Urban Farms vs. Urban Zoning

Terraced into the uphill slope of a backyard in a quiet neighborhood in North Berkeley, Sophie Hahn’s vegetable garden looks like many others in the city: planter boxes bursting with kale, lettuce, and cauliflower, a compost bin for green waste, chickens clucking in their coop. The garden produces eight garden beds worth of veggies and sixteen chickens’ worth of eggs—much more food than Hahn’s family could possibly eat.

The oversupply is intentional: while the yard belongs to Hahn, she does no gardening herself. Instead, she hires two professional urban farmers to plant, weed, harvest, and deliver the bounty to her family’s doorstep—and to her neighbors’ doorsteps—once a week. “I don’t even go down there,” the attorney and community activist said one morning last fall. “I’m busy!”

To Hahn, this arrangement makes perfect sense. Instead of hiring a gardener to tend her roses, she hires a farmer to tend her vegetables, thus putting her land to productive use. “If I turn my backyard into edible food plants, that means five or six other families don’t have to,” she says, as the chickens, which produce four to five dozen eggs each week, cluck in apparent agreement. “I spread the benefits to more than just my family.”

But feeding six families costs money, and Hahn has shouldered the set-up costs alone, installing garden beds and drip irrigation, buying seeds, and paying the farmers to coax the land to produce. To recoup those costs, Hahn wants to charge her neighbors a small fee for their weekly food baskets. This exchange, she says, would be similar to a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) model, in which people pay a subscription fee to a farm in return for regular deliveries of seasonal food. Since she lives in Berkeley, a city that just last year made building a local food system part of its long-term Climate Action Plan, Hahn figured she would have no problem getting a license from the city to run her small farm.

She was wrong. In fact, the process of getting a license turned out to be so convoluted, and so expensive, that for now she’s given up trying to do it. At a time when it seems everyone wants to bring the farm back to the city, and urban food projects are all the rage, Hahn’s story is a study in just how great a challenge this can be. Her adversary is not an anti-vegetable city official or a NIMBY neighbor—all that’s stopping Hahn is a few bland paragraphs in the zoning code.

Hahn’s backyard farm project started when she moved into her house in late 2006. At that time, she recalls, there was nothing at all in the yard—the previous occupants had laid down a layer of sod, which died soon after Hahn moved in, leaving the yard, she says, “ugly and useless.” Not much of a gardener herself, Hahn didn’t think about what to do with the space until more than a year later, when a flier in the neighborhood caught her eye: A woman named Willow proposed to set up a backyard garden in exchange for room and board. While she thought the flier “lovely,” Hahn was initially skeptical. “Seriously … Willow?” she recalls, rolling her eyes in a just-another-Berkeley-hippie sort of way.

But one phone call changed her mind. Willow Rosenthal was the founder of West Oakland’s food security project City Slicker Farms and about as far from a dreamy hippie as raspberries are from ramen. When she looked at Hahn’s yard, she saw potential. A veteran urban farmer, Rosenthal plans intensive gardens—so intensive, she says, that she only reluctantly concedes space for a picnic table. Hahn’s forty-by-sixty-foot backyard area, Rosenthal thought, could easily feed five or six families. The two hatched the idea to create a neighborhood-scale CSA, with Hahn lending land that would otherwise go unused to two farmers—in this case, Rosenthal and her assistant Laurel Sharp—who would manage its daily operation.

The problem is that Berkeley’s zoning code says nothing about a neighborhood CSA, and its absence is significant. Technically, such an operation would be considered a business, since money changes hands. But Hahn’s North Berkeley neighborhood is strictly residential. Its zoning code allows people to run small, low- or moderate-impact in-home businesses but mandates that all activity take place indoors. It also forbids “customer visits,” “handling or transport of goods or products” on-site, and “offensive or objectionable noise, vibration, odors, heat, dirt, or electrical disturbance perceptible by the average person.” An outdoor operation that uses a pickup truck and a compost pile, and would require customers to pick up vegetables, is not allowable under the code.

Hahn and Rosenthal discovered all this when they called the city’s health and planning departments to see what would be required to get a business license. While all the city officials they talked to said they supported the project in theory, they said that legally, there was no way to make it work. One official, says Hahn, described the farm as a “high-impact home occupation.” If Hahn and Rosenthal wanted to go ahead with the project, they were told, they would need a special exemption, which would require a public hearing, six to eight months of waiting, and close to $4,000 in fees. After months of haggling, they pulled their application last summer and decided to regroup the following season. “We didn’t think it was going to be so complicated,” says Hahn.

Berkeley city planning director Debbie Sanderson agrees that while a backyard CSA sounds like a good idea, as the laws are currently written it is unquestionably illegal. While the city could change its code, either under the direction of the city council or in response to a citizen petition, the process
is lengthy and complex. The most recent change, which created a provision allowing in-home teaching, took nearly a year to implement, Sanderson says. Still, she says, the code is a living document: “Life in the world is always changing, so the code has to change too.” Indeed, the question of how to integrate agriculture into urban landscapes has started to pop up in American Planning Association journal articles in recent months—one article analyzed the cities of Portland and Vancouver—but it hasn’t come up in Berkeley until now.

Decades ago, when Berkeley’s zoning codes were written, people wanted cities to be urban. Ornamental landscapes demonstrated leisure and wealth, a lifestyle different from working on the land. Far from encouraging backyard farms, city planners dismissed them as relics of the past. It’s only recently that people began transitioning to backyard farms. (Or, as Hahn prefers to call them, “edible gardens”—“When you say ‘farm,’ people think of tractors and Porta-Potties,” she says.)

“The bottom line is that the code didn’t contemplate this,” says Hahn. “It anticipates piano lessons, college counseling, therapy.” In other words, quiet in-home businesses. This makes sense to her. “I don’t want, say, a car repair shop in the yard,” she says. “But edibles grow as quietly as flowers.”

Hahn is not the first would-be backyard farmer to encounter this set of problems. In an era of E. coli outbreaks, high food prices, and a torrent of food industry exposés, the push for locally-produced food has taken off in cities nationwide. But in many cases it has run straight into a regulatory wall. Most zoning codes, like Berkeley’s, are written to maintain separation between commercial and residential areas, and almost none address food production. Add the challenges of potentially contaminated soil, limited water, and neighbors unhappy about the smell of compost, and any project more ambitious than a hobby garden can seem daunting. Still, the small scale of what Hahn is proposing makes it possible to resolve these issues. None of her neighbors has ever complained about the farm, she says, and if anyone did have problem, it would be easy for that person to come talk to her because they’re neighbors. (That said, Hahn notes that changing the code would make it harder for one disgruntled person to sabotage an otherwise popular project.)

Farmers across the country have found individual workarounds. In Flint, Michigan, a collaborative of urban gardeners is working with the city to rewrite outdated codes with an eye towards local food production. In Detroit, which has a large percentage of vacant land within city limits, high- and low-tech urban agriculture is one solution to the search for a new industry. Entrepreneurs and do-it-yourself homeowners are flocking to the city, and a number of proposals to rezone certain neighborhoods and authorize farm projects are currently before the city government. (The nonprofit Detroit Agriculture Network says 900 farms already exist within city limits; meanwhile, an entrepreneur and money manager named John Hantz is offering to put up $30 million to convert large plots of city land to a conventional farm.) In Buffalo, New York, a couple last year reached an agreement with the city to lease 27 acres of vacant land for farming, provided they sell the food locally, and with the understanding that the city may still develop the space in the future. And in Sacramento, the city government amended its codes in 2007 to allow front-yard vegetable gardens, which it had previously forbidden as unsightly.

With the possible exception of Detroit, these are piecemeal solutions to what many people believe is a much bigger problem. Cities might be able to produce enough food to feed their residents, but to do it they need to rethink the way they use space, and that includes changing zoning laws to allow for small-scale businesses like Hahn’s. Berkeley has written goals for local food production into its long-term Climate Action Plan, including commitments to “encourage… buildings to incorporate rooftop gardens that can be used for food production,” “encourage residents to grow food in home and community gardens,” and “support local efforts to provide training to residents in farming and gardening techniques.” Right now, though, they’re just goals.

For now, Hahn and Rosenthal are giving their produce away to neighbors, but as the farm heads into its first full season, they’re again looking at ways to change the law. Though the concerns someone might have about a farm—“yucky smells and loud noises,” says Rosenthal—seem not to apply to Hahn’s farm, both she and Rosenthal say that zoning changes must take neighbor’s comfort levels into account. Still, they say, those changes can be consistent with levels of nuisance and noise that people already take for granted. “People are allowed to have dogs, and dogs are noisy,” says Rosenthal. “Construction workers and landscape workers can start making noise at 7 am.”

“I think it will take time for people to change their way of thinking about this,” says Berkeley City Councilmember Jesse Arreguín, who has spoken with Hahn about drafting legislation that would change the city’s code to encourage small-scale farms like the one she proposes. “We’re trying to achieve more sustainability,” he says, “but it takes a while for our law to change to catch up.”

Why go to all this trouble in the first place? Hahn lives in a foodie Mecca, replete with farmers’ markets and local produce at every grocery store. But for Hahn, even local food isn’t local enough. For example, she points out, “local” food often comes from the Central Valley. “If I can grow it in my own backyard, why would I get it from Salinas?” she asks. She wants to do everything she can, she says, to reduce her “food-miles”—the distance food travels from farm to plate—to zero.

The idea of food that’s “more local than local” has a certain appeal for some, though they can’t always put their fingers on exactly what that appeal is. “When I get the veggies, they have just been picked,” says Austene Hall, who lives down the hill from Hahn and has been getting vegetables from her for a number of months. After a pause, she adds, “I really like having it right next door. Willow and I chat over the wall; I hear all about what they’re planting and why.”

Hall also likes that she can eat vegetables that may as well have been grown in her own backyard, without actually having to grow them. Though she’s vegetarian and describes herself as an avid gardener, she prefers flowers to food and has no interest in trying to meet her own vegetable needs. To Hahn, that’s the reason the model she’s proposing is so crucial. Growing food requires time, resources, and skills that most urban dwellers don’t have and aren’t willing to acquire. “If you want to reduce the total amount of food trucked and shipped, you need a model where a paid professional
is doing it,” she says.

Rosenthal agrees. “We don’t think everyone should sew their own clothes. Why should everyone grow their own food? It doesn’t make sense,” she says. “There’s a huge number of people interested in using their yards to produce food for their families, but because of life circumstances they will never put time into actually growing it. They are in an economic bracket where they want to hire someone to do that for them, just as they would hire a landscaper to maintain their nonedible landscape. If we ignore these people, we ignore a vast productive capacity within the community.”

Despite the challenges, says Rosenthal, people’s growing interest in the origins and sustainability of their food means that the time is right for cities to take on these issues. “People are starting to ask, `How do we want to use our collective resources?’” she says. “I have complete faith that these things will change.”