Zoning Code Innovation Enables Growth in Urban Farming

Photo by tcd123usa  

Urban farming increases access to fresh produce and strengthens the connection between people and the sources of their nourishment. But moving from the bucolic idea of an urban farm to the reality of putting seeds in the ground often leads to a frustrating detour through a tangle of red tape.

In Youngstown, Ohio, Global Green USA assisted the City to create a clear regulatory pathway for the burgeoning urban farming movement. The standards and procedures for Youngstown are representative of current thinking about enabling urbanism and agricultural practices to be mutually supportive, rather than mutually exclusive.

Over the past century, farming evolved into a predominantly rural activity, as the result of several fundamental shifts in the urban landscape. First was the transition from animal-driven to mechanically driven transportation. As cars replaced carriages, there was a corresponding decrease in the presence of animals and the associated organic waste. To manage the livestock waste stream many cities reserved land for farming. Paris was actually a net exporter of agricultural products through the 19th Century. As the number of animals in the city dropped, these parcels were no longer needed and the farms were replaced with apartments, offices, and factories.

A second trend was the introduction of Euclidian zoning in the 1920s as a way to ensure compatibility among various types of land use. The dust, smells, and noise associated with farming were considered to be incompatible with the clean and orderly character that was desired for residential and commercial areas. It quickly became common practice to restrict agricultural zones to the outskirts of cities, often with requirements of twenty or forty acre minimum parcel sizes.

The result was the relegation of farming in cities to backyard vegetable gardens. The victory garden movement during World War II demonstrated that these small plots of land could be highly productive when carefully attended. But the movement withered in the face of post-war prosperity, the convenience of super markets, and the low prices of large scale farming practices. Prohibitions on keeping poultry or small animals or livestock such as rabbits, pigs, goats, sheep, or cows also meant that the gardens could only meet a portion of dietary needs.

While zoning restrictions created a more orderly city, they also erect significant regulatory barriers for the new generation of urban sustainability advocates. The land available in many post-industrial cities, including Cleveland, Detroit, and Youngstown, makes urban farming an enticing option for revitalization. But doing anything more than large vegetable garden or community garden is often outside the limits of the regulatory landscape.

In Youngstown, Global Green was able to integrate standards for urban farming with the update to the City’s 40-year-old zoning code. The code innovations include:

  • creating new land use classes and definitions for urban agriculture and urban forestry;
  • allowing these uses to occur in nearly all zoning districts without a special permit;
  • providing a clearly defined protocol for soil evaluation; and
  • establishing standards for agriculture-related activities such as sheds, fences, farm stands, and compost piles.

New definitions and standards were also put in place to allow for urban forestry restoration projects within neighborhoods. Also proposed were standards to allow Youngstown urban farmers to keep poultry and small livestock, such as rabbits, pigs, goats, and sheep and to conduct small-scale animal dressing operations. The City Council is still becoming comfortable with the idea of farming in the city and thus limited their approval to poultry only. As farming successes increase, the standards for livestock can be revisited in the future.

With the new standards in place, both current and emerging urban farmers can better contribute to the growth of a sustainable Youngstown.