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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 agriculturethere 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.