Community Gardens and Urban Farm: Land Acquisition

by Lucy Weiss*

Community gardens and urban farms are often thought of in conjunction with one another. After all, they share similarities; both are places where people, typically small-scale producers, come together to grow fruits and vegetables, and both provide consumers access to local produce. Both community gardens and urban farms benefit those who grow/purchase fresh produce, and the environment more generally. They recharge groundwater, prevent erosion, and mitigate dust impacts to cities. Community gardens and urban farms also face similar challenges including land acquisition, rising water rates, and climate change. Despite their overlaps, it is worth noting the distinctions between community gardens and urban farms, because these differences can  affect how they function. Urban farms typically have the goal of turning a profit whereas community gardens, which are run by residents and non profit organizations, tend to orient themselves toward education and facilitating relationships between people and nature. These divergent goals result in different models of operation. For instance, urban farms have fewer people doing more of the labor and getting paid for it. In community gardens, however, individuals often have their own plots of land and pay a membership fee to garden. Produce grown at community gardens is also eaten by individuals rather than sold for profit. Land acquisition also functions differently for urban farms and community gardens, which I will discuss in this post. 

According to the University of California, Agriculture and Natural Resources, to find appropriate land for an urban farm, one should “Check out your local utility agencies, parks and recreation departments, or research existing vacant lots. Consider local zoning codes and how they may apply to the type of urban farm you have in mind.” One notable zoning code in California is the Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone (UAIZ). AB 551 was adopted by the CA State Legislature in 2013, and in 2017 the legislature extended the sunset clause for the UAIZ (now renamed AB 465) until 2029. The UAIZ attempts to encourage urban agriculture by offering reduced property tax assessments in exchange for converting vacant or unimproved property to agricultural use through a contract agreement for an initial period of five years. In a conversation with Jamiah Hargins, founder of Crop Swap LA and head of Asante Microfarm, Hargins discussed how the locations of his microfarms are based on land use agreements or agreements between property owners and urban farmers. These two methods of land acquisition both involve property owners deciding to utilize their land for urban farming. Hargins’ limited liability company (LLC) urban agriculture model functions through the mutual benefits gleaned for homeowners and urban farmers; because both parties pay for the land and water use, they work together to keep costs low and profits high. The homeowner pays for the initial installation of the rainwater catchment systems, and they split the cost of the monthly water bill. The homeowner then receives a certain percentage of the net revenue from the operation. Community gardens, conversely, acquire land through a variety of methods including land trusts purchasing land, nonprofits using a request for proposal (RFP) process, and through Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) land use agreements. Land trusts are non-profit organizations that own and manage land. The Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust (LANLT), for example, operates a variety of urban parks and gardens throughout Los Angeles. Since its founding in 2002, LANLT has added over 13 acres of green space including community gardens, land which they acquire from the city or from LAUSD  and maintain along with residents/community gardeners. Established nonprofits can obtain excess land from the city through an RFP process. Community gardens can be created in tandem with LAUSD. For example, Garden School Foundation is a nonprofit organization that provides garden based education to eight public schools within the district. 

While community gardens and urban farms have much in common, their differing goals inform their structures, thus informing how they acquire land. Community gardens and urban farms are sometimes used synonymously, but there are critical distinctions in how each entity operates and acquires land. The differences in land acquisition changes who can access what land, specifically city owned land. Often, city owned land is only accessible to nonprofits using an RFP process or through land trust purchase. Therefore, a possible policy intervention could allow for more flexibility for what types of entities can acquire and operate public land obtained from the city. That way, not every urban farmer would necessarily have to be associated with a nonprofit in order to obtain city owned land. Because of all of these positive impacts, cities should work to make land more accessible and streamline the process for identifying possible community garden/urban farm land.  

*Lucy Weiss is a research assistant with the Resnick Center this summer. She has a B.A. from Middlebury College where she majored in Religion, focusing on the intersections of food, gender, and religion. Lucy is interested in a career in food policy, specifically ensuring equal access to nutritious food for all.

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