Another of the wishes for 2012 is that there won't be any community garden losses in 2012 but rather a lot of new gardens about which I can report. An updated survey of community gardens will be released this year which should show increased numbers of community gardens in most cities from 1998 when the last survey was released. I know there will be a local conference 'Grow to Give' in Staten Island on January 21st to encourage more community gardens on Staten Island and to make the connections between volunteers, land and resources with the hope of growing more produce for Staten Island food pantries.

A number of 2011 posts were devoted to my early years in community gardening traced through the creation of the  6BC Community Garden.  That is something that I have been wanting to write about for many years and I am happy that I had the opportunity to share with you. I hope there will be more to add to the story in 2012, both stories from the past and new stories to come.

It was great to visit Compost for Brooklyn and add Community Compost Garden to the list of possibilities for community gardening. The Occupy Wall Street Movement inspired moving the Bicycle Water Pump from a germ of an idea to a working model. There will be pictures of these pumpers to show in a number of community gardens this season. Compost for Brooklyn needs a human powered leaf shredder. I wonder how that will work??  In addition to the Bicycle Water Pump, Occupy Wall Street also helped to show the world about the importance of process and developing a political and social structure that is inclusive. It reaffirms what I have written about the sustainability of community gardens being as dependent on the social sustainability of the garden group as it is on the physical space.

Not quite your traditional index, year in review, new year predictions or memorials but all rolled into one with the good news and bad and the hopes and dreams for next year which is only 2 days away. There are many reasons to believe that 2012 will be full of accomplishments and forward movement in community gardening and the work we have done this year will be a strong foundation on which to build. Blog with you next year!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

New Survey of Municipal Urban Agriculture Policies and Zoning

"Urban Agriculture: A Sixteen City Survey Of Urban Agriculture Practices Across the Country", a recently published report by the Turner Law Clinic of Emory Law School assesses Urban Agriculture zoning, policies and plans. There is bad news and there is good news in the report. The bad news is that there is not a best municipal zoning code or one size fits all of policies or plans. The good news, there is not a best municipal zoning code or one size fits all of policies or plans. 

To begin with, all of the cities had different definitions of urban agriculture, community garden or urban farm which may go a long way toward explaining why there is no agreement on policies and zoning. The reason this is good news is that since most US cities are very different in terms of geography, population, politics and openness to change or even to the idea of planning, it makes sense that they would come up with different urban agriculture policies (or in some cases none at all). This makes it likely that the zoning or policy for any given city will be well suited to that city's unique situation.  For any municipality that wants to come up with a plan for urban agriculture there will be some hard work ahead.

One of the good news items is that the the authors give us 16 examples of what has been done or is in the process of being enacted. So municipalities can start with some ideas to work toward crafting a policy that works for their city. Others have done some groundwork for them. The bad news here is that the authors do an uneven job in their reporting. Some cities are covered in great detail, while others much less so. Emory's hometown of Atlanta is well covered but in other cases that may be because there is more to report on for certain cities like Minneapolis which is way ahead of most cities in this process. In one way that is not surprising  because there is a tremendous amount of involvement by the citizens of Minneapolis in the planning and policy making process. Normally I would think that having too many people involved in the process can bog down progress but the good people of Minneapolis have defied that logic. 

Citizen involvement is strong in many cities where the urban agriculture and community gardening movements are thriving in spite of the lack of support from the municipality. Detroit is a perfect example of this phenomenon since it probably has the greatest amount of acreage devoted to urban agriculture of any American city because of it's wealth of vacant land, urban farming advocates and practitioners. At the same time there are no municipal urban agriculture zoning laws or policies in Detroit, ironically because of a state 'Right to Farm' law. 

One would think this would be a good thing for urban agriculture but the law was written to protect farmers from local attempts to curb their livelihood as the citizens of Detroit abandoned the city for the suburbs and their suburban sprawl began encroaching on farmland. One of the provisions of the law was that no government more local than the state could enact any legislation about local agriculture. So Detroit will have to get an exemption from the law in order to be able to create urban agriculture zoning regulations.

This points out how difficult it is to enact zoning or policies. When zoning or policies are created to promote urban agriculture the definitions can inadvertently place unintended limitations on urban farmers or community gardeners. In fact the authors do mention that at least some groups that they interviewed liked the fact that there was no policy because it meant (and I'm reading between the lines here) there was little notoriety about what they were doing as well as little regulation. When there are regulations there tend to be permits, fees, reporting and other added tasks and controls for the community gardener or urban farmer.

There are bits of great news in this report, for example Atlanta is committing to building urban agriculture or community garden plots in every city park and all San Francisco city departments have been instructed to support urban agriculture. Two things that every city should copy and paste into their policies.

Of course I am most familiar with NYC and have written about the permanency battles here in previous posts. The reporting on New York City takes most of the 'facts' from just 2 websites so the history is glossed over and a bit inaccurate. For instance New York Restoration Project get all the credit for purchasing and preserving community gardens in land trusts when more than half of the community gardens were saved by Trust for Public Land.

Overall this is an important document that has moved the knowledge base forward on this issue. The authors even admit that it is a moving target - a number of cities were in the process of creating new zoning codes or policies and updates will have to happen frequently to keep information up to date. It is definitely worth reading.

The good and bad news continues when I think that 20 years ago I wrote a report that only found 4 cities (NYC was not one of them) with zoning, policies or plans and now this report includes 16 - good - but it seems most of the work has been done in the last 2 years.

The best news of all is that community gardening and urban agriculture is thriving in many cities because of the hard work of the residents doing the gardening or farming whether or not there is support from the city. In many cases the impetus for all of this legal work comes from the ground up from many of the same folks. To me this gives even more importance to making sure that there is social sustainability for community gardening and urban agriculture groups.