Urban Agriculture: The New Frontier for Food Sustainability Planning
As more people live in cities, it becomes critical to grow food in close proximity to urban centers in order to reduce fuel costs and support the local economy. City policy and ordinances can promote urban agriculture in cities, which can provide residents with healthy, local food.
Throughout history, the human population has lived a rural lifestyle, dependent on agriculture and hunting for survival. However, since the time of the Industrial Revolution, there has been a significant shift in the United State's population moving from rural areas and into cities.
In 1800, only 6 percent of the U.S. population lived in urban areas. By 1900, around the time of the Industrial Revolution, almost 40 percent of the U.S. population was urban. Now urban areas contain more than 80 percent of the population and the expansion of urban centers is projected to continue into the future.
As more people continue to move to cities, there is a greater and greater need to feed these expanding populations. Eating locally grown food has significant environmental, economical and equitable benefits to communities. Purchasing locally grown food reduces the distance between producer and consumer, which saves gasoline and emits less greenhouse gas emissions than imported produce. Local dollars remain it the local economy when consumers purchase food grown close to home. In addition, growing food in and around cities provides people, often low-income communities, with healthy and fresh food options that they may not have access to otherwise.
The benefits of local food production and distribution is seen as an emerging economic driver and community support tool that has the potential to contribute to food security and better nutrition as well as play an important role in urban environmental management. Cities have the unique opportunity to use urban agriculture to build resilient and sustainability communities from the ground up. Today, cities in the Western U.S. are bridging the urban agriculture gap by lowering the barriers to urban agriculture and treating food cultivation as an economic driver rather than planning distraction.
Urban agriculture, according to the USDA, accounts for about 15% of the world's food production. City and suburban agriculture most commonly takes the form of backyard gardens. However, as city officials loosen the landscaping regulations to different types of agriculture, such as rooftop, parking strip, and front yard gardens there lies an increasing number of opportunities to expand the amount of food that is produced within a city and encourage local economic development.
Sacramento, CA and Seattle, WA are two Western cities that have modified their zoning ordinances to allow for agricultural uses that encourage residents to grow their own food and build long-term community food security.
California's Central Valley is a region with moderate temperatures and fertile soils that are ideal for growing fruits and vegetables. In 2007, the City of Sacramento revised their Front Yard Landscape Ordinance 17.68.010 to allow vegetables and fruits to be grown in a front yard.
The original Front Yard Ordinance written in 1941 banned the cultivation of edible plants; vegetables were confined to the backyard. As of 1941, growing any edible plants in the front yard was punishable by a fine. The original front yard ordinance's intent was to prevent overgrown plants of all types. The new Front Yard Ordinance has no restrictions on the amount or type of edibles that are planted, but the ordinance does specify that anything grown in the front yard must be "landscaped, irrigated and maintained" otherwise the City has the right to remove or trim the unkempt garden.
The revisions to the front yard ordinance were made as a result of community pressure on the City. The three-year grassroots effort was driven by the Sacramento Citizens for Sustainable Landscapes (SCSL). The SCSL wrote letters to newspaper, online blogs, editorials, and campaigned in community neighborhoods to build support for the opposition. In 2007, the City of Sacramento responded to the community outcry and changed the ordinance to allow front yard gardens.
Residents now have the option to plant a garden in the front yard, which is more sustainable than planting grass or other ground covering. Depending on the type of plants, these gardens require less water than lawns and often have better exposure to sunlight. This ordinance is one accomplishment toward Sacramento's commitment to become a more sustainable city.
The City of Seattle is encouraging residents to integrate urban agriculture on their property in any space available, even the parking strip. The changes in regulations make it easier for property owners to cultivate vegetable gardens between the sidewalk and road.
Before the ordinance change, the Seattle Departments of Transportation (SDOT) required property owners to acquire a permit to grow gardens in parking strips. With the adoption of new parking strip regulations in 2009, property owners no longer need a permit for parking strip vegetable gardens. Hardscaping of the parking strip, which includes paving or adding brick, still requires a permit that is free of charge. These changes were inspired by the adoption of Resolution 31019, the City of Seattle's Local Food Action Initiative, which outlines a series of actions developed to promote local and regional food sustainability and security. The goals of the Local Food Action Initiative include improving the local food system through advancing the City of Seattle's interrelated goals of race and social justice, environmental sustainability, economic development, and emergency preparedness.
The Local Food Action Initiative has set the stage for numerous local food and urban agriculture programs that fosters food security for the City. Further, the changes in the regulations promote more opportunities for Seattle residents to grow and learn about food, promote food security, and eat locally.
Cities are in the unique position to become leading food providers and encourage residents to use urban agriculture as a tool to sustain the local food system. Simply easing restrictions on landscaping requirements in the parking strip and front yard provide flexibility to residents who may not have space or adequate sunlight in the backyard. With more food grown within the city limits, locally-grown food will be more common in cities, which creates a more secure food system for the future.
For more best practices on local food sustainability planning, please visit the SCOTie website. Developed by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and the Sonoran Institute, SCOTie is a user-friendly clearinghouse of smart growth and successful policies from communities in the Western U.S. Follow updates on Twitter @SCOTieToolkit.
The Successful Communities Online Toolkit information exchange (SCOTie) is a partnership of planning chapters and nonprofits working to build stronger, more resilient communities in the West.
Sustainable Cities Collective