Tenderloin People's Garden, San Francisco, California, credit to Sergio Ruiz
Policy Analysis | November 2015

States Assisting the Formation of Community Gardens and Farms in Abandoned Urban Areas and Working to Eradicate Food Deserts

Sujit CanagaRetna

Presently, it appears that most of the action related to the promotion of community gardens and farms in abandoned urban areas has occurred at the local or municipal level. However, there is legislation in California, The Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones Act (Assembly Bill 551), introduced by Assembly Member Phil Ting and signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in September 2013, that emerged at the state level. This piece of legislation, that drew bipartisan support in both the California Assembly and Senate, went into effect on January 1, 2014. The bill aims to accomplish two things: (1) increase the use of privately owned, vacant land for urban agriculture and (2) improve land security for urban agriculture projects. The legislation does this by allowing city governments in California, with approval from their county board of supervisors, to designate areas within their boundaries as "urban agriculture incentive zones." In these areas, landowners who sign a contract to commit their land to agricultural use for at least five years will receive a reduction in their property taxes. Specifically, their parcel's property tax assessment will be based on the agricultural value of the land rather than the market-rate value of the land. California's legislation generated interest across the country, particularly at the local level. (More can be learned about the state effort here and the actual legislation here.)

As a result of this legislation, a number of California local governments have initiated measures to promote these urban agricultural zones. (Further information about these efforts can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.) The cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco are prominently featured in these initiatives at the municipal level in California.

There has also been action at the state level in Maryland. Specifically, a bill introduced in the Maryland Senate, SB 541, in April 2015 authorized the mayor and city council of the city of Baltimore to grant personal property tax credits to supermarkets built in a specified food desert. This was signed into law by the governor. (More information about this legislation is available here). Given the push at the local level, the city of Baltimore also initiated additional measures (Read about these efforts here). Additional information related to efforts in Baltimore is highlighted in publications provided by the Community Law Center in Maryland, the state's only legal services organization dedicated solely to strengthening neighborhoods and the nonprofit sector. In this connection, the Center has created a new resource for those engaged in urban agriculture in Baltimore.

Beyond these state initiatives, the focus of policymakers to assist the formation of community gardens and farms in abandoned urban areas and promote steps to eradicate food deserts has largely been at the local level. Details from 10 cities that are leading the way with innovative urban agriculture ordinances that provide a blueprint for a new economic future grounded in sustainable food production in urban centers can be found at this link. The cities represented are Detroit; Austin; Boston; Portland, Oregon; Cleveland; Chicago; Seattle; Baltimore; Milwaukee; and Minneapolis. In each of the descriptions of the activities in these cities, there is a hyperlink that provides additional details on the specific city's program. Along those lines, another article that examines the efforts of local policymakers to rejuvenate parts of their cities through urban agricultural projects can be found here. Brooklyn, New York, is another city that is pursuing innovative urban agricultural strategies. (Learn more about this effort here). In December 2013, Boston passed Article 89, a city-wide zoning article that allows for commercial urban agriculture in the city. (Here are details on these initiatives).

At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development very closely tracks trends associated with vacant and abandoned properties, particularly in urban areas, given the range of adverse consequences that related to these types of vacant and abandoned properties. A report entitled Vacant and Abandoned Properties: Turning Liabilities Into Assets provides valuable insights on these federal government efforts.

Finally, there are several non-profit organizations that have been active on this topic. One such organization is the Rid-All Green Partnership that converted an empty and neglected portion of land in Cleveland's Kinsman Neighborhood into an urban farm that grows produce to bring healthy, local food to area institutions and citizens while also training others to do the same.

Photo credit to Sergio Ruiz.