Blog » urban agriculture
- April 2, 2013by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
Of the many food and agriculture bills California legislators have introduced this year, three stand out for their potential impact on the Bay Area’s food system: a tax incentive to promote the use of private land for urban agriculture; a change to CEQA to require agricultural land preservation for certain projects; and a statewide sugary-beverage tax. Here’s a closer look at these bills, which we will be tracking this year.
Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone Act (AB 551)
Introduced by San Francisco’s recently elected assembly member Phil Ting, this legislation would incentivize the use of private land for urban agriculture by reducing the property tax assesment on qualifying parcels dedicated to city farming. The bill would permit counties to pass ordinances establishing “Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones” within their boundaries. In these incentive zones, private property owners would be eligible to apply to enter a contract with the county restricting their undeveloped property to urban agricultural use in exchange for a revised tax assessment based on the agricultural use of the land. The program is loosely modeled after the Williamson Act and, as with that legislation, counties could opt into the program but will not be required to do so. Similarly, private landowner participation would be completely voluntary.
One of the biggest obstacles to expanding urban agriculture within California is access to land. This legislation provides an incentive to private landowners to make more land available for urban agriculture, while at the same time enabling them to do so at a lowered cost, which is especially critical for the viability of commercial urban farms.
California Farmland Protection Act (AB 823)
According to the American Farmland Trust (AFT), each year an average of 30,000 acres of farmland is converted to non-agricultural use in California. The California Farmland Protection Act, supported by AFT, the California Climate and Agriculture Network and the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, aims to address this. The bill would require developers to either 1) permanently protect an acre of farmland for every acre they develop as part of the mitigation process in the California Environmental Quality Act or 2) build more densely. Developers could protect agricultural land through either direct purchase of a conservation easement or payment of a fee to a public or private agricultural land conservancy to purchase a conservation easement. For projects that develop farmland within city limits, the developers could also meet the requirements by demonstrating that the development achieves a density at least twice that of the statewide average. The legislation recognizes that agricultural land preservation complements infill development as a smart-growth land use strategy and attempts to permanently preserve agricultural land while also increasing the cost of sprawl.
Sweetened Beverage Tax Law (SB 622)
Though proposals for city-level taxes on sugary drinks in Richmond and El Monte failed at the ballot box in November 2012, momentum continues building for public health legislation targeting sodas and similar drinks. The Sweetened Beverage Tax Law would require distributors to pay a one-cent tax for every fluid ounce of bottled sweetened beverage or concentrate they distribute. The revenue from the tax, estimated to be more than $1.5 billion annually, would go toward a Children’s Heath Promotion Fund. The fund would then distribute 65 percent of the money through the state Department of Public Health for childhood obesity prevention efforts and childhood dental programs, run by the department, community groups and medical providers. The remaining 35 percent would go to school districts for public health initiatives that improve childhood nutrition and physical activity.
As the bills have only recently been introduced, SPUR has not yet taken a position on any of them. Though the fate of each of these bills in the legislature is unclear, each illustrates that California continues to be at the forefront of developing food and agriculture policy that intersects with the areas of land-use, economic development and public health.
- September 6, 2012by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
There may be a drought in much of North America, but this summer has produced a bumper crop of reports on urban agriculture in cities across the continent. Nonprofit groups in New York, Toronto and Boston have recently published studies examining what their cities can do at the policy level to support city gardeners and farmers.
In the Big Apple, the Design Trust for Public Space and Added Value partnered together to produce Five Borough Farm: Seeding the Future of Urban Agriculture in New York City, the most comprehensive of the reports. The study’s snapshot of urban agriculture revealed:
- More than 700 farms and gardens (including school gardens) are producing food. This, the report pointed out, is more than three times the number of Starbucks in the city.
- In addition to 390 food-producing community gardens managed by the Department of Parks and Recreation, the New York City Housing Authority hosts 245 food-producing gardens.
- The vast majority of the sites are 5,000 square feet or less.
An innovative aspect of the report was its call for the city and urban agriculture practitioners to provide more detailed metrics — not only to track production (in pounds of food, value, jobs and participation) but also to track impact (dietary change, food literacy and social cohesion). In the coming year, the Design Trust will begin working with a small sample of sites to collect this sort of data, similar to the work of Farming Concrete.
One other notable aspect of the New York City report was how the history of land insecurity, specifically former mayor Guliani’s attempt to auction off 115 community garden sites for private development in 1999, led to a very specific garden review process for any future transfer proposals. It also led to the establishment of a small handful of land trusts — including the New York Restoration Project and three smaller community trusts that were recently spun off by the Trust for Public Land — that own scores of community garden sites. In contrast, there are no community land trusts operating urban agriculture projects in San Francisco.
Providing an international perspective from a colder clime, Toronto’s Food Policy Council published GrowTO: An Urban Agriculture Plan for Toronto. The goal of this enthusiastic report was to scale up urban agriculture across the city. Reflecting the similarities that dense cities face on this issue, the four top policy recommendations from Toronto are similar to those SPUR identified for San Francisco:
1. Create an urban agriculture program within the City of Toronto.
2. Update city policies to support and implement urban agriculture.
3. Provide incentives (financial and/or other) to groups and individuals starting or growing their urban agriculture initiative.
4. Develop a website that provides a clearinghouse of urban agriculture information.
The report also highlighted a “yard sharing” initiative called YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard), a model of maximizing use of private yards that has not been institutionalized yet anywhere in the Bay Area.
Not to be outdone by bigger cities, researchers from the Conservation Law Foundation in Beantown issued their report Growing Green: Measuring Benefits, Overcoming Barriers, and Nurturing Opportunities for Urban Agriculture in Boston. Unlike the others, this report was framed as a feasibility study for a hypothetical commercial urban farming venture that would cultivate many sites across Boston, totaling 50 acres. Two notable findings in the study were that:
- Commercial urban farms were likely to employ 2.6 to 4.5 people per acre
- Boston has at least 800 acres of vacant land suitable for urban agriculture
Alongside its feasibility analysis, the report provides detailed descriptions of existing policy and initiatives in the city, including an urban agriculture zoning overlay district. Unaddressed, however, was whether that zoning policy, or any other policy change, would make it feasible for any urban agriculture venture to gain access to 50 acres of land.
What the three studies show is both a growing sophistication of urban agriculture policy efforts in cities across the continent and the similar obstacles facing farmers and gardeners in dense urban areas. What is not yet clear is whether the bumper crop of studies will lead to subsequent bumper crops of food produced in those cities.
- August 2, 2012by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
San Francisco will soon have a new urban agriculture program. On July 17, the Board of Supervisors passed legislation — introduced by Supervisor David Chiu and co-sponsored by Supervisors Avalos, Cohen, Mar and Olague — that sets clear goals and timelines for how the city government can better support urban farmers and gardeners.
The following week, the board put funding behind the program when it included $120,000 for the initiative in the 2012-2013 city budget.
The supervisors made two amendments to the version of the legislation that passed out of committee before giving it the final nod:
1. The goal of reducing wait times for a garden plot at community gardens to less than 1 year by 2014 was changed to a goal of developing a strategy to reach that same target by the end of this year.
2. The language regarding creating resource centers was altered slightly to prioritize that the resource centers should be hosted at existing sites rather than opening new facilities.
Now that the ordinance is law, the following timelines and goals go into effect:
· To complete and publish, by January 1, 2013, an audit of city-owned buildings with rooftops potentially suitable for both commercial and non-commercial urban agriculture;
· To develop, by January 1, 2013, incentives for property owners to allow temporary urban agriculture projects, particularly on vacant and blighted property awaiting development;
· To develop, by January 1, 2013, a streamlined application process for urban agriculture projects on public land, with clear evaluation guidelines that are consistent across agencies;
· To create, by July 1, 2013, a “one-stop shop” for urban agriculture that would provide information, programming and technical assistance to all San Francisco residents, businesses and organizations wishing to engage in urban agriculture;
· To develop new urban agriculture projects on public land where residents demonstrate desire for the projects, with at least 10 new locations for urban agriculture completed by July 1, 2014;
· To provide garden resource locations in neighborhoods across the city, at existing sites where possible, that provide residents with resources such as compost, seeds and tools, with at least 5 completed by January 1, 2014; and,
· To analyze and develop, by January 1, 2013, a strategy to reduce the wait list for San Francisco residents seeking access to a community garden plot to one year.
While the above timelines and goals set an overall vision for what the new program must do, another crucial deadline in the legislation is December 31, 2012. By that date, the city administrator and mayor must present to the board a strategic plan for how the new program should meet its goals and a recommendation regarding who – meaning which agency or non-profit – should manage the program.
SPUR’s focus on urban agriculture will now shift from the legislation to its implementation. Many questions remain to be answered between now and the end of the year, and we will be working to ensure that the new urban agriculture program is as effective as possible.
- June 14, 2012by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
San Francisco may soon have a new urban agriculture program. On June 11, the Land Use and Economic Development Committee of the Board of Supervisors unanimously passed legislation introduced earlier by Supervisor David Chiu that seeks to increase the coordination, efficacy and breadth of city support for urban agriculture. Based on recommendations from SPUR's report Public Harvest as well as calls for change from community organizations including the San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance, the ordinance now moves to the full board for two consecutive votes, with the first vote likely on June 19.
The version of the legislation that passed the committee included a number of amendments to the original version. Some of the notable changes include:
- Strategic plan: The strategic plan for implementation of the legislation must be presented to the board for approval
- Funding: For the coming fiscal year, the urban agriculture program should have funding sufficient for at least one full-time staff person
- Timelines: The strategic plan may set new target dates for the goals listed in the legislation
- Job training: The program needs to find ways to link urban agriculture with job training and employment opportunities, especially in the private sector
- Land Use: The program must ensure that existing urban agriculture spaces are fully utilized
Though the board agreed to numerous changes, they retained the core components of the legislation. Given the support demonstrated at the hearing by both the supervisors and community advocates, including SPUR, the ordinance appears headed toward passage.
Assuming the legislation becomes law, the most pressing issue becomes how to translate the text of the ordinance into meaningful change. Prime among the questions of the law’s implementation is how the urban agriculture program will be funded. The mayor and Board of Supervisors are in the process of negotiating the city budget, and it is not yet clear what funding, if any, will be included to support the new program and ensure that the ordinance’s call for at least one full-time coordinator is reinforced with budget dollars. The city administrator and mayor will face another large question: Which city agency or nonprofit should manage the program and ensure that the goals of the legislation are met? They have until December to evaluate the various options and submit an answer to the board and public.
The Land Use Committee’s approval of the ordinance has moved the legislation very close to becoming law. And it has moved city agencies, nonprofits and community advocates into the more difficult conversation about how, exactly, the city will create a program that better serves San Francisco’s many gardeners and farmers.
- May 29, 2012by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
Seven city agencies spent nearly a million dollars supporting urban agriculture projects in San Francisco in 2010-2011. Yet there is no single staff person responsible for coordinating that funding, nor any overarching goals for how the money is used. Urban agriculture legislation introduced on April 24 by Supervisor David Chiu, however, would change that.
The proposed ordinance, which implements a number of the recommendations in SPUR’s recent report Public Harvest, would:
- Set goals, with outcomes and timelines, such as: an audit of city-owned buildings to identify rooftops suitable for urban agriculture; five new resource centers for compost, mulch and tools; a streamlined application process; a reduction in community garden waiting lists to no more than one year wait time; 10 new urban agriculture projects on public land where residents show desire for the projects;
- Create an urban agriculture program that would coordinate the efforts of city agencies, engage with community groups to reach the goals of the legislation and generally support city gardening and farming; and
- Require the mayor and city administrator to publish an evaluation of existing efforts and a strategic plan for the new urban agriculture program by the end of 2012. Importantly, this evaluation and planning process explicitly calls for SPUR’s top recommendation, which was for the mayor and city administrator to decide whether a city agency or a nonprofit partially funded by the city will serve as the main institutional support for urban agriculture.
Those provisions combined aim to reduce the duplication of effort among agencies by creating a one-stop shop that would: provide a streamlined application process for starting projects on public land; serve as an information clearinghouse for the public and for agencies; and offer technical assistance to city gardens and farms. The legislation’s annual reporting requirement would also increase accountability by shining detailed attention on the city’s progress toward reaching the goals, as well as by providing an accounting of how agencies spent their funding. And, by requiring a strategic plan and having staff assigned to coordinate among agencies, the new urban agriculture program could ensure that existing funding is used more efficiently.
The legislation, however, wouldn’t be a cure-all. Even if the law is passed, successful implementation will require buy-in from the mayor’s office and individual agencies, which would ultimately decide how much priority and staff time they put toward improving existing programs. The legislation sets targets for new sites on public land, but the specific locations and the money to start the projects must still be found. And, for residents on community-garden waiting lists, the bill provides no immediate relief. Instead, the legislation builds the institutional capacity within the city to provide more land, resources and support in the coming years.
Though it won’t solve any challenges overnight, the legislation is a crucial step forward. SPUR supports the legislation and we will be tracking its progress through the Board of Supervisors.
- April 6, 2012by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
On March 9, 2012, San Francisco issued its first zoning permit for “neighborhood urban agriculture.” The change of use permit, given to Little City Gardens, allows the small urban farming business to grow produce for sale at its three-quarter-acre market garden in the Mission Terrace neighborhood. It is the first permit issued under San Francisco’s pioneering urban agriculture zoning guidelines, which Mayor Lee signed into law in April 2011.
The permit is both a victory for Little City Gardens and the culmination of a multi-year effort to legalize commercial urban farming in residential neighborhoods in San Francisco. The permit, is, at its core, a simple recognition that the previously vacant lot is now being used to grow food according to basic guidelines. Securing the permit, however, was not simple. The process involved:
- four visits to the permitting office
- plan review by the Planning Department, Department of Building Inspection, Public Utilities Commission and Central Permit Bureau
- a $300 fee
- hours of conversation between the applicants and the various agencies about the new zoning law and the practice of urban farming
Little City Gardens has been at the forefront of trying to find a legal path to sell what it grows in the city. Now, having set the precedent of successfully securing a change of use permit, the path ahead for other aspiring urban farmers in San Francisco will be a little smoother.
- March 15, 2012by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
Two sites owned by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) in San Francisco moved closer to becoming urban agriculture projects this week. Since October, PUC staff members have been conducting an urban agriculture feasibility study of open space adjacent to two facilities: College Hill Reservoir (at 360 Elsie Street) in Bernal Heights and the perimeter of the Southeast Treatment Plant (at Phelps and Evans streets) in the Bayview. They presented a progress report and future timeline at the March 13 commission hearing.
The PUC’s assessments of each site shows that both are suitable for growing food, with the necessary access to water and sun. Beyond the technical specifications, the PUC staff reported having had numerous conversations with community groups in the neighborhoods surrounding the two sites. Based on these conversations, the PUC is leaning toward different uses at each site.
For the College Hill Reservoir site, the PUC is proposing to transform the currently inaccessible open space into an outdoor classroom for neighboring schools that also serves the community as well. Based on conversations with the San Francisco Unified School District and Green Schoolyard Alliance, the PUC staff presented the idea of a garden servings students from the public schools that are within walking distance (Junipero Serra and Fairmount elementary schools and Paul Revere College Preparatory School) during school hours while also serving nearby residents not affiliated with the schools during afternoons and weekends. There are few school gardens in San Francisco that also provide gardening space for community members, notable exceptions being the gardens coordinated by Urban Sprouts at Aptos Middle School and June Jordan School for Equity. If the PUC’s proposal becomes reality, it would offer an innovative use of public land to serve both students and the general public on the same site.
The PUC’s proposal for the Southeast Treatment Plant site remains less defined. The PUC reported hearing feedback, especially from the Southeast Food Access Working Group (SEFA), that the neighborhood did not necessarily need more space for growing food. SEFA instead encouraged the PUC to consider other urban agriculture uses of the site — perhaps as a resource distribution area or other type of project that could make use of its relatively high visibility for passersby.
The plans for the two sites are now progressing on two separate tracks. For College Hill Reservoir, the PUC is moving ahead with the outdoor classroom and community garden idea, hoping to have the site up and running before the beginning of the 2012-13 school year. For the Southeast Treatment Plant, the PUC staff expressed a goal of hosting open houses for the public to learn more about the site in the summer, followed by a solicitation of proposals in the late summer or early fall. The staff also expects to provide another progress report back to the commission in May.
SPUR supports the PUC’s efforts to open up these two sites for urban agriculture and sent a letter in November encouraging the agency to consider its pilot projects as a model for other city agencies. We are actively engaging with PUC staff as the projects develop and have encouraged the agency to create a more public means of soliciting feedback, as well as a faster timeline for the Southeast Treatment Plant site. With many San Franciscans seeking spaces to grow food, the PUC’s two sites could be an encouraging step toward helping the city meet that demand with public land.
- February 23, 2012by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
Can you make a living selling what you grow in a city?
That’s a question a number of urban farming entrepreneurs have been working to answer in the past few years, and initial numbers are beginning to become public.
The short answer is … maybe. For many new urban-farming businesses that have started in the past couple of years, it may be too soon to judge — just as it would be with any small business getting off the ground. It’s also a question of what level of income you consider livable. A recent article from the two co-owners of Little City Gardens and a study in Vancouver provide some initial data.
Little City Gardens grows a variety of vegetables on a three-quarter acre plot in the Mission Terrace neighborhood of San Francisco. During the past year — their first of intensive production and sales — they marketed their produce to restaurants, caterers, CSA subscribers and to the public through a farm stand. In a blog post reviewing the past year, the co-owners reported that their revenue from 2011 allowed them to cover costs, set aside money for the coming year, and pay themselves $10,000 each. As the Little City owners put it, “Of course we acknowledge that we cannot sustain this type of salary for too long. This is not considered a living wage in San Francisco, and if we tried to pay ourselves by the hour, our wages would be embarrassing. We also acknowledge that this salary absolutely would not be adequate for anyone responsible for supporting a child or other family members, repaying loans or medical bills.” At the same time, they are hopeful that their second year will include increased sales, greater efficiency and the ability to pay themselves higher wages.
The numbers in Vancouver, British Columbia, paint a similar picture of urban farmers earning relatively little income. A study by University of British Columbia researcher Marc Schutzbank of eight commercial urban agriculture projects revealed that city farm owners earned an average of $8.64 per hour in 2010 (the figure was reported in Canadian dollars but is essentially the same in U.S. dollars at the contemporary exchange rates). The report notes that this is slightly less than what rural farm owners earned in British Columbia during the same period, but that urban farmers have the potential to grow and increase profits with higher yields, efficiency and sales.
Other notable commercial urban agriculture operations in areas of the country with high costs of living may soon provide more data about their commercial viability. Dig Deep Farms, for example, grows produce in the Ashland and Cherryland areas of Alameda County and sells its harvest through a CSA. Brooklyn Grange and Gotham Greens in New York City have taken to roofs for growing space. Proponents of a model of intensive small plot cultivation called SPIN Farming have hosted workshops in the United States and Canada promoting the viability of urban farms on less than one acre of land.
Urban agriculture as a business is a young industry. Initial numbers indicate that urban farming, like rural farming, often has low-to-no profit with the added burden of city-level costs of living. As with any young industry, though, it will take a number of years before it is clear which business models can support the livelihoods of urban farmers.
- January 3, 2012by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
Starting a garden or farm in San Francisco just got a little bit easier. Pulling together the most recent changes to city laws, the San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance recently released a guide to the regulations for growing and selling food within San Francisco.
The guide covers a host of topics including:
- Finding land
- Gardening on private versus public land
- Water access
- Selling what you grow
- Specific sections on rooftop gardens, animal husbandry, and soil testing.
The booklet was produced based on the guidance of staff from eight city agencies, ranging from the County Agricultural Commissioner to the Department of Building Inspections. It consolidates, for the first time, the specific wording of agency rules as well as relevant departmental contact information.
The guide won't help your plants or animals thrive, but it does serve as a road map to the rules and policies specific to the City for aspiring gardeners and urban farmers.
Note: The author serves as a volunteer co-coordinator of the San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance
- December 5, 2011by Eli Zigas, Food Systems and Urban Agriculture Program Manager
Urban animal husbandry, though nothing new, is a cause for concern for many people – especially planners. Chickens, rabbits, bees and goats conjure up nightmares of odors, noises, animal cruelty and more. As mentioned in an earlier post, when Oakland’s planning department held a meeting to discuss changes to urban agriculture regulations, nearly 300 people showed, many of them there primarily to talk about animals. Oakland, like many other jurisdictions nationwide, is proceeding cautiously as it updates its animal regulations.
While concern is plentiful, data is scarce. This imbalance is what makes a recently released study of urban livestock practices in Oakland so useful. Co-authors Esperanza Pallana and Nathan McClintock surveyed city residents who raise animals for food in Oakland and other cities in June 2011. The authors are advocates of urban agriculture and the respondents were all self-selecting. While that could lead to a bias in the results, there’s no indication from other literature that the findings aren’t reliable. Of the 134 respondents nationally, 36 lived in Oakland.
Highlights from the study include:
- The most popular animals are chickens and bees
- In Oakland, more than 80 percent of respondents said that they had never received complaints from neighbors. The six respondents who had heard complaints said they based on concerns over noise (including the crows of illegal roosters), odor and fear of injury/disease.
- Average numbers of animals kept per type:
Bees: 1-2 (hives)
Those last numbers are important, because they help paint a picture of what urban animal husbandry looks like in most yards. In covering this topic, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a story in June about more than 20 rabbits confined in small spaces in the East Bay. It was a sensational story highlighting a truly cruel situation. What this new report indicates, however, is that the types of operations that make for attention-grabbing stories are the exception, not the norm. Planners and policymakers would do well to keep that in mind as they update local codes.