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Cities ease rules to encourage urban farms

This farm isn't in rural Illinois. Herbs growing at the edge of sidewalks, traffic noise and the looming skyline identify it as City Farm, a 1-acre farm on unused city property downtown.
It's a non-profit venture that sells 10,000-20,000 pounds of food each year to high-end restaurants, at its farm stand and a farmers market, and to people who buy shares of its crops.

City Farm is among farms sprouting in cities across the nation to meet demand for locally grown food and to make vacant lots productive and attractive. Cities are changing zoning rules not just to allow more and bigger urban farms but to encourage them. Unlike community gardens where individuals plant on small plots, urban farms are larger operations run by private companies or non-profit groups.
The Chicago City Council gave urban farms a boost when it voted this month to set no size limit for them, allow produce sales in residential areas, and relax parking and fencing regulations for urban farms in business and commercial districts.

The city's new rules "put urban agriculture on the map," says Andy Rozendaal, urban agriculture director for Chicago's Resource Center, a non-profit group that sponsors City Farm. "It's a neat way to use a wasted resource the city has a lot of right now: About 20,000 acres are available in the city to be used as gardens that generate healthy food and create jobs."
'Making the desert bloom'

Other cities are altering regulations to accommodate the trend:

  • In Salt Lake City, the City Council voted this spring to allow the sale of produce without a business license and eased rules for greenhouses and plastic-covered "hoop houses."
    "We have a great tradition of making the desert bloom here," says Councilman Luke Garrott. Besides the nutritional advantages of locally grown food, he says, "there are also the community considerations. Social capital gets built."

  • The Columbia, Mo., City Council in July approved a zoning plan that allows the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture to sell crops from its 1.3-acre urban farm. "It's rejuvenating the neighborhood," says marketing director Billy Polansky.

  • Matthew 25, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, non-profit group, is working with city officials to change regulations so it can build a 2.5-acre urban farm on vacant lots in a neighborhood devastated by 2008 flooding.
    "Most food is trucked in from 1,000 miles away," says Courtney Ball, co-executive director.

  • The city code in Boise, which doesn't mention urban farms or community gardens, is being rewritten to encourage both, says Cody Riddle, current planning manager. Size is unlikely to be limited, he says, and no new fencing or setback regulations are being considered.
    "With the economy, people are trying to do what they can to get by and growing their own food to do that," he says.

  • In Detroit, Hantz Farms is working with city officials to revamp zoning rules so it can sell products grown on several hundred acres of urban farms. The company has planted hardwood trees and hopes to add Christmas trees and, eventually, fruits, vegetables and flowers, says President Michael Score. "We're trying to convert blighted areas into areas of beauty," he says.

Gardens take many forms:

When Chicago's City Farm moved to its current location a decade ago, a layer of hard clay was installed on the surface to prevent pollutants from seeping up and plant roots from reaching into the soil, Rozendaal says. Five employees, helped by volunteers, work the farm, give tours and sell its products.

After next summer's crops are picked, housing will go up at City Farm's current location and the farm will move to another city-owned lot. "We believe that we can easily expand up to 5 acres, and in the next two years we could be between 5 and 10 acres," Rozendaal says.

Since 2005, the Michigan-based non-profit group Urban Farming has helped create gardens in locations ranging from a Bronx rooftop to a vertical "edible wall" of climbing plants at a Los Angeles school. Produce is harvested for the needy or donated to food banks.

"Everybody's looking at urban agriculture in a different way," says founder Taja Sevelle. "I would like to see it become like World War II victory gardens: an area that people would turn to in distressed times. … I would hope that we can figure out a way to keep it going."


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