The urban agriculture movement has grown vigorously across the nation. The concept of urban agriculture, which is integrated into the urban economic and ecological system, has taken unprecedented forms. The agricultural zeitgeist of today has gained popularity for many urbanites, however, the concept is anything but new. Its roots are born of the need and the inability to access decent and affordable food. As more and more people are concerned about the provenance of their food, urban agriculture provides a complementary and multifaceted approach to reduce urban poverty, food insecurity, and enhance urban environmental stewardship. This new version of urban agricultural or as I like to say, “Urban Agriculture 2.0” is all about space, and has morphed from the growing concerns of a worldwide culture conscious of global warming, food scarcity, health problems and a growing need to “reconnect” with nature.
According to Siemens’ Green City Index, San Francisco and New York City are leaders in developing sustainable cities. Even though it’s best to take any ranking with a grain of salt and avoid jumping to erroneous conclusions, it’s fair to say that NYC and SF are largely influential when it comes to urban agriculture and sustainability. If you visit the either coast you will discover gardens on rooftops, windowsills, fire escapes, sidewalks, and even gardens on buses. You may even wonder if you have stepped inside the gardening world of Dr. Seuss. So, where does Los Angeles fall in this urban agricultural scheme? Should Los Angeles look to New York City and/or San Francisco for guidance?
According to the Siemens’ Green City Index, Los Angeles is not in the top five and when it comes to “green” land it ranks 21 out 27 and 24 out of 27 when it comes to transportation (That’s a no-brainer!). New York City ranks 1 out of 27 in land use (Of course density and size play a big factor). But before demoting Los Angeles and thinking it has disconnected from the urban agricultural movement all together, let’s look at a few examples and see what Angelinos have been up to lately.
When Los Angeles comes to mind most people think of balmy breezes, sunny beaches, Hollywood, and of course, the infamous traffic and lackluster transportation planning. Outsiders mock this quintessential postmodern metropolis as the City of Plagues. Los Angeles is more often equated with urban sprawl, smog, and traffic rather than being a model for urban agriculture and sustainable development. Yet, times are changing! LA home growers and locavores are making an effort to push their city on the urban agriculture track. This notion may astonish a few but Los Angeles is actually taking a good step forward in the direction of urban agriculture.
In 2009 the Los Angeles Department of Building & Safety ordered Tara Kolla, owner of Silver Lake Farms, to stop selling her flowers or pay a fine/serve six months in jail.
In 1946, a Los Angeles municipal code known as the Truck Gardening Ordinance was written to allow the growing of vegetables in a residential (R1) zone for sale off-site. This prohibited city dwellers in R1 zones to grow fruits, nuts, flowers or seedlings and sell them off-site – at local farmers’ markets for example. On July 8th, 2009, Council President Eric Garcetti introduced a motion to explore allowing the “cultivation of flowers, fruits, nuts or vegetables defined as the product of any tree, vine or plant, and that these products be allowed for use on-site or sale off-site.” 
The laws had not been touched since 1946. In 2010, Los Angeles made it legal to farm within the city limits and to sell homegrown produce through the Food and Flowers Freedom Act. The new law allows residents of Los Angeles to freely grow and sell/distribute all herbs, vegetables, fruit and flowers to their community, either on-site or off-site.
Locally grown food reduces energy needs and costs associated with long distance travel. In addition, the new law has the potential to be a catalyst for economic development and community revitalization. Neighborhoods will take pride in their gardens and market and grow their own food thereby providing jobs and new opportunities for entrepreneurs. It will also help neighborhoods strengthen community social cohesion. Angelinos have also been given more control over their own food system. This sense of empowerment especially pertains to those who take great pride in cooking with their own homegrown vegetables and fruits. Whether you are growing a tomato from your balcony in Morningside Heights or growing one in your backyard in South Los Angeles, a single tomato can change how people relate to food and the environment. Being sustainable is no less of a goal than raising awareness and promoting healthy, sustainable food straight from your garden.
Thanks to the Urban Farming™ Food Chain Edible Wall Project, gardening in Los Angeles has also taken on a new shape with vertical gardens. Vertical gardens were designed and developed in the Skid Row and downtown areas of LA. The vertical gardens grow from 24 to 30 feet long x 6 feet high. The same organization, Urban Farming, is currently working to replace the vertical garden at the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex (MCLC) High School. Urban Farming’s mission is to “[C]reate an abundance of food for people in need by planting, supporting and encouraging the establishment of gardens on unused land and space while increasing diversity, raising awareness for health and wellness, [and] inspiring and educating youth, adults and seniors to create an economically sustainable system to uplift communities around the globe.” Organizations like Urban Farming have transformed weedy, trash-ridden land into bountiful gardens that feed people’s bodies and souls. Urban Farming also offers yoga and gardening classes for both adults and children.
Guerilla gardening has also sprouted in numerous places within the City. Although many people have gotten away with planting gardens, and/or throwing seedbombs, on public land without the City’s permission, some people have been told to get rid of “their” garden or file for a ~ $400 permit. Ron Finley planted a garden on the parkway of his Crenshaw-area home. He was stopped and given a citation because under city law, parkways cannot be used for agricultural purposes unless residents obtain a permit. A supporter of Finley started a petition, which gained momentum and sparked the interests of many people. The Los Angeles City Council dismissed Finley’s hearing and let him keep the parkway garden.
Perhaps Finley’s actions, coupled with organizations like Urban Farming and businesses similar to Silver Lake Farms, will help Los Angeles take baby steps away from conventional urban planning methods and help LA build a viable synergy between nature and city. It’s important that urban planners and council members evaluate and assess not only the economic benefits but consider the costs and benefits to the community in terms of societal welfare and the environment.
A Model of Urban Agriculture
New York City is an inspiration in many ways when it comes urban agriculture and land use practices. Although size, density, and zoning regulations, etc., differ substantially, NYC is a good example of a city striving to incorporate urban agricultural practices into the general city plan. The report, “The Potential for Urban Agriculture in New York City,” explains New York City’s potential for urban agriculture (pretty explanatory!).
The study highlights 12 key findings as summarized below:
1.Urban agriculture can play a critical role as productive green urban infrastructure. Urban agriculture can serve as a critical environmental service to the city through stormwater runoff mitigation, soil remediation, and energy use reduction.
2.Urban agriculture can play an important role in community development. Urban agriculture can be a means of transforming underutilized or neglected space into a public resource, providing opportunities for social interaction, greater community cohesion and self-sufficiency, and engagement for young people in underserved neighborhoods.
3.There is a substantial amount of land potentially available for urban agriculture in NYC. UDL identified almost 5,000 acres of vacant land likely to be suitable for farming in the five boroughs of New York City, the equivalent of six times the area of Central Park. But this is only a portion of the potential agricultural sites.
4. Intensive growing methods adapted to urban spaces can result in yields per acre, which greatly exceed those of conventional production techniques. Employing high-yield or “biointensive” production techniques characteristic of urban agriculture can make the best use of available land.
5. While urban agriculture cannot supply the entire city with all of its food needs, in certain neighborhoods it can significantly contribute to food security. Areas with low access to healthy food retail, high prevalence of obesity and diabetes, low median income, and comparatively high availability of vacant and other available land are where urban agriculture could have the greatest impact on food security.
6. There is a need for cost/benefit analyses that reflect the full complexity of the city’s social and environmental challenges. In addition to environmental benefits, urban agriculture has the potential to generate revenue and provide long-term employment.
7. NYC’s rooftops are a vast, underused resource that could be transformed for food production. Density, public interest and support, access to capital, a robust transportation network, adequate infrastructure, proximity to institutions of higher education, and consumer demand make New York City an especially advantageous urban area on which to build urban agriculture.
8. Bureaucratic challenges are a major barrier to the expansion of urban farming. Land jurisdiction and management, as well as budget concerns, are major hurdles in establishing urban agriculture.
9. Existing infrastructure has the potential to support the expansion of urban agriculture. Churches, schools, and other institutions often have underused kitchen, refrigeration and food processing facilities. Tapping into these resources can assist in the expansion of agricultural activity in the city.
10. Urban farmers are establishing viable businesses by taking advantage of multiple revenue streams. In addition to selling food directly to the public, farmers have developed direct marketing relationships with restaurants and institutions, and can profit from the environmental services they are providing, such as tipping fees for collecting compostable waste.
11. Urban agriculture is part of a broader horticultural approach to urban greening that encompasses more than fruits and vegetables. The capacity of the city for agricultural production includes products like honey, poultry and fish. The production of non-food crops, such as flowers and raw materials, could also allow for the economic and environmental benefits of urban horticulture to be more widely distributed to sites that are not suitable for food production.
12. Urban agriculture functions as a catalyst for larger food system transformations. Urban farmers are developing vital connections between urban and rural communities. Urban farms in the city are creating links between low-income neighborhoods and rural farmers by instigating community-based farmers markets, providing a customer base for both the urban and rural farms simultaneously.
The 12 general key findings can all be applied—for the most part—to the City of Los Angeles or any city for that matter. Los Angeles may be behind in certain areas of urban agricultural development but the City has great potential. Los Angeles owns significant derelict land that can be leveraged to create investment opportunities in sustainable development projects. The land can also be dedicated for community gardens. However, before LA can meet the demands of its residents it has to modify the outmoded zoning codes and land use policies, not to mention strengthen its environmental governance.
In Los Angeles you may not find an eclectic array of flowers and herbs on top of buses or a compendium of infrastructure, inclusive of agricultural design and efficiency, but what you will find are steadfast LA urban dwellers advocating “Urban Agriculture 2.0.” You will find them pushing Los Angeles to answer the call and take immediate action in uniting the separate spheres of city and nature.
Photo #1 – Hayes Valley Community Garden (Photo by author)
Photo #2 – Vertical Garden by Tristan Ferne, Flickr CC