San Francisco Passes Progressive Urban Agriculture Policy | Civil Eats

San Francisco Passes Progressive Urban Agriculture Policy

This week, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed one of the most progressive pieces of legislation for urban agriculture in the nation. The new legislation has amended the zoning code to allow agricultural activities in all parts of the city, as well as defining the parameters by which urban agriculturists can sell their products. It doesn’t address the touchier subjects of animal husbandry or marijuana cultivation, but has created opportunities for and the legitimacy of urban fruit and vegetable cultivation.

The legislation was the result of a rare combined and cooperative effort between city officials and urban agriculture practitioners and advocates. This was accomplished mainly through the work of the San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance (SFUAA), an organization of which I am a member, which formed nearly a year ago to coalesce the various efforts and projects focusing on local food and agriculture into a cohesive political voice. The coalition is made up of over 300 individual and 40 organizational members, and its formation turned out to be very well timed.

The work of re-writing the zoning code came up early in SFUAA meetings, but became more pressing when one of our members, Little City Gardens, came up against the code in attempting to expand to a new, larger plot of land. Told that converting the empty lot into a garden would cost $3,000 in conditional use permit fees, LCG opted to petition not for a personal exemption, but for a rewriting of the code.

With support from key individuals in the department, as well as in the mayor’s office, the planning department immediately went to work on crafting a new code. In that process, they consulted a zoning working group of the SFUAA, which proposed certain zoning priorities and tried to limit potential negative impacts of new zoning legislation.

For the most part, our advocacy campaign worked. For example, the original drafts contained provisions (supposedly at the express behest of former mayor Gavin Newsom) that gardens be required to have fencing, and further, fencing that is qualified as “ornamental.” Seeing as ornamental specifies made of wood or wrought-iron, this would have meant any new garden project would have had hundreds, if not thousands, of extra dollars of start-up costs. The SFUAA pushed for the the fencing requirement to be removed for new gardens, and for gardens to be given more choices. Which means that, not only will less-expensive fencing be a possibility, but we have encouraged new spaces to use their fencing to grow something (kiwi? grapes? passionfruit?).

Sadly, another of the SFUAA’s proposed amendments was not adopted. We recommended that the “change of use” fees paid to the planning department for new gardens be waived. We argued that if the city truly intends to support the flourishing of many new food-producing sites, it would behoove them to remove potential barriers to entry. In the context of an economic recession where all governments are having a hard time making ends meet, it was argued that agencies cannot make such blanket fee exceptions, even for something acknowledged as beneficial like urban agriculture. But comparing $3,000 to the $300 it will cost to get a permit with the new code, this is obviously an improvement.

One issue that the code brings up is the question of sales-focused versus community-oriented production. Many of the urban farming projects that currently exist in San Francisco (Alemany Farm, Free Farm, and Hayes Valley Farm being the three largest examples) are all focused on growing food and giving it away; none sell any produce. So how will this legislation help these projects? While a large portion of the legislation regards legalizing production for local markets, by virtue of setting up designations for urban agriculture the legislation legitimizes agriculture’s place in the urban landscape. Food that is grown for personal use is not regulated in the code; if someone has a backyard garden, this legislation won’t effect them. Should for-benefit (i.e. non-profit) farm projects seek to raise some of their operating funds through sales, including of value-added products, this will now be allowed. This could also open the door for social justice-minded urban farms to create truly green jobs without requiring so much grant funding.

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Impacts on neighborhoods were also taken into account by planners in writing the code. As a result, the regulatory parameters of the legislation are based on size (less than an acre is designated “neighborhood” vs “large-scale” for more than an acre) and not whether or not the food is grown for sale or not. Any new project (for profit or not) that occurs on a large site would be legally allowable, following the permitting process (including a vetting of water-wise irrigation practices by the Public Utilities Commission). This means that, once neighbors have been notified and a permit has been secured, no neighbor will be able to complain and get a project shut down. Before this code, non-residential gardens on private property had an unknowable legal status, and could theoretically be fought by neighbors.

All told, this legislation is proof that “the system,” as ossified and change-resistant as it may seem, can occasionally work, with the combined efforts of the right people in positions of power and aware, active community members. The SFUAA’s mission and work is ongoing and constantly being developed, and we welcome input and participation (see our website for details on our mission and other non-policy-related work). Our next steps will be up to our members to formulate. Having worked to allow fruit and vegetable production and sales in the city, what steps will we take to support our other members’ work? Will we agitate for “food sovereignty” like Sedgwick, Maine? Will we create pop-up resource centers for urban farmers to access compost, mulch, and plants? Will we petition the Recreation and Parks Department to replace purely ornamental landscaping with productive alternatives? These are just some ideas, since we know that there’s plenty to do to craft the urban landscape we know to be necessary for a sustainable and equitable future.

Alliances have a long tradition within U.S. civil society, and urban agriculture alliances can be at the forefront of new movements towards food system sustainability. With the 2012 Farm Bill fast approaching, my personal hope is to see urban agriculture alliances serve as platforms for advocacy and organizing; getting urban folks working together to reorient some of the huge levers of subsidy which so distort our food system.

If you’re interested in starting an alliance in your area, or would like more information on our work, feel free to write us at, or to me at

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Photo: Little City Gardens, by Caitlyn Galloway

Antonio Roman-Alcalá is an educator, researcher, writer, and organizer based in Berkeley, California who has worked for just sustainable food systems for the past 15 years. Antonio co-founded San Francisco’s Alemany Farm, the San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance, and the California Food Policy Council, and his 2010 documentary film, In Search of Good Food, can be viewed free online. He holds a BA from UC Berkeley, and an MA from ISS in The Hague. Currently, Antonio maintains the blog, conducts activist-scholar research at ISS, and leads the North American Agroecology Organizing Project. He is also in search of new land to farm – a tough prospect in the urbanized and gentrified San Francisco Bay Area! Read more >

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  1. Hooray! I live a half block from Hayes Valley Farm and coincidentally wound up at the Small Business Commission meeting where this was discussed (which I was attending for another agenda item). I'm not a volunteer at the farm, but I love having it as a neighbor. It's been great for stitching our boutique-y little yuppie part of Hayes Valley into the wider fabric of the Western Addition. I love seeing adults and kids out there working in the soil, restoring a dull, dead space into a vital inspiration. This kind of change belongs in every neighborhood, in every city.
  2. Such types of policy are very useful for legislation and rules.
  3. The SF zoning ordinance is great, though calling it the "most the nation" is a bit hyperbolic. NYC allows urban agriculture and truck farms throughout the city, Seattle allows rooftop greenhouses to exceed height limits in the downtown core and more types of livestock than SF, and Baltimore has incorporated food into its sustainability plan. These cities and many others have made remarkable changes to support urban agriculture, pushing the envelope in many different directions.
    • pcrossfield
      Thanks for your comment, Nevin. We agree, and have altered the language slightly. Best, Paula
  4. Bailey
    Fantastic article! I have driven past the Free Farm and the Hayes Valley Farm numerous times and always wondered about them, but never knew anything until now. I love the idea of urban farming and kudos to all those involved in getting local legislation on board and on your side! I look forward to seeing how this will change the city and our citizens!
  5. Good to know about your such a nice information i really enjoyed and i have one advice for you would like to hire someone and improve your blog.
    Thank you for post..
  6. It's great to hear about these policies and the alliances that can be built to work on the 2012 farm bill. I too have been doing some work as a "perpetually critical insider," to the overall farm and food movement.

    These alliances will inevitably fail, however, if they misunderstand major issues and unknowingly advocate for corporate agribusiness and against justice and sustainability. That happened widely in work on the 2008 farm bill. The farm justice component of policy, which makes unique enormous contributions to sustainability, consumer justice and other vital sector needs, did not get heard.

    The quote above is an example of this failure where the movement unknowingly supports corporate agribusiness. It refers to "platforms for advocacy and organizing; getting urban folks working together to reorient some of the huge levers of subsidy which so distort our food system." I find it to be extremely rare for urban food activists to know that that leads to a pro-corporate agribusiness kind of advocacy. On face value, it sounds fine. What's wrong is 1. that it's false that farm commodity subsidies are the "huge levers ... which so distort our food system." My claims are easily confusing and easily misunderstood. Yes, there certainly are some other "huge levers," and yes they do "distort." They are not subsidies because subsidies, for reasons that are somewhat counter-intuitive, have little affect on market prices. We have had huge "distortions" in market prices. Economically they might not be called distortions. In free markets farm commodity prices do not self correct very well, so they've usually been too low (below fair trade levels and below costs). 3-4 times in the 20th century there were exceptions for a few years, when prices were much higher. Also, the problem was fixed by policy in the New Deal, especially after revisions. We then had price floors and supply reductions as needed to stop below cost pricing. We had fair trade, living weage prices 1942-1952 under the Steagall Amendment. To subsidize corporations off books with below fair trade farm commodities, Congress lowered price floor levels, starting in 1953. Price floors still worked, they were just set too low. Congress kept lowering and lowering price floors over the decades, with a rare adjustment for inflation in the 1970s, and a small administrative increase under Clinton. By the 1980s, they were so low that prices fell below the full costs of production, then they were lowered a lot more in the 1985 farm bill. Subsidies were added to compensate farmers starting in 1961 for corn, feedgrains and wheat, 64 for cotton, 77 for rice, 98 for soybeans, but they didn't cause the low prices. Meanwhile, the family farm movement and allies Farm Policy Reform Act, to raise price floors and eliminate subsidies again, was introduced and voted on, but lost in 1985. Today it's called NFFC's "Food from Family Farms Act". In 1996, price floors were ended (dropped to zero) and we had the lowest prices in history 1998-2005.

    Food and Water Watch is about the only major food organization that consistently supported any price floors and supply reduction tools. They also supported the other side of the needed policies, to protect consumers, and others from occasional price spikes: price ceilings and reserve supplies.

    All of these alliances must come on board and make sure they don't side with policies causing the "huge levers" agribusiness wants, where the US lost money on farm exports for decades (export dumping). Mere subsidy reforms allow this to happen. That's counter-intuitive for urban folks, but true. Click my name for some of the best documentation on these issues that's online.
  7. Where can we find these new policies?
    We are in the process of drafting changes here in Berkeley and would love to check out the specifics.
  8. Martin: you can find links to the legislation from the website, as well as (I believe) on the city's website. I would also get in contact with Eli[at] if you have specific questions; he's pretty knowledgable about teasing the details from an unwieldy document.

    I think Brad (above) makes some interesting points. Mainly that lack of price floors and ceilings (basically, more farmer-friendly federal policies) may be more crucial to creating the "bad/cheap food" system than subsidies themselves...worth looking into! Thanks for bringing them up, Brad!

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