Planning for Urban Agriculture in New York City

Yesterday, the New York City Council heard Intro-1661, championed by Council Member Espinal, to create a comprehensive urban agriculture plan for New York City. You may be surprised to know it, but NYC actually has the largest urban agriculture system in the country, including community gardens, rooftops and greenhouses. Demand for locally and sustainably sourced food has never been higher and urban agriculture has become a booming industry for local entrepreneurs. We are excited by the possibilities and Adriana Espinoza represented NYLCV at the hearing, testifying in support of the bill.

At the same time, urban agriculture faces serious challenges given the city’s density. The reality is filling every vacant lot with a community garden is not the most economic or sustainable use of space, both given our housing crisis and the reality that urban farms are not as productive as those in rural areas nor can they even come close to meeting the produce needs of our city. Yet some highly perishable crops do not take to transporting well and are most environmentally and economically sustainably grown as close as possible to their market. While urban agriculture as a sector is growing overall, many community gardens are feeling pressure from developers who have seen the value of their land increase in recent years. This has created a challenge for growers since they face significant uncertainty and their leases offer them little protection should a developer decide to take over the land. Clarity is needed on to determine plots that are not suitable for residential or commercial development and could be suitable for urban farming in the long-term.

The need for the City to step in is clear but part of the challenge is there is not currently a single centralized office with the mission, expertise and staffing to manage all aspects of urban food and agriculture policy. Right now, a maze of city agencies play some role in food and agriculture policy– the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, Department of Environmental Protection, and the Mayor’s Office of Food Policy–while another set manages regulation and approval of urban agriculture projects–including the Department of City Planning, Department of Buildings, and the Fire Department. We are pleased this is one important question that the proposed comprehensive agricultural plan would address.

Such an office could work across this multitude of agencies and to both clarify and simplify the zoning, permitting and regulatory challenges that currently exist. This would reduce many of the hurdles to rooftop farming and could also possibly open up the roofs of additional buildings to the practice. Furthermore, it is currently grey area as to whether urban farming is permitted indoors, such as in a basement space.

Another critical component of a comprehensive urban agriculture plan is to explore how urban agriculture can be used to address communities where access to healthy food is scarce or prohibitively expensive. Many advocates have pointed to urban agriculture as an opportunity to think creatively about how it can be used to address food disparities in many low-income neighborhood across the city. Growing produce in these communities and involving local residents in the process has significant educational benefits, while also helping with economic empowerment and public health.

A more sophisticated approach to urban agriculture does not replace the need to invest in the protection of our regional foodshed, but so long as attention is paid to energy intensity of large-scale operations, a robust urban agriculture industry can contribute to a more sustainable food system, increase access to fresh produce overall, and potentially increase demand for fresh, sustainable and locally sourced food from regional producers. We look forward to working with Council Member Espinal, the City Council, and the de Blasio administration to ensure that a comprehensive urban agriculture plan moves forward.