The Occupy Movement is alive and well in the Bay Area. Since April 20 (Earth Day), Occupy Oakland, Occupy Cal, and Occupy SF have had a new neighbor – Occupy the Farm.
These students, professors, neighbors, and activists-turned farmers have set up a small and growing working farm. These 14 acres of University-owned agricultural land sit in the middle of the quiet suburban City of Albany. The UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources uses the land for research, but intends to redevelop the property in 2013. The current proposal includes a Whole Foods and market-rate senior housing.
Occupy the Farm’s occupation is intended to bring attention to the depletion of this last piece of East Bay urban agricultural land, repurposing it “for sustainable agriculture to meet local needs.”
As an Oakland resident and UC student, I’ve been a very tiny part of Occupy since its creation last September. But as a planner of land use, I have concerns about this occupation that I don’t see being discussed.
The image above shows the contested Gill Tract, surrounded by a library, elementary school, high school, parks, and public ball fields. People live nearby in apartment buildings, duplexes, and smallish single-family homes. This mixture of mode choices, housing types, and land uses represents a decent case study in “good” suburban growth.
By my rough estimate with Google Maps, the houses across San Pablo from the Gill Tract are each on about 0.1-acre lots. The apartments to the left are much more dense, but let’s say conservatively that about 140 households could fit on the 14 acre Gill Tract (14 acres / 0.1 units per acre).
If these 140 homes weren’t built in Albany, where would they go?
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This is part of the City of Elk Grove, about 20 miles east of Sacramento, shown at the same scale. This community sits near the Sacramento River, which irrigates the fertile Central Valley. These homes sit on about 2-3 acres each, and are surrounded by prime agricultural farmland on all sides.
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Imagine living out here. Sidewalks and transit are impossible. You have to buy, maintain, and fuel a car to survive. You only live around other people that can afford this. What if you get old? Seniors that are no longer safe drivers become dependent on others. Many seniors don’t have people to depend on, and a quick Google search can turn up hundreds of reports on the connection between senior isolation, depression, and mortality. This is economic and cultural segregation.
Let’s talk about what’s appropriate for this land.
Because each of these Elk Grove homes sits on about 2.5 acres, it would take at least 350 acres of this prime Central Valley farmland to replace the potential housing lost on the Gill Tract.
14 acres in Albany or 350 acres in Elk Grove?
I don’t want to dismiss the merits of connecting city-dwellers with their food systems, exposing the privatization of the UC system, or the Occupy movement in general.
But if this were in nearby West Oakland, or some other food desert, would people be so quick to protest a grocery store from opening? Even if the grocery store in question is a pricey Whole Foods? Is driving to a cheap grocery store better than walking to an expensive one? And what about the seniors that could live in those apartments – is it better to force them out of the walkable suburbs and consume greater quantities of more active farmland?
Are new retail and housing opportunities on these 14 acres a bad outcome?
Urban food systems have become a fashionable topic of planning discussion, and deservedly so. But has “city” planning developed a myopia around where our food comes from today?
What can a fiercely leaderless group like Occupy do to protect the prime farmlands under continuous development pressure in rural and exurban communities? And what obligation do we, as professional planners, have to help them?
Photo of flag by Bill Adams