“The First Step of Cultivation” in Little City Gardens: Zoning for Urban Agriculture

Inch by inch, row by row...urban agriculture challenges residential zoning in San Francisco. (Thanks to Little City Gardens for this great photo!)

Earlier this spring in San Francisco a team of experienced urban farmers signed a land use agreement for a plot of land to expand their growing market-garden business.  Unlike most productive urban landscape in cities, which are community gardens or NGOs, Little City Gardens is a for profit enterprise. Owners Brooke Budner and Caitlyn Galloway have set out to experiment with the economic viability of urban farming by designing a financially self-sustaining urban farm business.  The new plot is an expansion of a smaller garden that was started in the Mission District, where they have been providing specialty salad mixes and organic produce to local restaurants, caterers and neighborhood CSA members for the past year.  One difference:  the new garden is located in a residential neighborhood.

In our built up cities, un-built land and open spaces are mostly found in residential areas, particularly in the form of lawns, or in vacant weedy lots.  It makes sense then that this would be an appropriate location for growing food,  as soil in residential zones has less chance of containing industrial contaminants.  However because their agriculture model is a small business as opposed to a non-profit organization, their operations fall under the category of commercial, which is not expressly permitted in the single-family neighborhood…another lingering example of the problems with a single-use zoning framework. Additionally, many people have home businesses in residential areas, such as designing websites from their kitchen or making jewelry in their garage, however growing food for sale is not allowed.

While the community is largely in support of the Little City Garden project, Brooke and Caitlyn where told they had to apply to the City of San Francisco Planning Department for a conditional use permit to conduct their business.  They decided that the CU process, was not only too expensive for a business like theirs with low profit margins, but also involved an application and review process too lengthy in relation to their 1.5 year lease agreement.  Instead they decided

A piece of fertile ground wedged between houses. (Thanks to Little City Gardens for this great photo!)

to pressure the planning department and city government to examine and rewrite code that would permit market-gardening in residential neighborhoods.  Budner says “If we had our business was incorporated as a non-profit we would be permitted to run a garden, to grow food and distribute it.  The only difference between our work and a non-profit garden is our funding strategy; we are aiming to support ourselves from the sales of produce rather than seeking foundation or city grants.  Our work, like that of a non-profit urban farming project, produces healthy food for our community, brings beauty to a neighborhood and educates people interested in organic food production.”    Currently they are proceeding with the cultivation of the plot, but are not making sales.  Meanwhile, they are working closely with the planning department to draft new code, which could be in effect by the end of the year.  They are waiting until then to do business.

After all, in 2009 the Mayor issued an executive order to address food systems in the city; committing to promote and encourage urban agriculture in a variety of forms.   Really how different is this garden plot from a neighbor’s front yard full of botanicals?  The community expressed a few concern that it would bring extra traffic or noise to the area because of its business operations and its novelty.  Hopefully, such a sight will not always be such an attention grabber, and we will see profitable market farm gardens sprinkled throughout out cities in every use zone.  Ideally these productive businesses will be viewed as an asset, contributing to the health, beauty and community of a neighborhood, as opposed to a nuisance.

Farmers have the sunniest smiles. (Thanks to Little City Gardens for this great photo!)

Further, their lease agreement is for only 1.5 years; other community gardens, such as the Davie Community Garden in Vancouver has a similarly short life span.  If market farming in urban areas is so tenuous, we should consider providing a special use zone expressly for farms, otherwise the long-term investment will make it impossible to compete with other uses that have more secure tenure.   Some may say that urban agriculture is not viable and that we should not waste our resources on it beyond the value that it has for education.  However, there are a number of reasons that this is not the case.   There are appropriate locations for different kinds of crops.  For example, the most labor intensive and fragile crops should be closest to the place they are consumed; this includes flowers, herbs and salad crops.  These foods also are the most sensitive to travel and cost surplus to transport.  This is why we need more Little City Gardens, but not just in San Francisco, but also throughout every city around the world.  Even here in Accra Ghana, you cannot go very far without seeing a banana tree or front yard planted with corn.

Small organic farms have a hard enough time challenged by inconsistent weather, pests and water costs.  Like landscaping, they should not have to apply for conditional use permits, but should be allowed in any area of the city.

Title quote from June 2, 2010 Blogpost www.littlecitygardens.com.  You can follow their progress at this site as well!

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One Response to ““The First Step of Cultivation” in Little City Gardens: Zoning for Urban Agriculture”

  1. building our soil « Little City Gardens said:

    Aug 01, 10 at 3:11 pm

    [...] other news, there’s a good article here about our project and the productive conversations that have begun about [...]