May 14, 2013
At last, the Baltimore spring is in full swing, as gardeners and farmers around the city coax life out of the urban soil once again. When it comes to urban agriculture, Baltimore may not be as famous as Detroit, where young DIYers are flocking to start urban farms, or Milwaukee, where Will Allen’s Growing Power draws neophytes from around the world hoping to learn how to start their own urban agriculture projects. But new City policy is putting Baltimore on the map as one of the nation’s most agriculture-friendly cities.
Like other post-industrial cities, Baltimore has suffered enormous population loss—from nearly a million residents in the 1950s to 620,000 at the last census. The wake of this exodus left an overwhelming number of abandoned properties, which, as they are demolished, become empty lots that inevitably attract trash and other nefarious activity. Yet this empty land also provides prime opportunity to create an expansive urban agriculture sector that benefits the city by providing green space, a source of local produce, and a center for community gathering.
Aware of its myriad benefits, the City of Baltimore is taking a serious look at how to support urban agriculture. Several initiatives are already underway, including a process to lease vacant city-owned land to urban farmers, the “Vacants to Value” program that facilitates community adoption of vacant lots, and the creation of an urban agriculture subcommittee within the Office of Sustainability that provides a forum for urban agriculture stakeholders across the city. Most recently, as part of the Mayor’s “Homegrown Initiative,” the Office of Sustainability commissioned the City’s (and one of the nation’s) first Urban Agriculture Policy Plan. The plan incorporates the insight of numerous urban agriculture leaders from around the city whose efforts range from trying to get school garden food served in the cafeteria to gleaning and donating fruit from trees around the city. It describes the current state of urban agriculture in Baltimore, the challenges that hinder the sector’s growth, and key recommendations for supporting and expanding urban agriculture. The document will be available to the public later this year, but here’s a sneak peek at some of the findings…
There are an estimated 13 urban farms in Baltimore, although this number is constantly in flux. They all share the goal of generating revenue through food production, but that’s where the similarities end. Some are for-profit enterprises, while others are non-profits that emphasize social and educational goals. Many are united by the recently formed Farm Alliance of Baltimore, a network of producers whose accomplishments include a shared EBT machine (so that customers can use SNAP funds, formerly known as food stamps, to purchase produce from farm stands) and a series of urban farming workshops for novice farmers. Land for starting new urban farms is also becoming easier to access through the City’s new land-leasing process; however, there are still some kinks to work out to better support urban farmers. The biggest worry for farmers is how to access water on parcels of land with no working water meter pit. This is exacerbated by a lack of land tenure—many urban farms are started on city-owned land with no guarantee of long-term access to the land, and so farmers are unwilling to make expensive infrastructural investments (such as bringing in water lines).
No one really knows how many community gardens pepper the city, but an upcoming census will try to document their locations. Numerous municipal and community-based programs support community gardeners, and adopting a city-owned lot to start a garden has never been easier with the City’s new streamlined process. Of course, gardeners still have their gripes—they lament the loss of the City’s free mulch and leaf mold deliveries, and again, water access is a huge problem for lots without a working water meter pit. Another issue that urban gardeners have to contend with is potential soil contamination from industry and other sources of pollution common in cities. While many gardens test their soil and plant in raised beds, others may not be aware of the need to take precautions. A current CLF study is taking a closer look at gardeners’ perceptions of soil contamination.
School gardens are becoming more common in Baltimore, in part thanks to the Parks and People Foundation’s Neighborhood Greening Grants, although much of the interest in starting school gardens is being sparked by visits to Great Kids Farm Now the challenge is to better integrate these gardens into the educational infrastructure—both by incorporating gardening activities into classroom curricula and by serving the food that is grown in the cafeteria. This latter goal may not be too far off: produce from Great Kids Farm can now be served in school salad bars. Another question is how to maintain school gardens over the summer, when children are on vacation and gardens need the most work. Partnering with local community gardens may provide one way forward.
One of the most exciting urban agriculture projects in Baltimore City is the Center for a Livable Future Aquaponics Project at Cylburn Arboretum, run by CLF staff in collaboration with the Department of Recreation and Parks. The goal is to establish a demonstration project that employs aquaponics in a city and study whether it is environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable. Since one of the barriers to starting such a project is accessing all the necessary information, this is an important resource for budding aquaculturalists. However, the largest barrier to starting any aquaculture project is the capital needed to fund the large up-front costs. How to fund new projects and maintain existing projects is a tough question for all types of urban agriculture. To encourage its expansion on a large scale, some source of seed funding or other incentives will need to be considered.
In addition to discussing the various types of urban agriculture, the Urban Agriculture Policy Plan addresses a wide range of cross-cutting issues, such as ensuring the sustainability of urban agriculture projects, placing such projects in financial reach of potential growers, addressing the barriers that come with permitting processes, and creating training opportunities to increase the number of skilled growers. While the plan makes recommendations to address such challenges, it also emphasizes that the first step for the City must be to determine the extent it wishes to see city land used for urban agriculture. As some cities begin large-scale urban agriculture projects, questions have arisen as to whether these projects risk “suburbanizing” the city, ultimately diluting the density that defines city life. It is important to consider how urban agriculture can operate at a scale that is viable for growers without displacing the benefits of urbanism.
While Baltimore’s urban agriculture sector still has room to grow, grassroots efforts coupled with forward-thinking City policy are successfully transforming many of Baltimore’s abundant vacant lots into productive gardens and farms. By delineating a path to strengthening urban agriculture, the Urban Agriculture Policy Plan has the potential to make Baltimore an even friendlier place to grow food. Urban agriculture is certainly a trend on the rise, and Baltimore is the city to watch for future policy innovations.
Photo: Brent Kim, 2012