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Jul. 26, 2011

Benefits of Community Gardens

By Mia Lehrer, FASLA, president, Mia Lehrer + Associates

The benefits created by community gardens to develop a sustainable environment has been recognized by the California Tax Credit Allocation Committee (CTCAC), which allocates LIHTCs to the state’s affordable housing developers. Community gardening is one of 10 green elements selected by CTCAC as part of its 2011 list of sustainable items that developers can use to comply with the hotly contested tax credits.

Since most of the affordable housing development in California and throughout the United States is multifamily, CTCAC’s inclusion of community gardens could be a catalyst for other states to take a closer look at the benefits of community gardens as part of multi-housing developments, both affordable and market-rate. It is an old idea that is seeing new life here in California and throughout the country.

With its growth in popularity, city and state officials, policy makers and urban planners are taking a more serious look at community gardening—also referred to as urban agriculture—as a key component of urban design. Urban agriculture has evolved, and continues to evolve, as a way by which cities can beautify once-abandoned or deteriorating areas and/or buildings, at the same time improving the quality of produce consumed by their residents and consequently, the health of the residents themselves. Gardens also have the ability to improve sustainability by acting as an air filter absorbing and reprocessing carbon (carbon sequestration), which in turn reduces global warming.

From the White House to the house on the corner, an increasing number of Americans nationwide are growing vegetable gardens and even raising small animals such as chickens in an effort to save money on groceries and to make certain they know the source of their food. In response, city, county and state officials are seeking ways to promote and regulate urban agriculture without hindering its growth. More than 41 million households in the United States grew a vegetable garden in 2009, meaning that 38 percent of the population tended and harvested their own fresh food.

Indeed, the popularity of community gardens, and especially gardens in an urban setting, is on the rise. With the growing momentum of sustainability, developers are now, more than ever, challenged to consider how short- and long-term health is impacted by their projects and the larger physical and social environments. The places we create to live, work and play have an impact on our health and wellbeing. What healthy methodologies available today can be learned and advanced through the practice of urban planning and design? How can more systematic planning and land-use responses be formulated so multifamily developers can incorporate urban agriculture into their communities? Why does it matter?

Urban gardening covers a broad spectrum of agriculture-related uses and forms, from produce growing on a wall to larger, commercial operations such as the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, Calif. Some of the benefits of urban agriculture include:

■ Improvement of the quality of the urban environment through greening and a reduction in pollution and the heat island effect;

■ Alternative economic development options such as the redevelopment of vacant urban land areas that can be cultivated for agriculture production;

■ Reduction of energy use through local production of food and thus savings in transportation costs, storage, energy, etc;

■ Closure of the open loop system in urban areas, characterized by the importation of food from rural zones and the exportation of waste to regions outside the city or town;

■ Incorporation of wastewater and organic solid waste that can be transformed into resources for growing agriculture products;

■ Building equitable responses to food by providing local food sourcing for lower-income populations of communities, to improve access to fresh foods;

■ Invigoration of the community by incorporating local community-based ideas and engagement.

With a goal toward accommodating the growth of good food, landscape architects, builders, developers and community members are looking at the creative use of public walks and spaces as ways to integrate fruit trees and vegetables into urban planning. The goal is to use less space to grow more food. Local artists in Los Angeles have created and developed a fruit tree-mapping project, describing the locations of fruit trees in public spaces as a way to encourage public foraging and appreciation.

Los Angeles is a place of gardening innovation that is being advanced by an initiative called the Urban Farming Food Chain Project, which constructs edible food-producing wall panels and mounts them on buildings. These vertical gardens are specially made to optimize use of smaller spaces such as courtyard areas or pocket parks.

The City of Los Angeles Housing Authority has also developed a master plan for the redevelopment of a large public housing community in South Los Angeles called Jordan Downs, in the neighborhood of Watts. In conceiving the mix of uses within the proposed 2,400-unit urban neighborhood, planning consultants have proposed such ideas as the inclusion of economic development opportunities with a local community garden plot and the creation of integrated roof gardens and courtyards with fruit trees and fresh vegetables.

About a year ago, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (now California’s lieutenant governor) issued an Executive Directive to create a Food Policy Council to establish comprehensive food policy actions. The directive asked the city’s redevelopment agency to create a food business action plan with identified strategies such as enterprise zones, permit expediting and tax incentives, and funding to support urban agriculture to increase production.

Although taking root in California, urban agriculture is a national movement. To better accommodate urban farming, Miami officials, as part of the Miami Urban Agriculture Initiative, are overhauling the city’s zoning ordinance to include new laws regulating community gardens, roof top gardens, greenhouses and backyard gardens.

The Seattle City Council is taking a broad view of urban agriculture. With parking strips sprouting raised beds, productive gardens replacing lawns, and even a “dating” service called Urban Garden Share that matches up landless gardeners with those residents willing to share their lawns and land, Seattle is an urban agriculture pioneer. Seattle leaders also formed a Regional Food Policy Council with the goal of strengthening local food production and the reliability of local food sources.

In Milwaukee, another community farming champion has implemented an urban farm model called a Community Farm Center. Will Allen, a MacArthur fellow, and his organization, Growing Power, uses a historic two-acre plot in the middle of a mostly residential community for its urban agriculture operations. Allen’s unique perspective challenges conventional thinking, and the organization provides training so that everyone can be a farmer with a little land and a little money.

Chicago has more than 40 established community gardens spread throughout the city’s park system. One of the newer community gardens has been designed and implemented in a nontraditional space on the rooftop of the Gary Comer Youth Center. Over a four-year period, the rooftop garden was transformed into a one-third-acre rooftop farm that produces up to 1,000 pounds of produce.

Digging deeper into urban agriculture, food sheds, the regional ecology of the food production and distribution cycles need to be better understood so planners, designers, builders and developers can play a more critical role in advancing urban agriculture models that make sense. A regional approach to providing fresh food to communities is a basic land use. Developers and builders especially must increase their understanding of the use of sustainable options for each of their developments, including community gardens, and also seek out regional partners to address broader community health and wellness needs.

Mia Lehrer, FASLA, is the president of Mia Lehrer + Associates, a full-service, international landscape architecture practice in Los Angeles. To help farmers bring their produce to the marketplace, Mia Lehrer + Associates created a concept called Farm on Wheels, a program that brings locally grown produce to the people of LA county via a network of farm trucks.

To comment on this story, email Diana Mosher at dmosher@multi-housingnews.com.

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