Urban Farming and “The Government”

Thursday of last week, I had the pleasure of attending the New York City Council Committee on Land Use public hearing for a bill to “develop a comprehensive urban agriculture plan,” introduced by Rafael Espinal, City Council Member from Brooklyn. (details of the bill can be found at http://legistar.council.nyc.gov/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=3106769&GUID=C1DA662E-E6E5-471D-91FF-170F1B12332A&FullText=1 ) The bill is light on specifics, being more of a requirement for the Department of City Planning (DCP) to come up with a plan that would include, at minimum, the following 9 items:

  1. catalog of existing and potential urban agriculture spaces
  2. classification and prioritization of urban agriculture uses
  3. identification of potential policies to promote agricultural production within the city
  4. identification of zoning rules and building codes that merit reconsideration to promote urban agriculture
  5. integration of urban agriculture into the city’s conservation and resiliency plans
  6. estimate of direct and indirect job creation and impacts from urban agriculture production
  7. determination of the feasibility of creating an Office of Urban Agriculture
  8. expansion of the availability of healthy food in low-income neighborhoods
  9. youth development and education with regard to local food production

The hearing included testimonies initially by two DCP representatives and then by a number of residents involved in urban farming and community gardening in the city.

In their testimony, the DCP insisted that this should have been handled as a city management issue and that legislation was not necessary as they claim that current laws already cover everything mentioned in the bill.  Council Member Espinal was essentially scolded for not consulting with them before introducing the bill. Land Use Committee Chairman David Greenfield was less than satisfied with this response and supported Espinal’s claim that they had, in fact, contacted DCP a number of times regarding specific projects but that permits were always issued ad hoc instead of coming from a dedicated DCP policy. A lively debate ensued in which Chairman Greenfield doggedly questioned the DCP representative about which specific codes and regulations applied to urban farming. He, along with Espinal (and everyone else present) just wanted a clear set of guidelines for what they should, could, and couldn’t do to grow vegetables and possibly sell them to others in the city – much like they have in Boston.

Greenfield brought the whole issue home with an anecdote about his 10-year-old son wanting his school to put what I assume would be a substantial container garden on the roof of their school building. But this requires the school and/or its students to invest way more time and energy in learning about the city’s building and food distribution codes than they were willing to take on. Couldn’t they just get some guidance from the administration to make this process less intimidating? The DCP representative was quick to disclaim DCP’s responsibility or capacity to provide such guidelines. The school or the students would have to learn all possible pertinent codes and rules from all of the various NYC departments/offices on their own. Greenfield was incredulous at this expectation. The DCP representative was not apologetic. She didn’t exactly expand her fan base during this exchange.

To cynics, this must sound like just another example of typically hyper-bureaucratic big government making it impossible for a resident to grow a few tomatoes and sell them to their neighbors. And if all that existed in NYC government was this bulky administration with an insensitive by-the-book DCP, then governmental nihilism might be understandable. But that is not the form of government used to keep NYC running, as we got to experience that day. This poorly understood topic needed a broader conversation and that’s what we were getting.

Urban agriculture is primarily a grass-roots movement (pun intended). Right now these are projects and businesses with a very local operational impact but a city-wide cultural opportunity. Involvement by local Representatives (i.e. City Council Members) is a natural in this case. This is exactly why they exist and their job is to make sure the administration is properly serving their constituents, so it was heartening to see them so engaged.

The rest of the hearing focused on how and why this bill should be passed. Arguments for its benefits and requirements to succeed were presented and some of the testimony pointed to Boston’s Urban Agriculture Rezoning Initiative, Article 89 ( http://www.bostonplans.org/planning/planning-initiatives/urban-agriculture-rezoning ), as an example of the type of comprehensive approach NYC should take. As well, a number of other major U.S. cities have already taken measures ranging from policies encouraging the development of urban farms to comprehensive zoning rules to allow mixed-use food production on and around buildings ( http://seedstock.com/2014/05/27/10-american-cities-lead-the-way-with-urban-agriculture-ordinances/ ). Each city approaches urban agriculture a little differently to suit their individual size, climate, economy, demographics, etc.

At first glance, NYC would seem to be lagging behind these others, and in many ways it is. But again, it has characteristics that differentiate it in important ways. From my experience over many years of providing green roof consulting and building energy analysis for projects in NYC, key features include:

Size and density – This is the country’s largest and most densely populated city. Part of the reason for the high density is that most of it is bound by water with Queens and The Bronx being the only boroughs with city limits bordering other towns where there might otherwise be some peripheral open areas for expansion or green spaces as in Chicago. This means that zoning and land-use rules and allowances are particularly sensitive issues.

Government – New York is the only city made up of multiple counties; each borough is its own county. This is mostly organizational and will have little effect on city-wide zoning allowances for urban agriculture. However, it could impact how each borough approaches approval or opposition to it. Manhattan and Staten Island probably each have very different views on what an urban agriculture policy should look like. The point is that NYC has a much bigger and more complicated government than any other U.S. city.

Architecture – NYC has a long history of utilizing its rooftops, sometimes in dramatic fashion (http://www.messynessychic.com/2017/03/17/new-yorks-incredible-lost-rooftop-theatres/ ). If you walk through Manahattan and look up, you will probably see trees growing on the edges of roofs and terraces. So the idea of expanding a container garden into a micro-farm should not be foreign to the Dept of Buildings. But it also means they have many decades of experience expanding codes and the bureaucracy associated with enforcing rules that, for some reason, seem stricter about lightweight greenhouse construction than heavy tree containers.

New York City can work through these complexities from 2 different directions:

Administrative initiatives – DCP can ask for funding to work with those in the food industry, including traditional producers, restaurants, grocers, and urban farmers along with other city departments and the Mayor’s Office to craft a dynamic policy governing pertinent laws and create a set of guidelines for those involved in urban agriculture.

Legislation – City Council can pass laws requiring DCP and other city agencies to take specific action and provide the necessary budget.

From my observations at the Land Use Committee hearing, the latter is going to be the more likely path as evidenced by several witnesses who expressed a common frustration that the administration is simply not taking this issue seriously. The urban farmers and their Council Members want more than just a zoning or rule change here and there, but actual planning and a comprehensive policy. The administration needs to be making compliance easier, not more difficult, for anyone wanting to get involved in urban agriculture.

What should not be lost in this discussion is that the administration does have some legitimate concerns that must be addressed in the guidelines. For example, DCP pointed out that it is unlawful for food grown on one residential lot to be sold on another lot – it then becomes a commercial entity subject to commercial zoning and regulation. This may seem onerous for many micro-farmers, but right now it is how the city controls health and safety when selling food products. Determining acceptable Local Law variants to everyone’s satisfaction will not be easy. Again, it’s a big city and exceptions to these rules really can add to the bureaucracy.

For a city as large and complex as New York, the realization of an effective urban agriculture plan will depend on it being handled carefully and reasonably. I believe that if this urban agriculture plan is created successfully, the scope will be such that other cities, and even states, will do well to reference it along with urban agriculture initiatives in other cities.