In the neighborhood of the also-abandoned St. Cyril Church, the tract—if not redeveloped—could someday add significantly to the acreage devoted to urban agriculture. Photo by James Griffioen.
It’s a warm day in April, and Skip Wiener is showing off the crown jewel of gardens that the Urban Tree Connection has created out of 29 vacant lots in the poverty-ridden Haddington neighborhood on Philadelphia’s west side.
The site, tucked away in the center of a block of 60 homes, once was used by a construction firm for storage. When Wiener, the founder and director of the UTC, was first alerted about the property by a local block captain, it was overgrown, riddled with industrial waste, and a haven for drug dealers and prostitutes.
It was just what the UTC was looking for. The nonprofit organization supports renewal efforts in low-income communities by turning abandoned open spaces into various types of gardens, including some devoted to growing fruits and vegetables.
The site is now called the Neighborhood Food Central Production Farm. Any remaining debris has been pushed to the side; wood chips have been sprinkled over the driveway; and, in the center, neat rows of vegetables are growing, marked by cheerful hand-painted signs announcing such crops as potatoes, bok choy, collards and cabbages.
The “farm” is special, partly because of its comparatively large size—two-thirds of an acre—but also because it’s the only property over which the UTC enjoys actual legal possession. On the others, says Wiener, the organization’s founder and executive director, “we’re basically squatting.”
The UTC’s farm typifies a growing but still uncertain movement to bring agriculture back to America’s cities.
The Georgia Street Community Collective exists not only to supply the community with fresh fruits and vegetables, but to provide education and leadership skills to area youth. It also supports a community center/library.
The Georgia Street Community Collective exists not only to supply the community with fresh fruits and vegetables, but to provide education and leadership skills to area youth. It also supports a community center/library. Photo by James Griffioen.
Across the nation, thousands of urban gardens and farms are sprouting on empty lots, on parkland and in schoolyards. Food is being grown on rooftops, on traffic strips, even in containers hung on the sunny sides of buildings. And it’s not just produce. Pigs, goats, bees and chickens also are becoming city residents in growing numbers.
Municipalities are embracing agriculture not only as a means to combat a host of urban woes—hunger, air pollution and the proliferation of derelict, crime-ridden abandoned properties, to name a few—but as a cornerstone to efforts to make themselves healthier and more sustainable.
For the most part, however, local land-use regulations are lagging behind the fast-growing urban agriculture phenomenon. “Most cities don’t have zoning categories that recognize agriculture activities,” says Domenic Vitiello, who teaches urban planning at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Cities across the country are scrambling to update ordinances to regulate—and often facilitate—a variety of agricultural activities, including community gardens, commercial farms, backyard chicken coops and beehives. Meanwhile, many urban food growers and agricultural businesses operate under a cloud of extralegality, waiting for the law to catch up.
An important question, though, is whether all these legal changes will matter in the long run. It’s still uncertain whether agriculture will become a permanent feature of the landscape in U.S. cities or whether it is a short-term response to setbacks caused by the Great Recession and other economic factors.
This is not the first time U.S. cities have made agriculture part of their landscapes. It happened during other major economic downturns, and both of the 20th century’s world wars. Some 20 million victory gardens were planted during World War II, producing an estimated 40 percent of the nation’s fruits and vegetables.
But after each crisis passed, agriculture largely returned to its rural homeland. When World War II ended, the victory gardens disappeared as the plots they took up were put to more traditional urban uses.
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