June 01 2011

Planning for Local Food Production: Food for Thought

In America, producing food has become the arena of large industrial farms operating with ultra efficiency. They have expansive tracts of land, large motorized equipment, unimaginable amounts of sugar-like substances and preservatives. Not to mention massive shipping and receiving systems.  At the end of it all, we have a complex system of marketing and a large-scale, big-box display that gives perfect insight into the term “Supermarket.”

It should be no surprise then, with its impacts on land-use and transportation, that food production falls under the non-exclusive purview of urban planning.  The main solutions to such a top-heavy system will most likely need to originate from federal policy.  Urban planners can have a major impact on local food production and consumption, as well as the issues like obesity and poverty – that surround it.

For example:

  • Small tracts of land can be set aside or temporarily leased for the creation of community gardens. Community gardens provide a space for residents to grow their own food in addition to harvesting with their own hands. This translates into moderate physical activity, healthier foods, and about 1,500 miles less of delivery fuel. Community gardens have become part of an ever-growing alternative food industry that is competing with the industrial system. In the suburbs, this can be easily built into a neighborhood or municipal park. In the cities, look for empty lots where buildings used to stand that are now eye-sores. Sometimes urban planners pull these off internally, but often they work to accommodate interested non-profits and neighborhood groups.
  • Some cities and regions have instituted growth boundaries or other strict zoning policies to protect valuable farm land from encroaching development. This takes away some of the pressure from farmers while increasing densities (and prices) within the urban area. There are problems with this. The farms close to the boundary are safe, but farms further out may not be protected.  Additionally, growth boundaries tend to cause real estate prices to skyrocket, making it more difficult for people of low income to live there. Of course, growth boundaries still do not address nor counteract the federal policy problems.
  • A more creative solution that urban planners can try is called a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR). TDR is a strategy in which the farmer’s municipality enters into an agreement with a more developed municipality to protect the farmer’s land (called the “sending zone”). It transfers his or her development rights to an area where development is more desirable (the “receiving zone”). This is often more effective at preserving the farm and building density, but these are very difficult to pull off, especially in regions that are highly parochial.  However, TDRs do not solve the federal policy problem either.

What are some other ways in which urban planners can play a role in preserving small farms and creating a more sustainable food system?

I have heard it said that replacing 10% of the industrial system with alternatives could cause the industrial system to completely change the way it works. Should the urban planners focus on this goal?

Ryan Champlin

I am a freelance urban and social critic with a background in urban planning and New Urbanism, community and economic development, and social policy.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 1st, 2011 at 11:06 am and is filed under Environmental Design, Environmental Non-Profit, Urban Planning and Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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