Down by Law: Compiling Los Angeles’ Urban Ag Regulations

UCLA’s new ‘Cultivate L.A.’ report offers an exhaustive look at the existing landscape of Southland agriculture.

Urban Agriculture: The First Comprehensive Assessment of L.A.

Many residents of Compton's Richland Farms neighborhood keep livestock such as goats. (Photo: KCET/Flickr)

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

It was difficult not to laugh at the man’s blind fury. Eyes bleary from lack of sleep, short of rational thinking, he stood at the front desk of an L.A. Animal Services office in South Los Angeles, begging the receptionist to do something about the rooster that lived down the block.

Problem was, the rooster—the lone male in the flock who lived in a coop located far enough from the fowl-hating man’s house to comply with city regulations—was perfectly legal. There was nothing that Animal Services could do.

Such is the nature of urban ag in the Southland. The quirks of agriculture regulations in Los Angeles—city and county—are myriad, a fact exemplified by the roosters that can be heard crowing at dawn in densely populated neighborhoods, the effort to push an urban farm out of a residential area in Silver Lake, and the debate over who can grow what on the strip of city-owned land between the sidewalk and the curb. To the casual observer, what is and isn’t legal is never exactly clear or logical—and this in a county that was once the most productive agricultural region in the country; a country where the urban agriculture movement is currently booming.

Determining the legality of chickens—and bees and goats and aquaculture and deciphering land-use policy and other red tape that might hinder urban agriculture projects in Los Angeles­—just got a whole lot easier, however, thanks to a new report and interactive website created by urban planning students at UCLA.

Billed as the “first comprehensive look” at ag operations in Los Angeles, “Cultivate L.A.: An Assessment of Urban Agriculture in L.A. County” (PDF) and the accompanying website, cultivatelosangeles.org, offers an exhaustive accounting of not only the laws that govern farming in the Southland, but also the where and the what of places that are already up and running—all 1,261 school gardens, community gardens, nurseries and other commercial primary growing sites scattered throughout the county.

For Rachel Surls, sustainable food systems advisor for the UC Cooperative Extension, the report fills a void she’s become familiar with after more than 20 years of working on urban ag issues in Southern California. “Los Angeles County has numerous cities and each city has different municipal codes,” she said in a telephone interview today. “And it’s really difficult if you want to do any form of urban agriculture to even know where to start—to figure out what’s legal in your city.”

Surls had just started her new advisor roll at the Extension when Carol Goldstein and Stephanie Pincetl, both professors at UCLA, came to her with the idea for the survey. Part of the work she planned on doing in the new position was to develop educational programs around urban agriculture. “It seemed like there was a need and it seemed like there was a lot out there in Los Angeles County,” she said, “But I didn’t know how much. And it was hard without knowing how much was out there—what kind of urban ag, how much—it was hard to create and develop programs.”

Goldstein and Pincetl were looking for a “client” that could make use of the research their students would conduct—someone “who can then take this information and make use of it in some way,” as Surls puts it. They were offering to undertake, for free, a research effort that could propel not only her own work, but also that of the larger community; she jumped on board. 

“What I’m planning to use it for is to help develop programs for urban agriculture in L.A. County,” Surls says, somewhat vaguely, about “Cultivate L.A.” “Because now we can say OK, there is a lot of this out here and I can clearly see what the needs and what some of the issues are. This gives me a great platform to build on, to assess needs, and to develop things that are going to be really helpful for people.”

But the value extends far beyond the work of the Cooperative Extension too, according to Surls:

“What this report really does is it lays the groundwork for all of the organizations in Los Angeles that are interested in this issue and want to work on urban agriculture. Because now they’ll have a foundation. It provides all kind of information that they can use. It provides statistics that they can put in grant applications, for example. It will help ramp up the urban agriculture movement in Los Angeles.”

Indeed, the exhaustive report appears to cover it all. Curious about goat regulations, for example? (Because why wouldn’t you be!?) Here’s the lowdown: “Fifty-three cities permit goats, 11 prohibit them, and 24 cities do not regulate goats. Goats are regulated within 42 zoning codes and 35 municipal codes.” Beverly Hills, where TakePart’s offices are located, “does not specifically permit any of the 15 agricultural activities that researchers searched for in the municipal and zoning codes. The City prohibits bees and fowl and does not make mention of any of the other 13 agricultural activities.” But the city of Gardena wins the dubious title of the strictest municipality—ironically so, as the report notes. Gardena, “prohibits more agricultural activities than those of any other city, outlawing seven areas of urban agriculture.” 

If this all seems confusing and somewhat scattershot, that’s because it is. Compiling the various regulations in one place makes understanding the nature of urban ag far easier, but it by no means eliminates the barriers to developing the sector in greater Los Angeles. “One commonality between cities is that their regulations are unclear and incomplete,” reads the report’s conclusion. “No city in the County has developed a clear, comprehensive policy on urban agriculture, which is reflected by its municipal and zoning codes.”

In a press release issued by UCLA, that sentiment in stated in even starker terms: “Definitions for agricultural activities in municipal codes vary widely across the county, making it difficult—if not impossible—for urban farmers to operate in compliance with local health and zoning regulations.”

Surls began her career as a school garden coordinator back in 1988, and her decades-long view on the progression and current state of urban agriculture in Los Angeles helps to put that somewhat frustrating conclusion in context. While she does say that regulation hasn’t caught up with the increased cultural awareness of urban agriculture, the kind of work she does is only getting easier.

“Just in general, the level of interest, the level of respect, and the level of enthusiasm has changed completely.”

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