Alethea Harper: Help chart a course for the future of urban agriculture in Oakland

13 May

This guest post was written by Alethea Harper, the Coordinator of the Oakland Food Policy Council (OFPC), an organization housed at Food First. Alethea holds a Master’s degree in Landscape Architecture from the University of California, Berkeley where she focused on food systems and urban agriculture through her award-winning thesis and a research trip to Latin America.

The Oakland Food Policy Council has identified support for and expansion of urban agriculture (UA) through local policy and coordination as one of our top goals.

Broadly, UA encompasses the cultivation of fruits, vegetables, plants, flowers or herbs, and/or raising animals and livestock in cities. Oakland is already home to a thriving community of urban farmers and gardeners who contribute to our city’s culture, health, environment, and economic vitality.

However, our planning process identified a number of areas where Oakland residents could benefit from clearer, updated, and streamlined local policies related to urban agriculture – especially in our zoning code.

The widely publicized case of Ghost Town Farm, which was recently cited for lack of compliance with Oakland’s current zoning codes, highlights the need for an open dialogue about what sort of regulatory framework for UA activities we want to have here in Oakland. We would like to use this opportunity to generate public discussion about policy barriers and opportunities related to UA and to continue to urge the City to expedite the revision of existing zoning that in some cases hinders UA in Oakland. Most important, we are interested in promoting a positive and productive dialogue where our policymakers, city staff, and residents can work together to chart a course for the future of UA.

We have put together a “Statement on Urban Agriculture,” and we invite you to read it and add your signature!

You can find the full text of the Statement below. Follow this link to sign on.

Please help circulate this to your networks – the time is ripe to craft regulations that protect and expand UA, while ensuring that it will consistently be practiced in ways that are compatible with surrounding uses. The OFPC has already compiled suggested zoning code language (including a matrix of zones and UA activities) which we have shared with the City of Oakland Planning & Zoning Department, and we encourage you to contact your City Councilmember to encourage them to support these important policy changes.

Click here to add your signature!

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Statement on Urban Agriculture
April 2011

The Oakland Food Policy Council has identified support for and expansion of urban agriculture (UA) through local policy and coordination as one of our top goals.

Broadly, UA encompasses the cultivation of fruits, vegetables, plants, flowers or herbs, and/or raising animals and livestock in cities. Oakland is already home to a thriving community of urban farmers and gardeners who contribute to our city’s culture, health, environment, and economic vitality.

However, our planning process identified a number of areas where Oakland residents could benefit from clearer, updated, and streamlined local policies related to urban agriculture – especially in our zoning code. The widely publicized case of Ghost Town Farm, which was recently cited for lack of compliance with Oakland’s current zoning codes, highlights the need for an open dialogue about what sort of regulatory framework for UA activities we want to have here in Oakland. We would like to use this opportunity to generate public discussion about policy barriers and opportunities related to UA and to continue to urge the City to expedite the revision of existing zoning that in some cases hinders UA in Oakland. Most important, we are interested in promoting a positive and productive dialogue where our policymakers, city staff, and residents can work together to chart a course for the future of UA.

We have identified two priority areas where we recommend policy changes:

1. Update zoning for UA to include a broader and more diverse range of food growing practices.  Under the most recent citywide zoning update that is about to take effect, “Crop and Animal Raising Agricultural Activities” are allowed in all residential and commercial zoning districts with a Conditional Use Permit (CUP). The OFPC is working with the Planning Department to draft new UA definitions and amend the UA sections of the Zoning code in order to both clarify and streamline how different types of UA activities are regulated. Instead of one blanket policy that applies to all kinds of UA regardless of scale or intensity of activities, we are proposing definitions (and appropriate operating standards) for three types of UA that will help determine where UA can be practiced in Oakland:

- Residential UA is any form of plant and animal raising activity on a private residential property by an individual or family with the primary purpose of household consumption (regarding sales of Residential UA surplus, see the next point below). We propose that residential gardens be allowed as-of-right (with no additional permits or fees required) in all residential zones.

- Civic UA must be organized and operated by a Community Group, which may include local civic associations, public agencies, non-profit agencies, gardening clubs, homeowners associations, or even a group formed for the purpose of establishing a garden. We propose that civic gardens be allowed in all residential zones, and in most commercial zones (it may be appropriate for some commercial areas, such as our downtown, to require a CUP).

- Commercial UA use is distinguished from Civic UA by the intensity of site cultivation, the size of the site cultivated, and the primary purpose of the site’s use, which is growing vegetables, plants, flowers or for sale (including for-profit and non-profit enterprises). We propose that commercial UA be permitted in Commercial and Industrial Zones, and in residential zones with a CUP.

We welcome comments from the public regarding these definitions and zoning regulations.

2. Update zoning for sales of raw agricultural products to allow for small-scale entrepreneurial activities. Currently, selling raw, unprocessed agricultural products such as produce is regulated by a number of different laws, including Oakland’s zoning code (briefly, where selling can take place) and by city business permitting and licensing (who is allowed to sell). Generally, commercial activity (like selling produce grown onsite) is not allowed under current code in residential zones.

The OFPC supports modifying our code to allow some sales of raw agricultural products in residential zones. Prohibiting produce sales in residential zones may limit both the healthy food access benefits of urban agriculture and the small-scale entrepreneurial opportunities that it provides to residents. A number of cities, such as San Francisco, CA, Seattle, WA, Cleveland, OH, and Kansas City, MO have recently relaxed prohibitions on sales in residential areas and allowed gardeners to offer their bounty for-sale with appropriate operating standards in place.  Additionally, we recommend that any CUP process take into account size and scale of the UA operation (considering such issues as gross sales), and offer a tiered cost structure.

In addition to the priority policy recommendations above, there are several other areas where updated policies could benefit Oakland’s urban farmers and gardeners, including raising animals and livestock. For example, Seattle’s new urban agriculture zoning increased the number of chickens permitted per household and added other allowed animals, including potbelly pigs. The OFPC also strongly supports the integration of animals into urban food production systems because they provide products that can improve the diets of Oakland’s residents (e.g. fresh milk, honey, eggs, and meat). Some urban farmers collect wool and goat hair for cottage industries. Finally, manure is an important fertilizer source for sustainable, ecological food production that is not reliant on petroleum-based chemical fertilizers.

The time is ripe to craft regulations that protect and expand UA, while ensuring that it will consistently be practiced in ways that are compatible with surrounding uses. The OFPC has already compiled suggested zoning code language (including a matrix of zones and UA activities) which we have shared with the City of Oakland Planning & Zoning Department, and we encourage you to contact your City Councilmember to encourage them to support these important policy changes.

The OFPC is prepared to help facilitate this dialogue in any way needed. We, along with all those who have signed this letter, believe that the recommendations outlined above will make for a healthier, more vibrant Oakland.

Click here to add your signature.

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6 Responses to “Alethea Harper: Help chart a course for the future of urban agriculture in Oakland”

  1. Tim Anderson May 13, 2011 at 9:23 am #

    The benefits of urban gardening are many and uncontroversial. Raising and killing animals in our condensed urban environment, however, is not good for the people of Oakland, the planet, and certainly not good for the animals.

    What about issues of public health and nuisance? What training would be required for people to raise and kill animals? What about the well-being of these backyard animals prior to their death? How does adding an entirely new set of animals to monitor impact an already overburdened Oakland Animal Services?

    The time may be “ripe to craft regulations that protect and expand urban agriculture” but without answers to these very important questions these changes might just be dead on the vine.

  2. Samantha May 13, 2011 at 11:19 am #

    Excellent points Tim. I just discovered the petition on change.org as well (http://www.change.org/petitions/prevent-the-proliferation-of-backyard-livestock-and-animal-slaughter-in-oakland). I fully support “expansion of urban agriculture (UA) through local policy and coordination”, however I do not support the component that includes raising animals to be killed for food.

    • Anthony Sanchez May 16, 2011 at 12:23 pm #

      I’m so glad to see this going forward in Oakland. In fact, we’re watching this closely as we concurrently work to enable and encourage urban argiculture as a green measure that also ensures food security.

      Though uncontroversial to most people, it’s unfortunate I’ve heard some rather strange comments regarding this issue from a conversation I had a while back. The person suggested that she supported urban agriculture as long as it didn’t conflict with building tall dense buildings.

      Its ironic because the justification of such development is sustainable communities. However, the more people living here, the more food that is shipped in, so I don’t see how the two conflict and in fact can easily compliment each other. (Although I would argue that urban arigriculture is arugably more tangibly green).

      • Becks May 16, 2011 at 12:52 pm #

        You can just come out and say that this was a conversation I had with you – I’m not hiding from it.

        I think you might have misunderstood what I said. I’ve always been a huge supporter of urban agriculture. I’ve had a small garden for years and hope to start raising chickens sometime in the next few years. I think what Novella Carpenter and others are doing is wonderful.

        My concern is that we need to consider urban planning as a whole when planning for large scale, commercial urban agriculture. Urban agriculture can bring benefits to the environment and the community, but not if it is at the detriment of building housing and employment centers. If we use too much of limited urban land for agriculture, we could induce sprawl and ironically lead to development in rural, agricultural areas. I don’t think this will necessarily happen, but we need to consider this factor when planning for urban agriculture, to make sure it’s located in places that make sense.

        For more on this subject, I highly recommend this post and this post from Kaid Benfield’s Natural Resources Defense Council blog. Actually, I recommend basically everything Kaid writes – his blog is one of my favorites, but these two posts do a great job exploring this issue.

        • Anthony Sanchez May 17, 2011 at 9:52 am #

          Agreed

  3. emily wood May 16, 2011 at 2:01 pm #

    Of course urban produce is great! I have worked on urban and local farms and really support community gardens in Oakland. Urban livestock however, adds nothing to our community. It is economically unviable unless the animals are denied veterinary care (since there are no options for local livestock vets) and/or are fed poorly. Therefore, costs that should be the urban farmer’s are offset to city services like animal control and the public health department (when untreated animals carrying parasites like tapeworm are consumed, or when rats infest neighborhoods). Also, selling or even giving away meat that hasn’t been inspected by the USDA and been processed via a certified slaughterhouse is illegal. So these products could only be consumed by the people who raised/slaughtered the animals, adding nothing to the wider community. But costing the wider community. I believe that’s the definition of selfishness.

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