Perhaps you have heard that the city is revamping our zoning code. This is great news in general for our city. We have been working off a zoning code that was extremely old and very out of touch with our 21st century city. So its about time we create a smarter, fair, responsible and sustainable zoning code, right? Well for all you developers, home owners and businesses out there this is true, but for us urban farmers its a little scary!
You see, for well over a hundred years, urban farming in Philadelphia has been a community oriented, grassroots and DIY (do-it-yourself) kinda movement. It is for this reason that it has been so successful, but is also why so many community gardens and urban farms have been removed or developed, especially over the last 15 years. In the 1970-80s, community gardening in Philadelphia was a widespread and infectious movement. After the crash of Philadelphia’s manufacturing industry, over 100,000 lost their jobs and the city took a major downfall. People took it upon themselves to grow their own food, to take a stand for their lives and it really showed through in the community gardens that existed into the mid 1990s. In a study by UPenn’s Planning and Urban Studies Program, Dominic Vitiello and Michael Nairn found that between 1996 and 2008, food producing community and squatter gardens in the city declined from 501 to 226. That is a devastating reality for community gardening in Philadelphia.
Throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, much of the food production in Philadelphia was funded and run by community members. There were several programs through city agencies like the Redevelopment Authority and Public Property, as well as major assistance from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and Penn State Extension, but the city took a very hands-off approach.
Now, as we all know, Philadelphia is making a come back! (At least I like to tell myself that) Yeah sure the recession hit, property values went down and jobs were lost, but still there are so many amazing new things happening in Philadelphia. There is still an unbelievable amount of vacant land and Urban Agriculture is being viewed as a valuable and important asset to this city.
This is why we are talking about zoning. Its become such a big thing that they are actually putting Urban Agriculture into the Zoning Code! Most of the talk these days has been about the new zoning designations for “Market/Community Supported Farms”, “Community Gardens”, “Greenhouse/Nurseries” and finally and possibly most exciting “Animal Husbandry”. The current draft of the code isn’t really helping us urban farmers. They have made it “not permitted” in many important zones, including 3 Residential zone designations, 2 Commercial designations, 2 Industrial and 2 Special Purpose. The thing is that urban Agriculture should be a permitted use in all areas of the city. Where there is vacant land, it should be reclaimed and used for positive impact purposes, even if as a temporary use(although I’m not a supporter of temporary use talk for urban ag). Also, they seem to be a bit confused as to what the differences are for Market/CSA Farms and Community Gardens, by requiring parking spaces for Farms, and not allowing farmer’s markets in areas where Community Gardens and Farms exist. They are also requiring we build specific fences, which are entirely too much money, and urban ag is a struggling movement already, not to mention the fact that fences keep people away, we want to attract people and welcome them! So the whole Zoning Code revamp, is awesome since we are even getting into it and they are making needed changes, but we MUST have a voice so that it ultimately benefits us rather than hinders us.
There is one thing we got going for us, we are now more organized, educated and ready to stand for what the city deserves: a socially just and secure food system. Philadelphia’s Urban Farmers and Gardeners, Food Justice Advocates and Social Activists created a Google Groups listserv about 4 years ago called PUFN – Philadelphia Urban Farmers Network. At first it was a way for us to share information and spread the word about projects. Now it has become a wonderful place to do all of that plus, find cool jobs and most importantly build support and organize. We have begun meeting on a regular basis to talk about the movement and how to work together, grow and advocate for our projects and the movement in general. Recently, the zoning code has been the Hot Topic and we have done a great job sending letters and commenting on the new Code, in hopes that they will listen and make the changes which are needed. You can find PUFN on Google Groups if you would like to become a member.
The code still has many more steps to go through. Its not set in stone yet and of course won’t be for a while considering the speed anything is done by the city … just sayin.
If you want to learn more about Zoning and the new Zoning Code visit: http://www.zoningmatters.org/