TRACKING THE FUTURE OF CITIES
By: Pierre Herman
In early September of this year, San Francisco became the first city in the US to offer financial incentives with the aim of promoting urban agriculture within the city.
David Chiu, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, said in a press release:
“The positives of urban farming go far beyond the production of locally grown, healthy sustainable food. Urban farming improves the environment, grows communities, creates beautiful spaces, increases food security, and advances the health of residents.”
The Urban Agriculture Zoning Ordinance takes aim at vacant plots of land across the city, with owners now having the option of paying a rate of tax normally applied on irrigated farmland if they allow the space to be taken up by local communities to build farms to grow crops or raise animals for a period of 5 years or more.
While the measure was passed by San Francisco council in 2013, it has only come into force now, and it has received its share of both supporters and detractors. Supporters, mostly urban farming enthusiasts, claim that land formerly in disuse will now become productive land that benefits local communities, democratising both food production and sales, and potentially providing additional income for enterprising residents.
Critics fear that in a city as chronically short of affordable housing as this one, not to mention the US city with the greatest inequality gap (and a growing homeless population), unused land should have been allocated for the construction of new housing units.
However with a waiting list of two years for allotments for use as gardens and farms, city council recognized a pressing need. Under the law, land must be at least one-tenth of an acre in size and possess no built surfaces.
The ordinance is also designed specifically to encourage long-term urban farming projects in cooperation with the land’s owners. If after 5 years, the owner decides to evict the farm for construction of homes or apartments to go ahead, taxes saved over the five year period would have to be repaid, which under the current scheme amounts to a maximum saving of $25,000 per year.
Five years ago, the Hayes Valley Farm was an urban garden and community gathering place built by former San Francisco mayor Gavis Newsom. To the dismay of neighbours, it was forced to close after the owners of the land decided that condominiums would be built. The new law is designed to prevent the likelihood of this happening.
The ordinance also allows for the sale of “value-added” goods made from produce grown on these so-called “urban agriculture enterprise zones” anywhere in the city except those zoned as purely residential districts.
California Assemblyman Phil Ting, whose legislation set up the tax incentive program for cities and counties, said to the San Francisco Chronical:
“Our action will help expand access to healthy and fresh food by enabling people to farm in their own neighborhoods,” “We have a chance to tame the concrete jungle with green spaces that fight blight and provide a local economic boost.”
In 2014, Copenhagen, Denmark became the second city in the world after Toronto (Canada) to legislate that all new commercial and residential buildings of a certain size must feature “green roofs”, that is, roofs covered in vegetation, gardens or farms. Supporters say the laws will have multiple benefits, including helping to keep buildings cool in summer and reducing air-conditioning costs, absorbing carbon dioxide, and providing opportunities for urban farming to flourish.