By Dr. Mercola
Interest in urban agriculture is growing locally as well as nationally—a trend that is truly a cause for celebration. In fact, I've been encouraging everyone to plant a "Victory Garden" as a step toward fixing our broken food system. During the previous Victory Garden period Americans produced over 40% of the vegetables in America in their yards.
Growing your own garden or participating in a community garden is a great way to improve your health, help build a sustainable food system, and support our planet as it struggles to make room for increasing numbers of us. Food grown in your own garden is fresher, more nutritious, and tastes better than store-bought food—and you can't beat the price!
Urban gardens are key to saving energy, protecting water quality and topsoil, and promoting biodiversity and beautifying densely populated communities. Remember, plants are our richest source of natural medicine.
For all of those reasons and many more, urban agriculture is growing so quickly that changes in local ordinances are not able to keep up. Zoning laws are outdated and out of step with today's world, causing a flurry of legal conflicts, as well as a good deal of confusion about what people can and cannot do on their own land.
Every city has different laws and ordinances, and there are no standards spanning jurisdictional lines.
I encourage you to get involved in growing your own food, but remember the important preliminary step of finding out what your zoning laws allow. There are often restrictions governing the raising of goats, chickens, bees, and even where you can plant a simple vegetable garden.
Failing to follow these ordinances can result in some very unpleasant legal snafus. The laws are changing but not quickly enough. Know your rights, as you never know when you may be confronted by an angry neighbor who is out of sorts because your overly exuberant rooster awakened him at sunrise.
A few US cities are showing innovative examples of how laws can be updated to meet 21st Century needs. Making the shift from unsustainable, health and Earth-destroying monoculture to locally produced real food requires thinking outside the box—and a few brilliant thinkers are giving the rest of us a lot to think about!
LA's 'Gangster Gardener' Turns the City on Its Nose
A few notable urban farmers are changing the world one backyard at a time by challenging City Halls across the country to rewrite old laws so that they can bring fresh, homegrown eggs and organic veggies to their fellow urbanites.
In the featured video, "Gangster Gardener" Ron Finley is turning Los Angeles on its nose with his no-nonsense approach to healthy eating. The city of LA issued a warrant for his arrest for the unthinkable crime of growing tomatoes and kale on a small plot of unused land, about 10 feet wide by 150 feet long—basically, a strip of dead grass.
With the help of his local councilman, Finley beat the city of LA and is using his experience as an opportunity to educate his community about how to turn "food deserts" into "food forests."
Finley says, "Growing your own food is like printing your own money." Just about everyone can relate to that!1 But what if your home doesn't have space for a garden? If you don't have a plot of land available, what about a rooftop?
Feed Your Entire Family with Fish on Your Roof
Across the US and Canada, a war has been raged against urban homeowners who want to plant gardens on their own property.7 Legal codes that outlaw planting vegetables on a large percentage of your yard, or restrict them to only certain areas like the backyard, out of view of the public, truly defy common sense—especially considering the negative impact lawns have on the environment.
With resources being increasingly stretched, we need a clear, comprehensive policy on urban agriculture that crosses jurisdictional and geographic boundaries. It's time for agricultural entrepreneurs, activists, policy makers, and ordinary homeowners to band together and propose some well-defined, fully articulated policies and codes, with incentives that make it attractive for people to grow their own food. Even some of the cities that espouse the virtues of healthy living, buying local, and spending time outdoors fail to update their zoning codes, which prohibit urban agriculture and encourage the proliferation of fast food drive-thrus.
The more involved you can be with your local urban planning and development agencies, the faster our outdated zoning laws will be changed. If you want to see a beautiful example of this, take a look at a report called "Cultivate L.A.,"8 prepared as a Masters Thesis project by a few UCLA students. The report takes an intensive look at how to best support the growth of urban agriculture in Los Angeles, including a comprehensive needs assessment of the city. Imagine if students were to do one of these for every American city!
Kudos to Those Turning Concrete Jungles into Havens of Green
Some cities are already building sustainable landscapes and should be praised for their innovation in turning vacant lots into vegetable plots. The following are just a few examples that may inspire you to suggest a similar urban gardening project to your own city planners:
- A new law in California, signed by Governor Jerry Brown, promotes community gardens and small farms by allowing municipalities to lower property taxes for homeowners who commit to dedicating their land to growing food for a minimum of five years.9 There are five innovative urban gardening programs in LA alone,10 and others in San Francisco.
- Seattle has loosened its rules for backyard goats, domestic fowl, farm animals, and even bees. Seattle also basically wrote the book on community gardening, now boasting 82 neighborhood pea patches, 24 of which are new or expanded. Seattle's community gardens give about 10 tons of food to local food banks and hot meal programs every year.11, 12, 13
- Detroit has revised its rules governing compost and greenhouses and has new urban agriculture ordinances.14 Detroit and Cleveland are offering abandoned lots at almost zero cost to those who commit to growing food on them. In 2010, New York City lifted the ban against urban beekeeping.15 For a list of US cities where beekeeping is still illegal, click here (as of 2010).
- Santa Fe, New Mexico, is drafting amendments to city code for urban agriculture that will permit zoning for urban food production, farm stands, and even large-scale community gardens.16
- Chicago O'Hare Airport is using goats and llamas to clear airfield brush instead of lawnmowers.17 And in Seattle, 120 goats from Rent-A-Ruminant are hard at work clearing a hillside below the Alaska Way Viaduct, as well as providing an entertaining diversion for local businessmen.18
Resources for the Urban Gardener
Growing numbers of people are becoming excited about local food, healthier eating, and greener cities, sparking renewed interest in the development of urban agriculture around the country. But many don't know anything about their local ordinances or where to go for help before enthusiastically plunging their shovels into the ground—only to be surprised later with a citation for breaking the law.
These ordinances are constantly changing, so you really need to do your due diligence in planning your urban garden. Below are a few organizations and resources that may assist you on your quest. Whether it's organic veggies, a berry patch, or a chicken tractor you want to build, make sure you are proceeding within the legal guidelines before you start in order to avoid major headaches down the road.
American Community Gardening Association (ACGA) - Devoted to community gardening and greening up communities across the nation. The organization has local chapters across the country. Sustainable Cities Institute - Research and innovation about how to make cities more sustainable, including planning and zoning for urban agriculture Practice Urban Agriculture (March 2010) - Information about urban agricultural zoning; lists a good number of government initiatives, plans, and ordinances that are up for vote in the near future Food Not Lawns - A sustainability movement focused on getting rid of lawns in favor of more ecofriendly alternatives; also has chapters in nearly every state across the country Lots 2 Green - Provides technical assistance to communities in order to facilitate their using vacant lots and other urban properties for community gardens and farms