April 13, 2011
This spring, something new is sprouting up in Baltimore. In the coming months, small-scale farm plots will be allocated to local farmers —an initiative aimed at filling vacant city-owned lots, encouraging community development, improving neighborhoods and increasing access to healthy food.
Last month, city officials in the Office of Sustainability released their Request for Qualifications (RFQ), beginning the search for qualified farmers willing and able to transform an empty plot into a productive asset. Between now and May 6, the city will be accepting applications from aspiring urban farmers.
In preparation for this project, CLF collaborated with the city on a land assessment to identify potential sites suitable for urban agriculture. Abby Cocke, an environmental planner within Baltimore’s Office of Sustainability, said that about 35 acres within the city met the criteria. In addition to being flat and sunny, the land needed to be city-owned, vacant, and with no short- or medium-term plans for development. Ten of those acres will likely be allocated in this first phase of the project.
Holly Freishtat, Baltimore’s Food Policy Director, said that sites were also considered based on need for better access to fresh fruits and vegetables. According to CLF, 18 percent of Baltimore City is considered a food desert, defined as a census block group more than ¼ mile from a supermarket and with 40 percent or more of the population with an income below 125 percent of the federal poverty line.
This summer, the city will work with farmers to identify specific plots that will work with their needs. The 5-year leases will charge just $100/year for use of the plots, which are up to 1 acre in size. The city may also provide grants or loans to help farmers cover start-up costs.
Cocke describes this initiative as a tangible way to transform problems into solutions. Baltimore has 30,000 abandoned properties dragging down neighborhood values. Urban agriculture can create valuable opportunities for residents including jobs, environmental improvements and enhanced access to healthy foods, she said.
“In addition to all the other benefits, we believe this will be a very important education and awareness-raising tool,” Cocke said. “More people in Baltimore will realize that it’s possible to grow your own food in your neighborhood. I’m hoping we’ll also see more community gardens get started as an after-effect.”
Across the country, interest in urban agriculture has piqued among urban planners and environmental, public health and sustainable agriculture advocates. From Boston to Seattle, cities are finding that they now want to reverse what city planners did a century ago when they moved farming out of cities completely. Now, with concerns about climate change and sustainable food production, “local” food has experienced a resurgence.
“While in some ways this is an experiment, we really are on the forefront of the urban agriculture movement in the U.S.,” Cocke said. “A lot of people are eagerly awaiting to see how this project goes here in Baltimore.”