Last weekend I read a very interesting article by Hannah Wallace in Spirit Magazine during my flight to Cleveland. The story is about Joe Cimperman, a Cleveland city councilman who is taking urban farming to the next level.

(from eustatic on Flickr) 

Urban farming is a hot topic in the Rust Belt, where cities have an unfortunate amount of vacant property. If vacancy is inevitable and proper development is hopeless, planting some produce on the land seems like a better use of the land than anything else.

The benefits of having locally grown food seem obvious and have been documented; and when it comes to vacant lots, it's usually local laws that are stopping farming from happening. Zoning, for example, might permit a land parcel to be used only for residential purposes. An urban farm would be considered an agricultural or industrial use, and thus would be illegal. Politicians like Joe Cimperman are slowly changing this.

In cities where land is expensive and vacant lots are more the exception than the rule, urban farming isn't such a hot topic. To me, the problem is that we think about this in an all-or-nothing context. Either a plot of land is used for living, or it's used for farming, but it can't be something in between. Even urbanists who talk about "mixed use" development typically refer specifically to residential/commercial mixing of uses.

Yes, there are a lot of vacant parcels in the city of Cleveland where produce could be planted. There are also thousands upon thousands of acres in suburban Cleveland where people grow grass and pay a ton of money maintaining it. Some suburban homes have yards that are the size of multiple land parcels in the city itself.

Some people do maintain personal gardens - that's true. My grandparents maintained a very extensive garden in suburban Cleveland when I was growing up. But zoning laws typically specify that gardens can't be used for commercial farming. In other words, you can grow a bunch of tomatoes and peppers for you and your family, but it would be illegal to sell them at a neighborhood farmers market. Beyond that, homeowners associations and other de facto rules often make it not worth the hassle to even try.

Urban farming is fine for turning otherwise hopeless land into something useful again, but truly "local" agriculture will have to incorporate suburban farming in order to be truly comprehensive.

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