Baltimore has long been working towards a more sustainable city. In 2009, it developed the Baltimore Sustainability Plan, which included a number of broad recommendations to move the city towards a sustainable future.
And in November 2013, it took a large step towards one of those goals—food sustainability—with the adoption by the Baltimore City Planning Commission of Homegrown Baltimore: Grow Local, a three-pronged plan to “grow local, buy local, and eat local.”
The city sees its role as supporting the local food movement that is already underway, rather than trying to create it.
“I am so pleased that we have implemented a comprehensive plan that will guide our efforts to develop a local food system and revitalize Baltimore’s communities through farming,” says Baltimore’s mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
“Baltimore’s urban farms are already playing a vital role in cleaning up vacant lots, beautifying neighborhoods, providing fresh food to residents, and creating opportunities for education and employment,” adds the mayor. “Through my Homegrown Baltimore initiative, we are working to support and grow this movement to create a healthier and stronger city.”
One of the most important steps towards achieving this goal is changing the zoning code to explicitly allow farms and community gardens in the city limits. The city’s current codes, which date back to the 1970s, were due to be completely rewritten, and the city decided to take the opportunity to modernize the rules for urban agriculture.
Unless a zoning code specifically allows for land to be permanently used a certain way, it is technically forbidden, and permanent urban farms were not specifically allowed under the current codes. Because they wanted them to be there, city leadership allowed the establishment of urban farms as temporary uses for the land, but that gray area led to a sense of insecurity on the part of the farmers, according to Abby Cocke, environmental planner for the city,
Baltimore’s proposed zoning codes specifically allow permanent urban farms and community gardens, but also would require more paper work on the part of the farmer to qualify for a permit. For example, a farmer would need to do soil testing and follow food safety standards. The public would also be able to object to the foundation of a farm in their neighborhood, if they wished to. These rules would only apply to commercial farmers; backyard farmers have always been allowed to garden on their own properties.
Cocke believes most of farmers will be willing to take the extra steps to secure the long-term stability of their farm by obtaining an official permit. In the end, she believes the proposed changes to the code will actually increase the number of farmers because they will feel more secure in their investments.
“We’re moving away from people doing whatever they think is best with no guidance or standards, and potential farmers being confused and vulnerable, to it being as legitimate as anything else that you would want to do,” Cocke explains. “So I see it, and I think a lot of the farming community sees it, as something that’s a net benefit to them. They are also naturally frustrated that it will make them go through more hassle at the same time, but that’s just the reality of setting up a legitimate operation.”
The proposed codes are in the hands of the city council right now and may go through many changes before they are adopted sometime in 2014.
Baltimore already has a wide variety of agriculture, from commercial farms and community gardens, to orchards, aquaponics facilities, and apiaries. As of 2012, new residents were welcomed: the animal code now permits miniature, dwarf, and pygmy goats within city limits.
“They’re smaller than a big breed of dog, they’re less dangerous than an aggressive dog, and they’re less loud,” explains Cocke. “So if people want to keep them and if they can add to the city’s local food production movement, and they will pose less of a nuisance than other types of animals that we already allow, the real question became ‘why wouldn’t we allow it’?
The city has also expanded its land-leasing program, which Cocke says will reduce the number of vacant lots that the city needs to maintain, improve the look of the land, and produce food and jobs. City-owned arable plots are available for use as commercial farms via five-year renewable leases. Three acres have already been leased out to two farms through this very new program, providing aspiring farmers with some land security.
Although Cocke says it’s too soon to have concrete numbers on the impact of urban agriculture to property values in neighborhoods, she has heard anecdotally from developers and real estate agents that it is easier to sell properties near a vibrant, working farm than near a vacant lot; the beautification and greening of the city was also one of the motivations behind the Homegrown Baltimore initiative.
Another motivation was counteracting the negative effects of food deserts on the city’s poorer residents. The city has a wide variety of farms, ranging from for-profit farms to faith-based not-for-profits that hire people returning from incarceration. In order to turn a profit, most of the for-profit farms sell to local caterers, so it’s unlikely they would have food stands in the poorer neighborhoods, where most of the land available for farming is located. However, the mission of many of the not-for–profits is to serve their communities, and it’s these non-profit farms that Cocke believes will have the most impact on residents living in food deserts.
Cocke believes the biggest impact of urban agriculture will be strengthening neighborhoods and removing urban blight.
“Just by being able to absorb large parcels of formerly vacant land into this use, that’s going to have a ripple effect benefit into our neighborhoods that’s going to be a really big deal.”