With nearly 80,000 people crammed into four square miles, the city of Somerville, Massachusetts, is easily the most densely populated in New England. But in spite of spatial constraints—or perhaps because of them—the Somerville community has prioritized supporting urban agriculture. With limited space and a hankering for homegrown food, residents are squeezing gardens and greenery into as many places as possible.
This emerging “food innovation space,” as Somerville Senior Planner for Landscape Design Luisa Oliveira calls it, encourages people to think outside the box. Inspired by tactical urbanism—a strategy that uses low-cost, DIY, or pop-up changes to improve cities and neighborhoods—Somerville residents are experimenting with new ways and places to grow and distribute fresh food.
“It has been really interesting to see the innovative ways people are trying to say, ‘We’re going to grow food in this city,’” explains Oliveira. “There’s a yard share program; there are eight chicken permits and six bee permits; a local chef is trying to create a local food and urban farming network. We’re employing tactical urbanism to create farms and encourage healthy eating.”
Did you resolve to grow food this year? With a little creativity, a splash of resourcefulness, and a dash of innovation, you can. Consider these five urban spaces as possible sites for your new garden.
Many cities have an abundance of underutilized or completely abandoned spaces. Zoning code permitting, residents can create gardens and urban farms to fill neglected lots with food. If need be, these gardens can be established temporarily and moved when future development occurs. In Somerville, for instance, community partners are developing temporary gardens in vacant parking lots. In contrast, California’s Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone Act promotes long-term use of vacant property for growing food. The cities of Sacramento and San Francisco have already passed local ordinances to allow land owners who use their property exclusively for growing food to take advantage of reduced property taxes.
Here’s South Street Farm, Somerville, MA before it was turned into a farm: Here it is after the change:
School gardens can provide nutrition and science education as well as opportunities for students to eat more fresh produce. Enabling community access to school gardens allows community members to participate in food production and consumption, too.
In Maui, Hawaii, the Department of Public Health commissioned the Community Work Day Program (CWD), a local environmental beautification project, to establish gardens at schools. Despite the superintendent’s initial concerns about liability and maintenance, the CWD successfully set up school gardens across the island. Now, several school gardens are open to community members, and parents often sell school-grown produce at fundraising events.
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Private property, such as land owned by community or faith-based organizations, can be an optimal site for a garden, farm or farm stand. In Minneapolis, city residents can develop urban farms in any zoning district in the city; this has invited the creation of market gardens on private property in commercial, industrial, and high-density residential areas. Conservation easements and land trusts can be used to further protect urban agriculture on private land.
5. At Home
Whether it’s a single tomato pot or an entire edible yard, growing food at home is a gratifying, and tasty, experience. And policies that support agriculture at home can boost the economy and help the environment. Landscape ordinances can permit front-yard gardens, zoning codes can allow the sale of homegrown produce, and livestock permits can encourage a diverse agricultural landscape and healthy, sustainable eating.
Policymakers in Cleveland, for instance, are working to encourage people to raise livestock at home. “We wanted to give residents the opportunity to raise small livestock in their backyard,” notes Morgan Taggart, Ohio State Extension Educator in Community Development. “We set up guidelines for chickens, rabbits, ducks, bees, and also larger animals, such as goats and pigs.”
Policies in Somerville allow productive gardens and farms on residential property, and some programs go a step further to encourage community collaboration. A local group created My City Gardens, a web-based yard share program that connects people with yards and people who want gardens but don’t have space; another program connects elderly people with fruit trees with people who can harvest the fruit for them. “Farming and gardening in these contexts have become nice, multigenerational activities that people have built a community around,” Oliveira explains.
When it comes to urban agriculture, innovation is a key ingredient. In Somerville, city residents have had to reimagine their urban landscape entirely. “We’re trying to change people’s modes of thinking,” notes Oliveira. “We’re changing the perception that ‘those things’ don’t belong in the city.”
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Taggart echoes this sentiment. “This has been a big learning opportunity for us as a city. We’ve really had to educate ourselves, we’ve had to figure out how we think about ourselves as a city, and we’ve had to discover how creative we can be.”
Want to learn more? Digging In, an urban agriculture infographic from ChangeLab Solutions, outlines policy strategies that will help get your community digging!
Images, from top: Designed by Karen Parry, Black Graphics; Before photo of the South Street Farm, Somerville, MA. Photo courtesy of Groundwork Somerville; After photo of the South Street Farm, Somerville, MA. Photo courtesy of Groundwork Somerville. Before and after photos of farm in Maui, HI. Photo courtesy of CWD.
Heather Wooten is a vice president of programs at ChangeLab Solutions, leading the organization's work in Healthy Planning. She is a co-author of one of the premier publications on developing and implementing health policy language in land use plans, How to Create and Implement Healthy General Plans. Prior to joining ChangeLab Solutions, Heather co-authored the Oakland Food System Assessment: Towards a Sustainable Food Plan through the Oakland Mayor's Office of Sustainability. She also currently serves on the Oakland Food Policy Council. Read more >
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