Planting seeds isn’t the first step to starting a city farm.
They take root in front and side yards, back lots and corner lots, public parks, and public schools. Urban farms and community gardens seem to be just about everywhere, in cities both here and abroad. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, about 700 million city dwellers—one-quarter of the world’s urban population—are fed by urban farms. And with urbanization and climate change leading many to think we need an overhaul of our food system, these farms and gardens appear less as places to grow some tomatoes than as a panacea. As such, many American cities have amended municipal laws to allow for the cultivation of abandoned lots into farms, and more urban rooftops are now used to grow food.
With all the excitement around the emerging movement, city governments and food activists could easily get swept up in pushing projects through as quickly as they can clear the land. But in a new report from Johns Hopkins University, public health researchers urge leaders and activists to not forget the surrounding neighborhood in the planning and implementation process.
“People who are involved in local food system development think [urban agriculture] is a great idea, but what about people who live in a low-income neighborhood? Is that what you expected out of city life—living across from a farm?” asks Melissa Poulsen, a Lerner Fellow at Johns Hopkins’ Center for a Livable Future and coauthor of the report, Integrating Urban Farms Into the Social Landscape of Cities.
The study looks at a number of urban agriculture projects, both complete and in process, in downtown Baltimore. Poulsen, who had previously worked with the city to help develop its urban agriculture policy, had watched a few communities raise opposition to proposed farms and gardens.
“I thought, ‘Why would people be opposed to an urban farm?’ ” she says.
The answer to that question is by no means simple, as Paulsen and coauthor Marie Spiker found. The reasons communities supported community gardening projects weren’t even obvious, according to the study. Access to nutritious food was not the primary reason neighbors got behind Baltimore’s new urban farms; rather, it was the opportunity to clean up abandoned lots where trash accumulated and drug deals went down. That was just one sign Paulsen and Spiker found that urban ag project planners should get to know the individual community in which they want to work and tailor their messaging accordingly.
“We thought it was worth looking into to help figure out how to make sure urban farms are successful on all fronts—including how to achieve community buy-in,” says Poulsen. She and Spiker set out to find out why community buy-in is so crucial to project approval, which characteristics of urban farming projects affect a community’s attitude toward it, what strategies or processes farmers and others are using to gain neighborhood support, and what barriers exist to creating urban farming projects that are integrated in the communities they hope to serve.
They found that when attempting to gain entry to a neighborhood to start an agricultural project, one must tread lightly, respecting local culture and customs and not making presumptions about the community members. Poulsen says a great first step for outsiders coming in is to identify the civic and cultural leadership—whether that means a neighborhood council president or a city council member—and present the urban farming idea.
From there, she says, the circle is broadened to include other neighbors—“the people who are going to look at it every day”—in the planning process, explaining the potential benefits for the neighborhood.
The project site must remain open to the community, she adds, and the farmer or activist committed to creating a welcoming environment for neighbors. Otherwise race, she says, can play a factor in neighbors’ perceptions about outsiders coming in to fix what they, not the residents, deem to be the neighborhood’s problem: food access versus urban blight.
The majority of farmers studied in the report were white, and the majority of neighborhoods predominantly black. “For some of the black residents, they thought, ‘This isn’t for us. This isn’t ours,’ ” Poulsen says. “If you don’t see people like yourself on an urban farm, you might think you don’t belong there. Having a diverse population involved early on is really important.”
The full summary of recommendations for those wishing to start an urban farm can be found in the Johns Hopkins report.