You don’t have to turn over too many garden gnomes to see that there is a growing urban agriculture movement scattering its seeds across the nation. From Detroit to Oakland to New York City to Seattle and every place in between, individuals and organizations are thriving through the joys of food production and the abundance that it provides. And while planting a garden where your lawn used to be, tending a community garden plot, or growing starts in a rooftop greenhouse seem like individualistic acts, they are part and parcel of the current chapter on our nation’s broader history of gardening.
Wendell Berry wrote that “eating is an agricultural act,” and it seems now that growing food in urban public and privately owned spaces has become a political act. In many cities, elected officials and government agencies are working on policy efforts to ease restrictions and, in some cases, even encourage people to grow food in underutilized spaces.
News of cities changing zoning and land use policies to support urban agriculture is growing – I’ve seen evidence from Kansas City, Detroit, Vancouver, BC and numerous other locales all taking this leap. But given that it’s my hometown, I am most closely watching Seattle, where as we often do, we put our own process and spin on things. With 2010 declared as the ‘Year of Urban Agriculture’ by the City Council and Mayor, there is no shortage of news and events promoting local food policy. On July 21st, the Seattle City Council will hold a public comment hearing on code changes that the city is proposing to ease current barriers to growing and selling food in the city. The code changes may be the most progressive yet of any U.S. city, aiming to make it possible for people to grow and sell food from their own property and easing zoning restrictions to allow rooftop gardens and greenhouses. City residents and proponents are expected to come out by the dozens to give their two-minute pitch in favor of these changes. And while the bulk of the changes are favorable for community members, they are not without controversy. There is some division amongst "urban agro-cates” around city chickens in particular – some people have affection for roosters and, well, some do not.
These proposed code changes result from the Council’s passage of the 2008 Local Food Action Initiative that aimed to set a broad policy agenda for improving Seattle’s food systems. The hearing and the proposed code changes also provide a great venue for community organizations to come together and speak with a united yet diverse voice of local food system advocates.
With the proposed changes in place, Seattle will provide promise as a place where growing food could lead to green jobs related to added-value food processing and retail, self-reliance as we become less oil-dependent for transportation of food and people, and a growing sense of community that is built one lawn patch, garden, and roof at a time.