Sustainable D.C.


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According to the EPA, urban agriculture is the “production, distribution, marketing, and disposal of food and other products in the centers and edges of metropolitan areas.” This budding field deals with neighborhood mobilization, land and water use, pollution, health, and other issues. Programs can be private or public, volunteer-led, linked with food banks, or constructed by a landscape architect or horticultural expert. Urban farms can take shape in empty lots, remediated brownfields, or even on roofs. Some park departments are also starting urban farming programs.

At a session of EPA’s Brownfields conference, Kenneth Kastman, URS, said a number of cities are moving forward with new urban gardening ordinances. San Francisco, Cleveland, Detroit, Denver, New York City, Philadelphia, Portland (Ore.), Seattle have or are in the process of releasing new codes. 

In Detroit, the city is approaching landlords of vacant properties and asking them to sell their properties back to the city at reduced rates. The city is then turning these over to urban farmers if they commit to “making tangible benefits” to the property. If they fail to live up to their end of the bargain, the property goes back to the city. Detroit has also significantly reduced permitting fees for community gardens.

San Francisco allows residential sales of homegrown produce, which most cities don’t. However, urban gardeners can’t create storefronts or any permanent retail structure, only a temporary table. Also, foods can’t be baked or “value-added.” Plain fences (no chain link ones) are a must. No mechanized equipment can be used. In contrast, Madison, Wisconsin, is “totally laid back and allows for basically everything.”

In Chicago, Zachary Clayton, Chicago’s city government, said restaurants have been the driving force. “They want sustainable, local produce.” Currently, there’s nothing official on the books in Chicago. “The zoning code doesn’t even allow urban farming.” However, the city is in the process of revising and creating some very progressive codes. Community gardens can be a maximum of 18,750 square feet. Incidental sales will be allowed. Commercial gardens will need parking, screening, and retail areas. The city has also made commercial and residential composting acceptable. 

Washington, D.C., should develop a comprehensive urban agriculture action plan, systematically evaluate all available empty lots (including brownfield sites) as potential opportunities for commercial and community urban agriculture, and develop new codes enabling local food production. The District should target “food desert” communities with high numbers of brownfields first, expanding access to fresh produce via local food stands and street markets. 

As Fritz Haeg, author of Edible Estate: Attack on the Front Lawn notes, in many communities it’s still illegal to take out lawn in favor of food productive landscapes. Either local codes prevent these activities or restrictive homeowner associations ban these programs. 

If allowed, these local yard farms can also be used to composted household and yard waste, which will help the city reach its waste reduction goals. 

Note: For residential urban gardens, it’s important to look at whether the backyard used to be part of an industrial brownfield site. There are safety issues: Backyards could have been a brownfield in the past, or near a defunct facility. Residential gardens may also have been sites of historic “burn pits,” used to burn garbage. Lastly, lead paint flakes can get into soils.

Given yard gardens help reduce the costs of fresh produce, increase food security, and help improve environmental conditions, the District should allow local residential food production. Working with the EPA., the District should also develop new soil testing and clean-up requirements for growing food in former brownfield sites. Food production must be safe for the growers, and the produce must be safe to eat. 

Green roofs can also be used to produce food. As Washington, D.C., moves up the rankings in terms of total acreage of green roofs, many of these could also be transformed into food-productive landscapes. As noted, some restaurants (and even big box stores) are buying food from rooftop gardens. One prime example in Chicago, designed by a landscape architect, brings in school groups and teaches kids about producing their own food. Washington, D.C., now has a progressive green-roof tax rebate. This could be further increased for property owners that produce food on their roofs. 

The District should allow and also increase tax incentives for rooftop food production.

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