In December 2017, the NYC City Council passed Intro 1661-A. It was sponsored by council member Rafael Espinal, at the request of Eric L. Adams, the Brooklyn Borough President, and the bill passed overwhelmingly with a 47-0 vote. According to Espinal, this bill will bring a new excitement to New Yorkers who are looking to go green and healthy with the expansion of the urban agriculture sector. The intro summary states that…
This bill would require the City to develop an urban agriculture website to promote the expansion of urban agriculture in the City. The website would be required to be active by July 1, 2018. The Department of City Planning, the Department of Small Business Services, and the Department of Parks and Recreation would be required to prepare content for the website. Agencies responsible for the construction and maintenance of the website would be required to issue a review of the website’s efficacy to the City Council by January 1, 2019.
The bill is available in its entirety here, and I will be dissecting it later in this post…
Over the past several years, The Design Trust for Public Space (DTfPS), through their Five Borough Farm Project has cultivated fertile ground for the growth of both community gardening and urban agriculture in the City. They have worked with academia, design professionals, community gardeners, and urban farmers to come up with a comprehinsive snapshot of the state of community gardening and urban agriculture in NYC. They have outlined some solid recommendations and I appreciate the advocacy. I’d like to lay all of it out, but in the interest of time, I’ll embed these links and encourage you to do some digging on your own.
From what I understand DTfPS actually did helped draft some of the original languages in this Intro #1661. But between the Bill’s introduction and its passage, it was gutted by City Council. In response, DTfPS created an online change.org petition so that the stakeholders they gathered during their multi-year advocacy project could raise our collective voices and help legislators, who don’t have an in-depth understanding of this topic, come up with a real urban ag plan. The petition called for the restoration of the bill before it was enacted. This included incorporation of their policy recommendations and three steps to ensure accountability:
The first phase of the Five Borough Farm project resulted in policy recommendations, including for the creation of an urban agriculture plan, that would:
- establish goals, objectives, and a citywide land use scheme for garden and farm development
- integrate urban agriculture into existing plans, programs, and policy-making processes in city government
- address disparities in access to funding, information, and other resources by creating more transparent and participatory processes to enable gardeners and farmers to influence policy and decision-making.
Our recommendations, released in 2012, align with the original legislation proposal Intro #1661 that Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Council Member Rafael Espinal have introduced for developing an urban agriculture plan. However, systems of accountability are essential to maximizing the benefits of the Plan for all New Yorkers.
The Plan must apply not only to commercial urban agriculture, but also to community gardens, school gardens, permaculture gardens, vertical farms, and all other forms of gardening and farming practice.
We urge the New York City Council to incorporate the following three means to ensure accountability in the generation and execution of the Plan:
- a citywide task force—composed of City agencies, support organizations, and gardeners and farmers representing a variety of types—for reviewing the development and implementation of the Plan. This task force would build off of the Urban Agriculture Task Force with NYC Parks established through Five Borough Farm, and the roundtable convened by Brooklyn Borough President Adams in Spring 2016.
- open forums at many points in the Plan’s development process, including input-gathering in each borough at spring gardening and farming events, such as GrowTogether and Making Brooklyn Bloom.
- communication within the City and with gardening and farming support organization and advocate networks, including GreenThumb, NYCHA’s Garden and Greening Program, 596 Acres, and the New York City Community Garden Coalition.
I want to believe that Espinal and Adams are acting in good faith, but any politician patting themselves on the back for finally recognizing the urban agriculture movement in our City, is either clueless of our plight or has forgotten who they are supposed to be representing. I doubt it is the former, since we show up on the steps of City Hall on a fairly regular basis to air our grievances and demand justice.
It is shame that the bill was gutted after all the hard work went into it. But I must be honest, I’m kinda glad it did. I say this because if it passed in its original form, I probably wouldn’t have gotten so pissed off, which means I would not have given it a second thought or come to this deep analysis, or written this lengthy post about this issue. Because it was gutted, we actually have a chance to look more closely at the suggestions within the original bill and demand better.
This is the full text for Intro 1661-A (the revised and version that passed in December 2017). I’ll bold & underline some things I want to tease out.
A Local Law in relation to requiring the department of city planning, department of small business services, and the department of parks and recreation to develop urban agriculture website
Be it enacted by the Council as follows:
Section 1. Urban agriculture website. An urban agriculture website shall be developed on nyc.gov or any successor website maintained by or on behalf of the city of New York and shall include such information as is set forth in subdivisions a and b of this section. a. Commercial urban agriculture uses. The department of city planning and the department of small business services, in cooperation with other relevant agencies and stakeholders, including but not limited to food policy educators and representatives from urban farming businesses, shall prepare content for such urban agriculture website. Such content shall include, but not be limited to, the following:
(i) zoning regulations for agricultural uses, including but not limited to, farms, greenhouses, nurseries and truck gardens;
(ii) assistance available from the department of city planning in obtaining information about specific properties;
(iii) a link to ZoLa (Zoning and Land Use Application) or its successor resource; and
(iv) other existing business resources relevant to urban agricultural businesses available from city agencies.
b. Community urban agriculture uses. The department of parks and recreation, in cooperation with other relevant agencies and stakeholders as needed, including but not limited to, food policy educators and representatives from community gardens, shall prepare content for such urban agriculture website. Such content shall include, but not be limited to, the following:
(i) a list of existing urban agricultural spaces, and those city-owned spaces, which are available and potentially suitable for community urban agricultural use, including community gardens and urban farms. When compiling or revising such list, the department of parks and recreation shall consult with other relevant agencies, including the department of housing preservation and development and the department of citywide administrative services;
(ii) information on how such spaces can be established and supported; and
(iii) information on how produce grown on-site at community urban agriculture sites can be distributed within communities.
c. For purposes of the uses specified in subdivision a of this section, “commercial urban agriculture” shall be as determined by the department of city planning and the department of small business services. For purposes of the uses specified in subdivision b of this section, “community urban agriculture” shall be as determined by the department of parks and recreation.
d. The website specified in subdivisions a and b of this section shall be active no later than July 1, 2018. Relevant agencies responsible for the construction and maintenance of the website shall issue a review of the website’s efficacy to the city council due no later than January 1, 2019.
§2. This local law takes effect immediately.
Over the next few sections, I’m going to unpack my issue with the bold & underlined passages in this gutted piece of legislature
The Problem with the DCP and Zoning Ordinances
In researching this blog post I found the New York State Assembly’s proposed Bill A7181 which has been sitting in committee since the 2011-2012 Legislative Session and would “Require municipalities which sell, transfer or lease community garden real property to use proceeds therefrom for community garden purposes” Since this bill was not met with overwhelming support upon introduction, some community gardeners have proposed a new zoning designation for community gardens and others advocate for mapping gardens as Parkland. To be honest, I’m not for either of these options, here’s a story about why.
I used to live in Central Florida where I worked as a landscape architect. Much of my work was reading zoning ordinances and creating tree preservation plans and code minimum landscape plans for developers. As I learned about these issues, I became aware of how restrictive land development code can be and I began to involve myself with professional groups advocating for walkable, mixed-use communities designed for people, not cars. (This is a HUGE issue for peri-urban and suburban areas. If you are a New Yorker, you may have never pondered these issues as it basically doesn’t affect you, but design around cars, not peopel is one of the biggest problems with ourcontemporary infrastructure, IMHO.)
One of the major impediments to this type of land use and (sub)urban design is zoning laws (I will address the other, more insidious, stumbling block of finance later in this post). Through the separation of space necessitated by the heavy industrial past of the American landscape, zoning had been piecemealed together in a way that did not allow for a sensible use of space in our post-industrial cities. Half of the battle was undoing zoning regulations and ordinances that were no longer relevant for the land use needs of contemporary cities and towns.
I hope to compile the info about other urban agriculture plans and ordinances already on the books in other major US cities (including Boston, Chicago, and Atlanta). So far, I have only encountered new zoning ordinances which create a better business climate for commercial urban ag while creating a more restrictive space, legally speaking, for community farms and gardens. In only one example have I seen how changing existing zoning ordinances can be beneficial for community farms and gardens.
When I mentioned my intention to write about this NYC urban ag. bill on social media a while back, I asked for thoughts from others. A friend and land use expert/advocate commented with this sage advice, “Be careful about putting the Dept. of City Planning (DCP) in charge of making decisions about gardens and ag. DCP’s main tool is zoning and currently, the NYC zoning code says nothing about where gardens and nonprofit farms are permitted – which means they are permitted everywhere hurray! but if DCP creates a zoning, there will be places where they are prohibited…”
It is clear to me that an urban agriculture zoning ordinance is NOT necessary for NYC. At least not for community farms and gardens. There are some scenarios where I have seen zoning prohibit specific types of urban agriculture (not necessarily community gardens). But many of these were addressed in April 2012 when New York City approved Zone Green. This is a zoning text amendment that strives toward a variety of goals including saving energy and money, managing stormwater, and growing fresh, local food. The amendment allows and even encourages building efficiency improvements including improving rooftop features that were previously disallowed due to building floor to area (FAR) ratios, height restrictions, and footprint limitations. The Green Zone amendment allows greater flexibility for green features on rooftops, including stormwater green roofs, and encourage educational and food production-oriented rooftop greenhouses. The full Zone Green text amendment can be viewed here.
Housing Preservation and Development Hijinks
The Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) are implicated multiple times in this bill as a primary city agency in charge of developing the urban agriculture web site. It is worth pointing out that HPD has been used as a tool for destruction of community gardens at least twice by two different NYC Mayors and is currently actively obfuscating information about the quantity, location and quality of publicly owned land in HPDs real estate logs.
In 1994, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani directed HPD to identify “abandoned lots” (community gardens) that should be sold at auction to help the City pay its “bills”. One hundred and fifteen gardens fell under this order and a watershed moment in NYC’s community garden movement transpired. Many of these gardens were “saved” by two non-profit organizations the Trust for Public Land (TfPL) and the New York Restoration Project (NYRP). I will take a moment here to quote this illuminating study by Efrat Eizenberg, who points out that these two NGOs,
…confront the marketization of public space in New York City through privatizing the land of community gardens. The TfPL promotes a model that emphasizes community ownership, while the NYRP promotes a model that emphasizes the preservation of land ….Through the lens of community participation, sense of ownership and control over space, [the study] argues that both models transform the meaning of public space in ways that undermine its opportunity to develop as an autonomous community space.
To elaborate on this briefly. We are losing our societal autonomy and every step of the way, we are tricked into thinking it is a win. More on that in a future blog post…
Again, in 2015 HPD was weaponized by a mayor to issue injury to the community gardening movement. This ploy was crafted by the Bloomberg administration and created a false dilemma pitting affordable housing against community gardens. HPD issued an RFQ for developers to build rental and ownership housing within the limits set by the program and in exchange get the land for free. Eighteen of the sites selected where active community gardens while over 750 sites in HPD’s inventory were not even included in the list.
Intro 1661-A specifically calls for a “list of existing urban agricultural spaces, and those city-owned spaces, which are available and potentially suitable for community urban agricultural use” and names HPD as a key agency in the implementation of the bill, and thus the creation of this list. Over the same time period this urban ag bill was being written and amended in City Council, HPD was being dragged over the coals in City Hall as “the latest iteration of the decades-old debate over the quantity, quality, and status of New York’s city-owned vacant lots has been raging” with HPD outright denying FOIL requests and offering only undecipherable chunks of raw data describing its real estate holdings to the general public.
HPD opposed Intro. 1039, the bill that would require the department to “conduct annual surveys of all city-owned properties to identify vacant buildings or lots that may be suitable for affordable housing.” While the bill was enacted on January 8, 2018, I do not trust the Department of Housing Preservation and Development any farther than I could throw it, especially when it concerns matters of community gardens… and niether should any of you!
State Controlled Information about Starting a Community Garden
1661-A mandated that “information on how such spaces [gardens] can be established and supported” be included on NYC’s new Urban Ag web site. As the state defines the means and access points of starting gardens and farms, it potentially lays the legal groundwork for tougher prosecution of anything outside the predefined legal pathways for establishing a garden. Furthermore, info on how to start a garden in NYC is already accessible via the 596 Acres and Greenthumb websites as well as this hand Wiki-How. So what exactly is this NYC portal accomplishing here and at what cost?
Community Control of Resources
The NYC urban ag portal will also dispense “information on how produce grown on-site at community urban agriculture sites can be distributed within communities.” What we choose to do with the food we grow is not something the government gets to tell us. When people organize to produce something using seeds, soil, water and sun, our representative government does not get to legislate or otherwise determine how that produce is distributed, prepared, or consumed.
That should be all I’d have to say about that, but there is more…
For many communities, growing their own food is a direct response (or direct action) to counter the structural inequities built into policy decisions such as the National Farm Bill and other rules and regulations that actively oppress certain people through food apartheid (some of you may mistakenly call this Food Deserts), Million Dollar Blocks, the 13th Amendment and a myriad of other racist, classist and sexist policies. I hope to unpack this financial inequity piece more in a future post, but before moving on, I’ll repeat myself, the state does not, ever, get to legislate how food grown out of a direct action created in resistance to the state, is used, distributed or consumed. If and when the state attempts legislation around a direct action where no laws governed previously, the new laws should be openly and vocally disavowed. By proxy of this bill, any use, distrobution or consumption of food by a community that is not specifically deined on the official NYC protal, would be illegal and subject to persectution, fines or general harassment by governmental officials, see the legal raw milk debate for one scenerio.
The Failure of Definitions
I’m basically unopposed to allowing the Department of City Planning and the Department of Small Business Services to define what “commercial urban agriculture” is. Commercial activities need to be restricted and definitions are a form of restriction. But I have absolutely no faith in the Department of Parks and Recreation successfully defining “community urban agriculture”.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the Parks Department and think very highly of the people who work there, but when it comes to defining something as broad and amorphous a community urban agriculture, no person or agency will ever do it justice. Therefore, by defining something that has, up until this point remained undefined, one can only restrict the understanding of the term.
This is similar to the argument above concerning zoning law. Anything currently outside of legal definitions can only be confined and restricted by applying a definition. Don’t even get me started on “green infrastructure” and how it is narrowly defined by the EPA as stormwater management [angry face emoji] with exploding head]…
Parkland Mapping Bugaboo
Some community gardeners advocate for protecting community gardens in NYC by adding them to the property logs of the Department of Parks and Recreation. While I see this as a solid way forward for preserving these spaces, my contention lies with the ability of the community to program the spaces according to its own need, will, and desire. (See my earlier reference to Efrat Eizenberg’s study outlining how both community ownership and preservation both “transform the meaning of public space in ways that undermine its opportunity to develop as an autonomous community space.”)
I will offer the example of the A.R.R.O.W. Field House in Astoria, Queens. I enjoyed using this space not long after moving to NYC in 2010. I took capoeira classes there and met some nice locals who shared the history of their neighborhood, which led me to fall in love with this corner of the City.
I have friends who fondly recall the ARROW Community Center before it was a Parks Department property. They would host all sorts of events and did not have to submit to the laborious task of getting things approved on time by the bureaucrats at the Parks Department. One example was the popular, seasonal clothing swaps. The Parks officials have said no to hosting these important community building, consumption reducing events after they took control of the space. Another example was the Astoria CSA, which used to host its CSA share distrobutions at ARROW. Once the Parks Department took over this became an incompatible use. While there may be valid reasons for discontinuing these services, the fact is that the community, despite petitioning and lobbying local politicos, had little to no say in these things. It makes sense that it is now officially called A.R.R.O.W. Field House, no longer a “Community Center”.
I am the co-founder and now president of Smiling Hogshead Ranch. We have had extensive talks about the pros and cons of attempting to get our property listed as a Parks owned listing (highly unlikely since the land is owned by the MTA). We have come to the conclusion that we really enjoy running the show democratically as a community.
There are plenty of examples of happy community groups who have seen their locations taken over successfully by the Parks Department. My position here is not to deligitimize them. My intention is simply to reveal the other side of that coin and to acknowledge that transfer of land to Parks Dept is not a one size fits all solution. There is also the nagging problem that (as far as I can tell), edible plant species, much less community garden plots, are not endorsed in NYC Parks.
So much more to say…
I wanted to be upfront about all this, but food injustice is not the only issue at play here. There are many broader issues and conditions that necessitated the community gardening movement in NYC. If you are (still) not familiar with why I define community gardening and urban agriculture as two separate, but not mutually exclusive things, or why this is a bigger than just food issues (encompassing housing, public use of public space, commodification of land and community efforts, environmental, ecological and racial justice issues) watch this 4:30 video now for a basic primer.
I have a lot more to say on these topics as they relate the legislation how urban agriculture happens in NYC. I’ve made an editorial decision to save most of these for future blog post(s). There are just a few more things that I will mention before signing off.
I don’t think I could respectfully write this weries of blog post without mentioning Karen Washington. She is a hero in many ways to this movement and personally. I have found this quote from an article by a Detriot urban farmer examining his potential role in gentrification (a topic I frequently contemplate for myself).
In the article, Ms. Washington makes a distinction between the gentrification of community gardens and the “shift away from community gardens toward scaled-up, more food-focused, often for-profit urban farming.” She says, “You have this new yuppie group coming in that is gung ho about urban agriculture … but the movement wasn’t about urban agriculture, it was about survival, taking back our communities,” she says. “Now you have people coming into gardens that have established histories, that were built on the backs of people who made it safe for you to come in, and you’re gonna talk about urban agriculture? You cannot leave out … the history and the legacy of the elders who were there long before so you can do whatever you wanna do.”
Often I tell people the origin story of Smiling Hogshead Ranch as a guerrilla garden and how, when the MTA agent discovered us and we first spoke on the phone, I could not have made any headway if he had not already heard of urban agriculture and thought it was a really cool idea. My garden persists because of the original community gardeners (like Karen Washington, Hattie Carthan, and Liz Christy) who literally cleared the political field for a new wave of community gardeners to grow out of. Because of this, it is my duty to try to understand and respect my predecessors.
The City Council cannot legislate a movement. Intro 1661-A will never effectively thwart a communities need for survival, for reclaiming their community. There is a myriad of other things that need to be changed on so many levels, from the political/legislative, economic and social levels. You cannot end food apartheid by creating a website. I’ve made a long-winded argument here that throwing legislation at the problem will actually do more harm than good.
There is no getting ahead of the curve on this, but as the City Council demonstrated, it is ready to make moves towards legislating farms and gardens in the city. I write this as a call for more dialogue, more research and more investigation into the nuances within these complex issues so that New York City ends up with a truly transformative plan (and I don’t necessarily mean a map or zoning codes) for food sovereignty.