Urban Food Revolution

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* Book: The Urban Food Revolution. Peter Ladner. New Society Publishers, 2011.


Peter Ladner:

"To think of food production in cities as an intrusion is odd. Historically, food has been an integral part of city life; in fact, the first cities came into being to store and protect domesticated agricultural produce. In the developing world, live food is still everywhere in cities. Without that urban produce, many more people would be starving than already are.

Live food--cattle, chickens, orchards, pigs, vegetables--has been a major presence in cities through the ages. Only in very recent years has food production been pushed out beyond the city boundaries and processed food been brought in the back way--through suburban warehouses and hidden loading bays behind centralized supermarkets; now, food magically appears out of trucks, trains, planes and ships from places we know nothing about.

Today's challenge is to bring food back into our cities in a much more visible and tangible way, "past forward" to a 21st century model that feeds on the new technologies and the old reality that everything we eat has to grow somewhere--​the closer, the fresher.

There were some good reasons why farmers left cities for the comforts of the country. But even in the country, especially at the rural boundary, you can feel the friction between urban dwellers and their farming neighbors.

"Urban infrastructure and rural infrastructure are diametrically opposed," says Kim Sutherland, a regional agrologist at the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture and Lands. "Farmers need easy access to their fields, and roads with little traffic. They don't want a lot of neighbors who will complain about noise and odors."

People with homes close to farms, especially farms with livestock, have to put up with noises, foul smells and bad air quality. One farm neighbor in Aldergrove, in the Fraser Valley east of Vancouver, filed a complaint with the Farm Industry Review Board about the dust made up of chicken manure, skin, feathers and feed that was settling on his house. He said the dust, which came from the fans on the side of his neighbor's chicken barn, gave his family breathing problems, irritated their eyes and throats, and caused flu-like symptoms. The review board, a quasi-judicial tribunal that balances "right to farm" legislation with excessive disturbances, ruled in favor of the farmer, but they couldn't remove the inherent conflict between these two land uses.

The common practice of manure spreading on dairy farms is another frequent cause of complaints. One resident in the Okanagan area of B.C. filed a complaint saying it was "like living in an outhouse" after manure had been freshly spread.

Noise--​from blueberry and cherry cannons, chickens being caught and moved in the middle of the night, or boisterous guinea fowl--is another reason more urbanized residents get upset with their farm neighbors. The city of Surrey, B.C. forces some new developments to include information on land title documents that a particular lot may be subject to agricultural "noise, smells and dust." Many municipalities have buffer zones of hedges, ditches or linear parks to reduce disturbances from farms.

Ironically, people who own small farmland plots mainly as a backyard for sprawling "rural lifestyle" houses tend to be reluctant to let farmers come and work their land.

But let's not forget that farms can add value to the residential communities around them. One study in Abbotsford, B.C. tried to quantify the benefits of farmland. After taking away a dollar value for the "public nuisance cost" of farms, it added up the "amenity benefits" (most notably, access to local foods, greenspace and rural lifestyle) and concluded that "the present value of the stream of public amenity benefits and ecological services provided by each acre of farmland in Abbotsford in 2007 is estimated to be $29,490." Comparing this to the net tax benefit from industrial and residential land, the study concluded that industrial land provided a benefit of only $14,000 per acre, while residential lands cost taxpayers $13,960 per acre.

This community benefit provided "free" by farmers has led to proposals for compensating farmers for providing those public benefits. It's a nice idea, but how would you quantify the payments, and where would the money come from?

Having farms close to cities also has advantages for the farmer. Farmers like Delta, B.C.'s Terry Bremner take advantage of their proximity to the city to add new revenue streams. He bottles and processes his blueberries on-site, sells his products at his own retail store, hosts classes, classic car shows and musicals, and rents out the barn for festivals. He got permission to rezone some of his farmland for these multiple uses so he could make a living as a farmer. He thinks all farmers should be able to carve off a small slice of their land for light industrial agriculture-related uses like a welding shop or warehouse. This would help them make a decent living.

"Doing something like that could give the farmer either more productivity or another $150,000 from commercial rental--that would keep him on the farm."2

Being at the edge of the city makes Urban Edge Agricultural Parks work in California. Pioneered by Sustainable Agricultural Education (SAGE) in a partnership with landowner San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, the 18-acre Sunol Agriculture Park, 40 minutes from Berkeley and 30 minutes from Oakland, provides land and infrastructure for four small organic farms run by city folk. The farmer leases the land, and SAGE provides a farm manager, fences, roads, irrigation and a watchful eye on maintaining hedgerows and natural habitats for pollinators and beneficial insects.

The current wave of urban farming is very much alive in Europe. In the UK, the first modern urban farm was started in North London in 1971. By the mid-1990s, 60 similar farms had popped up around the country. Some market gardens thrive on the edge of cities by catering to the luxury urban markets. Others, like the Wood Street Urban Farm in Chicago, grow food in poorer areas of cities, providing environmental education and engaging the community in ways a larger rural farm wouldn't.

Is turning suburban lots into farms undermining the need to densify suburbs to reduce automobile dependence and create walkable neighborhoods? Not at all. First, there is still lots of opportunity to densify suburbs along transportation corridors and around commercial/industrial centers. That's where density belongs. For those who lament that outer-ring suburbs are doomed to become abandoned ruins of a cheap-oil lifestyle, what better way to revitalize the ruins than to bring them back to life as suburban farms? New approaches to farming inside city boundaries are changing the meaning of "city boundary."

Many cities are blurring the boundary line that used to dictate that food is grown "out there" and eaten "in here," give or take a few backyard gardens. Architect/designers André Viljoen, Katrin Bohn and Joe Howe make the case for an "edgeless city" in their book Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes. "The emerging 21st century city can be identified as 'the Edgeless City'.... The concepts of city boundary, greenbelt and suburb are all obsolete. Cities are becoming formless, edgeless and seemingly endless."3 These authors advocate for the creation of city-traversing open spaces providing a mix of leisure, recreational and green transportation uses. But their main focus is the introduction of agricultural fields into urban life--green strips farmed by local residents who rent the land and work it commercially for local food production.

When this happens, agricultural urbanism becomes a growth-containment mechanism. By integrating agriculture into suburban settlements, residents learn first-hand the value of preserving agricultural land. It's part of their lives, rather than the next land waiting for development at the city's edge. When we're all living with agricultural land in some form as part of our everyday lives, it is more valued and less in need of draconian protection measures. Still, it's hard for local governments under pressure to provide land for other community purposes, like low-income housing, to give the nod to urban agriculture uses.

Traditionally, many cities have had commercial suburban farms associated with prisons and mental institutions that provide food for the institution, with the added benefits of providing therapeutic healing and teaching responsibility, work ethics and self-sufficiency. The New Jersey Department of Corrections is the largest farmer in its state, supplying milk and processed foods to state departments at lower rates than commercial farms. The 800-acre Frontenac Farm in Kingston, Ontario is believed to be the largest urban farm in Canada. Bizarrely, it and five other prison farms across Canada are being shut down because the federal government believes they are too costly ($4 million a year) and that they compete with local farmers and don't provide relevant skills to inmates. How can they not provide relevant skills if they compete in the marketplace with other farmers?" (http://www.realitysandwich.com/urban_suburban_growing_food)

Legalizing Urban Farming

Peter Ladner:

"Cities all over North America are struggling to figure out how to allow farm uses in traditionally residential, commercial or industrial neighborhoods. Baltimore, for example, is revising its zoning to officially recognize community gardens and urban farms; the change is expected to become law in 2011.

Cleveland has already added a new "urban garden district" designation in its zoning code that allows for both community gardens and urban farms. The code includes details about allowable structures, including chain-link fencing up to six feet high, something not allowed elsewhere in the zoning code. Cleveland's director of planning says there was initial public resistance to having farms in the city, but since the zoning changes were made, not one person has complained. Cleveland is now considering allowing an "agricultural overlay" on lands zoned for other uses, allowing temporary agricultural uses until other development takes over.

Philadelphia has changed its zoning code to open up residential districts to "agriculture and horticulture, except the commercial keeping or handling of farm stock or poultry; and except commercial greenhouses or establishments for sale of farm or horticultural products." This effectively allows community gardens but not commercial farms.5 Philadelphia's next step is to recognize urban agriculture as a primary land use in its new zoning code, including commercial farming. The goal is to bring local food within 10 minutes of 75% of residents.

Milwaukee has generous provisions for "raising crops or livestock" in residential districts, not just allowing community gardens but also a range of livestock unheard-of in most cities: cattle, horses, sheep, swine, goats, chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese or any other domesticated livestock permitted by the health department." (http://www.realitysandwich.com/urban_suburban_growing_food)

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