Community-Engaged Agriculture

Outside of cities, farmers can work their land without too many concerns about their neighbors. But in urban settings, neighbors are much closer at hand — urban farmers will likely feel significant pressures to be good members of the community. By actively engaging the communities in which they are farming, urban growers can help increase their chances of success. Engagement can help build a local market for their produce, and counteract perceptions that growers simply want to exploit cheap land, without a sincere commitment to community benefits. Engagement can also result in the realization that urban farming may not be the best use of land in certain spaces — whether because community members prefer another use, or because they are so desperate for any use that they are willing to endorse a project that is likely to fail.

A community-engaged urban agriculture must acknowledge and seek to break with the histories of exploitation and exclusion discussed above, while also incorporating pathways for neighborhood residents to have a voice in, and control over, key land-use decisions. It is important for a land tenure model to build in opportunities for neighborhood residents to partner with urban farmers (and ideally other types of developers) in making key land use decisions that impact the community.

Determining what exactly is a “key” decision will not always be simple. Sometimes neighborhoods will act in what are perceived to be counterproductive ways (NIMBY behaviors) which unfairly delegitimize investor interests. Giving anyone and everyone in a neighborhood a veto over every detail of an urban farming project would render most, if not all, urban farming projects infeasible. But creating a structure for community input in land tenure and land use planning can help ensure that urban farms are an additive element that create multiple benefits for a neighborhood, rather than simply serving as means for a grower to extract maximum profits.

Balancing farmland protection and neighborhood flexibility. Even as urban growers and their allies work zealously to secure and protect land for urban farming, they should remember that a land use that makes sense today may not make sense two or three decades from now. Urban farmland protections protect grower interests, but also have the potential to come into tension with the long-term needs of a neighborhood. As neighborhoods develop, undeveloped land will become more scarce, and ground-based agriculture may not make the most sense for the community. Although space prevents us from developing a detailed proposal, we note that a land tenure model could include provisions that foresee how urban farms could be moved from ground level to rooftops as a neighborhood develops. This approach could eliminate or minimize the conflict between long-term urban food production and the creation of dense, mixed-use housing and commercial development.