Sunday, October 6, 2013

How Does Lexington Look At Urban Farming?

American cities probably don't have as much agriculture as other countries with less developed food systems, but things are looking up. When people talk about local food, they usually mean crops grown in nearby rural counties...but there's also an untapped agricultural potential in just about any city's urban core. Seedleaf and Foodchain are excellent examples of how just a small portion of that potential is being demonstrated locally. But wait, there is more going on around the country.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted in April of 2011 to amend the zoning code to allow small-scale commercial farming in areas previously deemed residential.  

Measures that would expand the city's urban farm code, potentially boost the local foods movement and put an East Austin urban farm HausBar Farms back in business went before a city board in late September 2013

Homegrown Baltimore: Grow Local is an ambitious plan to support and expand the production of locally grown food in Baltimore City, Md. All types of food production, from backyard gardening to commercial farming, are being considered.

University Of Illinois agriculture researchers look at the tremendous potential for growing food in urban spaces in Chicago. “That’s our role as a land-grant university to help grow the urban agriculture movement through science-based research and information,” U of I professors Sam Wortman and Sarah Taylor Lovell believe that the lack of funding sources for community gardening programs and individual urban farmers blocks the growth of urban agriculture. 

Sacramento – with its location in the fertile Central Valley of California – claims to be the nation’s “farm-to-fork” capital. It’s a bit pretentious and contrived perhaps, but no more so than “Horse Capital of the World”.

An increasing consumer desire for organic produce in concert with advances in hydroponic growing techniques, low-cost greenhouse systems, and actions like those undertaken by the cities cited above have helped redefine the term locally grown.

I have lately concerned myself with looking at ways our neighborhoods can become both more diversified and more connected. I believe that it can best be done through the easing of our land use and zoning restrictions toward neighborhood level non-residential parcels. Urban agriculture may be a way to bring that about.

Typical urban agriculture

Lexington has known since the 1980s that some housing units were allowed to be built in entirely wrong places. These houses flooded during minimal storm events due to a lack of a proper drainage study. With rare exceptions, these houses were built in the post war rush to house Baby Boomers and an IBM driven, clean industrialization of the '60s. 

The city has established a program to acquire and remove those houses both to reduce flooding damage and additional flooding but that has left land which has no beneficial use other than esthetic. Seedleaf has made inroads into some limited use of these properties but the results have been haphazard and spotty at best.
Remember the above comment by the University of Illinois professors? News out of the west coast may bring us some hope. A new California law recently signed by Gov. Jerry Brown makes it easier for cities to create "urban agriculture incentive zones". Cities hoping to promote community gardens and small-scale farms in urban areas may create such zones on a voluntary basis.

The law allows municipalities lower the assessed value — and property taxes — on plots of three acres or less if owners dedicate them to growing food for at least five years. The thought is that if a city wanted urban farms that didn't rely on public land, or heavy philanthropic support, "we needed to see some change in the tax law that would recognize a different use — that this wasn't a residential or commercial use but an agricultural one.

Extreme urban agriculture?

There is a concept called vertical farming which involves growing food in high rise buildings or even multi-story warehouses using artificial light and organic growing materials. Now, there is the opportunity to produce some innovative, landmark, skyline architecture for Lexington.

Theoretically, a 30-story, block sized farm could yield as much food as 2,400 outdoor acres, with less spoilage because it would travel less distance. With all of the fertile land around Fayette County, this is an option which makes little sense other than remaining free from airborne glyphosate related pesticides or pollen.

I do not see either method of bulk urban farming coming to Lexington very soon.

The other side of the story.

But there is the other end of the spectrum, a total prohibition of urban farming and that is something that we should not allow to show here. 

Urban farmers Joshua and Anna EldenBrady own several residential lots near their home on which they'd like to farm. They'd also like to open a farmers market on two lots they own that are zoned for business. The Muskegon, Mich. zoning board, where they live, has refused to issue a business license to the EldenBradys on the grounds that urban farmers aren't allowed to make money.

The city of Muskegon created a provision in its zoning ordinance in 2010 to allow for “community gardens” but such community gardens can only be operated by community groups, non-profits or groups of citizens living near the garden site. Why would a non-profit work a community garden except to make money to expand its services.

Forget for a moment, that the whole point of urban farming is to grow fresh produce among the residents and businesses who will consume it. Should charging money for that produce make the goals of the urban farming movement any less admirable or achievable? This is a route that we must avoid.

Today’s world is characterized by urbanization and challenges posed by climate change, by growing urban markets and urban poverty, by a growing dependence on food imports and food insecurity due to rising food prices. Cities can present constraints but also opportunities for building sustainable urban food systems. Have the previously referenced cities found a start to their solution?

Finding Lexington's path to a local food solution will require new levels of attention from actors who have been traditionally less engaged in food and agriculture decisions, including professional planners and local and regional authorities. Lets face it, we are planning for some major changes in downtown so why should local food be left out?

Late this summer, Chicago turned a green roof into its first major rooftop farm. The “farm” sits atop McCormick Place, the largest convention center in North America. The goal is for it to supply the center’s food service company, SAVOR… Chicago with more than 10,000 servings of local herb and vegetables. At 20,000 square feet, it’s the largest soil-based rooftop farm in the Midwest.

How is Lexington looking at expanding urban farming?

1 comment:

danny said...

No surprise, I'm sure, but I think it looks awful right now, mainly because city leaders don't seem to value it. So we'll have to wait on a "market" to form from the private business sector, which (because there is no city support) will operate in headwinds that will ensure innovation, when it comes ten-years later, will be brought by investors who have the necessary large amounts of money or connections to make things happen.

Investors, big and small, flock to money, and Lexington public money is mainly going to Rupp Arena and its environs. Here's something I wrote last year on sub/urban agriculture and business and real estate development, paid for by re-directing the city's first $2.5 million it has sent to the Rupp Project.