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Op−Ed | Urban agriculture nurtures community action in Philadelphia: Why we should care?

Published: Monday, January 28, 2013

Updated: Monday, January 28, 2013 01:01

Food system issues have been receiving a growing amount of attention on Tufts’ campus, with a new Food Systems and the Environment track projected to join the revised Environmental Studies program. Student groups such as Food for Thought and Tom Thumb’s Student Garden offer more recent additions to campus organizations.

Beyond the Hill, there was a recent victory in Philadelphia of a garden−and−farm zoning campaign demonstrating the importance of agriculture within cities.

Urban agriculture has been emerging in recent years as an important feature in cities across the United States, and many places have been working to support and legitimize it.

This September, Somerville became the first city in Massachusetts to pass an ordinance on urban agriculture, outlining rules for growing and cultivating vegetables, bees and chickens to help promote best practices (see “Somerville officials approve first urban agriculture ordinance,” Nov. 8).

Philadelphia stands as a national model and leader in urban agriculture, due to the growing number of gardens and farms it supports. It has ample opportunity for this field, with over 42,000 vacant lots standing as a reminder of departed industry and urban decay.

A new zoning code introduced in Philadelphia in August recognized urban agriculture as its own land−use type and, for the first time gave gardens and farms the opportunity to apply for an urban agriculture permit.

Just months after the city’s new zoning code went into practice, city council leader Brian O’Neill introduced a bill adding significant barriers for garden groups, along with restrictions for a number of other land−use types.

O’Neill’s bill would have restricted urban agriculture on commercial mixed−use areas—affecting about 20 percent of gardens in Philadelphia.

The bill was in effect since Dec. 12 by “pending ordinance,” having been passed by the Committee on Rules. It was scheduled for a full vote in city council this Thursday, Jan. 24.

Since the bill was first introduced, gardens and interested groups in Philadelphia organized under the “Campaign for Healthier Food and Greener Spaces: Make Your Voice Heard Against Bill 120917,” lead by Amy Laura Cahn at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia. A total of 29 organizations joined this campaign, as well as countless individuals who called council members and planned to turn up to the vote on Thursday.

Due to their efforts, O’Neill released a statement on Wednesday saying he would amend his bill to remove the restrictions on gardens and market farms. He postponed the vote on the remainder of the bill for at least another week.

O’Neill’s decision pays tribute to the many voices that spoke up in support of gardens and farms in the city, and I commend him for listening. Farms foster communal action by necessity, requiring a considerable amount of labor. In cities, they nurture civic action and democratic participation.

Gardens and farms matter to communities because, along with increasing access to healthy food and the environmental benefits, they build ties between people, and help make neighborhoods vital, productive and safe.

My own bias and experiences come from working at a nonprofit in West Philadelphia, Urban Tree Connection, that helps maintain a series of gardens and farms, as well as a sliding−scale Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), in a low−income neighborhood.

Nine of these gardens exist on formerly vacant land, and each represents a story. Several are on the sites of former crack houses, or chop shops, and were created upon neighbors’ requests. A large children’s garden and orchard stands next to a housing project, and a 3/4 acre farm occupies the inside of one city block on a formerly abandoned construction company site. The CSA produces over 8,000 pounds of food a year, and a Saturday market stand is overseen by a founders group of five neighbors.

This past summer, I coordinated a program for 25 Philadelphia high school teens to work at the gardens, markets and farm. On the final Saturday, the students worked with neighbors to throw a summer festival for community members and family. The party took place in the larger Memorial Garden—a garden created eleven years ago by the neighbors’ request, after seven children lost their lives to gun violence nearby during the previous year.

On this Saturday, people of all ages came out to celebrate the summer. Neighbors barbequed, the teens hosted a talent show and open−mic session, and a neighbor from across the street performed with his reggae band for the first time late into the night. Gardens create a powerful space.

Most of Urban Tree Connection’s gardens are on vacant lots they do not own, which is common of many gardens and farms in Philadelphia. I admire the attitude behind guerilla gardening, but the lack of land ownership can be seriously limiting. Even after decade−long use, many community gardens face the threat of a developer returning and kicking a group out, or building on the land.

The new zoning code in effect since August is not perfect—but it is a vast improvement over the convoluted and bulky one in use for the past 50 years. It is a step in the right direction for legitimizing and supporting urban agriculture in Philadelphia, setting a precedent for the rest of America. It represents four years of democratic deliberation, reflecting the voices of many community members and council members.

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