Regulate or Cultivate? We need a fresh approach to Urban Agriculture…
It has been an exciting decade for urban agriculture in Los Angeles. Since 2008, there has been a series of landmark victories that have been fought and won in a recurring pattern: citation, organization, advocacy, legislation. While one could argue that this is an example of democracy at work, one may also find it troubling that the only recourse that urban farmers have to correcting the way local government regulates their activity is to first break the law and then mend it:
- 2009 – Tara Kolla of Silver Lake Farms, an organic flower farm, was cited for growing plants intended for off-site sales in a residential zone. Eric Garcetti, then representative of CD 13, moved to clarify the term “Truck Gardening” which was permitted on the site, to include the cultivation of flowers for off-site sales. The final ordinance was adopted in 2010.
- 2010 – Ron Finley and two other LA residents were cited for growing vegetables in the parkway in front of their homes. Herb Wesson (CD 10) introduced a motion in 2013 to allow edible plants in residential parkways without a paid permit. The final ordinance updating the Los Angeles Municipal Code and the Residential Parkway Landscape Guidelines was passed in 2015.
- 2011 – Mark Stambler’s home bakery was shut down by the LA County Department of Public Health. Stambler worked with his state representative Mike Gatto (AD 43) to propose the Cottage Homemade Food Act, which was signed into law in 2012. The “Cottage Food Operation” permit process became effective for LA County in 2013.
- 2011 – Beekeepers Rob and Chelsea McFarland formed HoneyLove to legalize beekeeping in residential zones in Los Angeles. Bill Rosendahl (CD 11) moved to legalize beekeeping in R1 zones in 2012, and the final ordinance was adopted in 2015.
The legislative landscape of urban agriculture in Los Angeles is clearly in flux, and farmers are not alone in wanting to see it grow. Our Mayor’s Sustainable City pLAn has the stated goal of increasing urban agriculture sites by 50% by the year 2035. However, Los Angeles lacks a comprehensive approach to regulating and cultivating urban agriculture. Other U.S. cities have already stepped up to this challenge. San Francisco’s Chapter 53 and Boston’s Article 89 are both examples of comprehensive ordinances which are based on community input and serve to implement a new vision of agricultural practice for the 21st century. A number of cities, including Sacramento, Knoxville, and Seattle, have likewise passed comprehensive ordinances in the last decade that recognize new realities for today’s urban farmer. These cities also have a dedicated webpage or downloadable file on their city website so that residents can easily access the text of the ordinance.
The need for updated city codes reflects the natural evolution of human culture. An industry or an activity may look one way fifty years ago, and entirely different today. For example, the City of Los Angeles restricts “Coffee Roasting” to Manufacturing (M) zones. This makes perfect sense if coffee is understood to be a mass-produced good like Folgers, requiring heavy truck deliveries, factory noise, odors, and a sizeable workforce. Today, however, coffee is often roasted as a craft good, made in small batches with very little environmental impact and fewer staff. As a land use consultant, I have worked with independent coffee roasters who want to roast small-batch beans on the same site as their coffee shop, but struggle to find a rental unit suitable for their needs. Coffee shops are permitted in all Commercial (C) zones, and these zones tend to have the foot traffic and modest tenant spaces that small enterprises require. The coffee roasting industry has significantly changed since the 1940’s, but the zoning code cannot automatically adjust to cultural change unless there is political will to amend it. Those without the money or influence to conjure political will are left to operate illegally, operate in neighboring jurisdictions, or not operate at all.
Like coffee roasting, the practice of agriculture has also changed over time. Small- to medium-scale farming practice was the pre-WWII norm, and there was little concern with how food was raised. Urban folk may have had vegetable gardens or kept a few animals, but city dwellers were largely satisfied to have their produce trucked in from local farms. With the advent of large-scale farming and the subsequent response of organic farming, people are increasingly interested in the source of their food and the methods used to raise it. Hydroponic, aeroponic, and other agricultural technologies provide new ways for food to be grown sustainably in the urban context.
We come from a tradition of separating uses. The residential areas belong here, the commercial and industrial areas over there. The single family homes belong here, the rental apartments over there. Commerce belongs in the city, agriculture in the rural areas. However, we are now recognizing that mixed uses are indeed beneficial. Commercial shops are now encouraged below new residential buildings. Rent-restricted units are required to be evenly distributed throughout market-rate rental buildings. Woonerfs demonstrate that pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers can coexist safely on the same right-of-way. It is time that our code accurately reflect our culture’s desire to grow our food and eat it too, all within the city limits.
So how can a city cultivate urban agriculture, rather than simply regulating it? Here are a few modest recommendations:
- Comprehensive Urban Agriculture Ordinance. As discussed, most of today’s urban agriculture regulation has been shaped by responses to activism, issue by issue. Regulations for urban agriculture activities are dispersed throughout the zoning code, the zoning use list, the municipal code governing animals, and others. Some regulations regarding chicken-keeping can only be discovered by calling Animal Services directly. If this dispersion is really necessary, the City should create a user-friendly guide summarizing the regulations in one document. Better still, the City should take a wider view of how we want to encourage and regulate urban agriculture and pass a comprehensive ordinance to reflect contemporary standards and goals.
- Expert Planners. Designate at least one planner to be a go-to contact for all agricultural questions. You ask: Isn’t any planner at the public counter capable of looking up what is allowed on any given property? Yes! But let’s be real: going to the public counter between 7:30 am and 5:00 pm is inconvenient and prohibitive, and is currently the only way to ask a planner about urban agriculture, apart from randomly calling planners in the directory. Developers or property owners can call or email planners who are expert in a geographic area or specific plan at any time. Why not have planners who are expert in specific topics, along with whatever geography or plan they are assigned? With go-to urban agriculture planners, the City will have first-hand knowledge of the changing needs and challenges urban farmers face, and will thereby be in step with industry shifts instead of reacting to them.
- Vacant Parcel Fee. This strategy has already been adopted by the City of Long Beach and has been proposed in Oakland. The recently adopted Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone policy, while a good step forward, is not an adequate incentive because it is voluntary and requires intentional action on the part of the landowner to contract with an urban farmer and apply for the tax reduction. Only five landowners in the City of Los Angeles filed UAIZ applications in 2017, and most of the applicants were already farming their own land. With a vacant parcel fee, landowners would face the “stick” of a fee as well as a “carrot” of the UAIZ tax incentive, and so may be more inclined to offer their land for use as a local community garden or small-scale farm. The collected fee could go toward housing the homeless, making grants to community gardens, non-profit farms, or new farmers, supporting parks, or any number of projects that are squarely in the nexus of underused urban land.
- On-Site Sales. The City of Los Angeles defines “Agriculture” and “Truck Gardening” as two distinct zoning uses. The only difference between them is that Agriculture allows on-site sales of produce, and Truck Gardening does not. An antiquated term, Truck Gardening simply means growing food for off-site sales. Agricultural uses, and thus on-site sales, are only allowed in Agriculture (A), Manufacturing (M), and RA zones. How many more fresh food stands would our city have if we allowed farmers and gardeners to sell produce on the same property where it is grown? Seattle’s urban agriculture permits urban farms in any residential zone, along with on-site sales, which are limited to reasonable times of the day. When 500,000 of our LA County neighbors experience food insecurity, we should be encouraging a full suite of options for distributing fresh food to our residential neighborhoods.
As urban planners, we don’t have a classic motto on our badges like “Protect and Serve” or “Do No Harm.” Nevertheless, we are ultimately responsible for how the zoning code regulates the actions of our fellow city residents, for better or worse. We regulate so that, hopefully, we prevent nuisance and abuse, especially to the most vulnerable in our communities. But we should also ask ourselves: Do our regulations also prevent positive, creative uses? Do we prevent legal security for those creative endeavors? And, more seriously, do we prevent access to the most basic of human needs: do we prevent access to food?
— This post reflects the views of the author and not that of APA Los Angeles as an organization. —