Friday, May 3, 2019

Zoning and Urban Agriculture

CGEE Student Voice
Urban agriculture
Urban planning
Saint Paul
Maren Grunnet

Zoning is one of the most powerful tools cities have to control what happens in them, by serving as a way to carry out comprehensive city plans. Designating areas for specific purposes, the city government decides who and what has access to many activities and areas. The origins of zoning had good intentions, mainly to improve quality of life in crowded working-class neighborhoods. However, most zoning in America has quickly led to adverse effects, especially racial segregation to polluted areas and disenfranchisement of minority communities.
Urban agriculture has historically been excluded by zoning codes. Since cities began to expand in the 1800s, there have been ordinances to create an ‘urban-rural’ dichotomy. Agriculture was labelled and treated as a rural activity. This disenfranchised and forced out many working-class communities who relied on the food they produced through urban gardens and animals. Urban agriculture was mostly discouraged by zoning in American cities until the past few decades when increased personal interest in buying local and sustainably produced food has been leading cities to reconsider many of their zoning codes.
The main ways zoning is used to control urban agriculture are agricultural districts, permitted uses in districts, design requirements, and the definition of agricultural activities. Agricultural districts are areas set aside specifically for food production purposes. However, many other districts have provisions for agricultural uses, such as personal gardens. Design requirements within districts describe how each district should look and what it should be made up of. Each city also defines ‘agriculture’ in their own way, and that definition can have a large impact on where and what food production is allowed.
To support thriving urban agriculture, cities should incorporate all these facets of zoning. Wheat Ridge, Colorado has fully embraced urban agriculture in the most recent revision of their comprehensive plan in 2011. All zoning districts became open to urban gardens (both personal and for-profit), farmer’s markets, and produce stands largely without the need for permits. This embrace of urban agriculture has encouraged many people to move to the city for the city-agricultural lifestyle. There has been an increase in both animal husbandry and gardening since the relaxing of regulations.

In the Twin Cities, we can also see these concepts at work in many different ways. Minneapolis and Saint Paul have both recently updated their zoning codes around urban agriculture to make it easier. In 2012, Minneapolis made a huge amount of changes to the zoning code to be more inclusive of urban food production. The accessibility of farm stands was expanded in 2014 as well. Saint Paul amended their codes on community gardens and many related areas, including vending, in 2013.
Minneapolis and Saint Paul’s changes focused mainly on defining urban agriculture concepts, the building of structures, vending, operating home gardens, using vehicles, and permitting food production in more areas. The Minneapolis code now includes two pages of definitions relating to urban agriculture, which gives citizens more power to speak about what they want to do as well as differentiates the various types of agriculture as to specifically reference them throughout the rest of the code. By defining the structures allowed for urban agriculture, urban farmers are empowered to build what they need. Previously, there could be fines for building temporary structures such as hoophouses, which extend the growing season considerably. Food production has now been expanded to be allowed in all districts, and this gives more agency not only to established gardens and farms, but also to individuals producing food in their yards. All of these little changes taken together create a big increase in the independence and ability of individuals and organizations to produce food across the city.
Small gardens have generally received the most benefit from the new zoning codes, and have flourished since 2012. According to the organization Gardening Matters’ surveys, community gardens in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metro increased from 166 in 2009 to nearly 600 in 2016. Many people are also now producing food in their backyards, which goes largely undocumented.
All together, these changes in zoning are not only reflecting, but supporting, a shift towards more local and sustainable food systems. Since the origins of zoning around two-hundred years ago, urban agriculture systems have been damaged and rebuilt. In an era where we are confronting issues of social justice alongside the sustainability of our planet, urban agriculture has the power to support positive change in both of these areas. As cities, let's continue to support positive change in our policies towards urban agriculture.

Caption: Just another day in Wheat Ridge 5 Fridges Farm
Caption: Inside the hoop house with Stone’s Throw owner/partner Emily Hanson. Photo courtesy Eric Larsen


“Community Gardens More than Triple in Twin Cities.” Star Tribune. Accessed April 5, 2019.
McNeur, Catherine. Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City. Harvard University Press, 2014.
“St. Paul Adopts New Rules to Regulate Urban Agriculture – Twin Cities.” Accessed April 6, 2019.
“Urban Farms - City of Minneapolis.” Accessed April 6, 2019.
Voigt, Kate A. “Pigs in the Backyard or the Barnyard: Removing Zoning Impediments to Urban Agriculture.” Environmental Affairs 38 (n.d.): 31.
“Why a Denver Suburb Has Gone All-In for Farming - CityLab.” Accessed January 4, 2019.
“Zoning and Urban Agriculture - City of Minneapolis.” Accessed April 5, 2019.

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