Keeping Urban Farmers Safe

Representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.), URS, and City of Chicago outlined how to safely farm an urban garden on top of a contaminated site at a national conference on brownfields. As Amy Yersavich, Ohio E.P.A. explained, “urban gardens aren’t going to come and go. They are here to stay so we need to focus on making them safe.” In fact, in many cities like Detroit, San Francisco, and New York City, urban gardening on all types of sites is “moving forward with leaps and bounds.” She has noticed that even Rustbelt states are transforming their brownfields into urban gardens. “Everyone wants fresh, healthy, local foods.” 

Urban agriculture is the “production, distribution, marketing, and disposal of food and other products in the centers and edges of metropolitan areas.” This budding field deals with neighborhood mobilization, land and water use, pollution, health, and other issues. Programs can be private or public, volunteer-led, linked with food banks, or constructed by a landscape architect or horticultural expert. Even some park departments are starting urban farming programs.

For residential urban gardens, it’s important to look at whether the backyard used to be part of an industrial brownfield site. “A backyard could have been a brownfield in the past, or nearby some defunct facility.” Yersavich said residential gardens may have also been sites of historic “burn pits,” used early in the century to burn garbage. In addition, lead paint flakes can spread to yards.

Potential Dangers

In a test of 30-35 new pilot urban gardening sites in Cleveland, Yersavich said the E.P.A. was most concerned about testing for metals (arsenic, lead); polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (the result of incomplete combustion in burn pits); volatile organic compounds (VOCs); PCBs, and other metals, herbicides, pesticides, and dioxins. Furthermore, there are often site-specific issues.

She said in most sites tested most plants had “limited uptake of contaminants” but more research is needed. She said if someone is concerned about what’s in the soil, they should avoid planting leafy green vegetables, carrots, and other root vegetables. Beyond the food that is consumed from these sites though, the E.P.A. is concerned about the potential health impacts for someone touching, inhaling, and accidentally eating contaminated soils every day. “We are creating stringent soil standards to determine acceptable exposure rates.” While these standards may end up “ruling out many potential brownfield sites,” at least gardeners will be kept safe.

Amy Steigerwald-Dick added that clean-up standards may need to be adopted for different scenarios and uses of urban gardens. A standard’s level of stringency will depend on how many days a year a gardener is expected to be on a site. Residential and commercial land use standards may be different. There may also be distinct standards for recreational or green space use. Parks and playgrounds will be treated the same as residential areas, “areas of heavy use.”

She said urban garden owners can do a few things. First, they should test the soils in a variety of places for the metals and other compounds mentioned. Second, if they discover the site “exceeds toxic levels,” they should “cover a site with clay soil, remove localized hot spots, use raised beds with clean soils, or add vertical or hydroponic gardens.” Gardeners can also go up and add a farm on their roof. Any of these solutions can “be extremely productive.”

Cities Move Forward

Despite the fact that national rules haven’t been worked out yet, Kenneth Kastman, URS, said a number of cities are moving forward with urban gardening ordinances. San Francisco, Cleveland, Detroit, Denver, New York City, Philadelphia, Portland, Seattle have or are in the process of releasing new codes. In Detroit, the city is approaching vacant landlords and asking them to sell their properties back to the city at reduced rates. The city is then turning these over to urban farmers if they commit to “making tangible benefits” to the property. If they fail to live up to their end of the bargain, the property goes back to the city. Detroit has also significantly reduced permitting fees for community gardens.

San Francisco allows residential sales of homegrown produce, which most cities don’t. However, urban gardeners can’t create storefronts or any permanent retail structure, only a temporary table. Also, foods can’t be baked or “value-added.” Plain fences (no chain link ones) are a must. No mechanized equipment can be used. In contrast, Madison, Wisconsin is “totally laid back and allows for basically everything.”

In Chicago, Zachary Clayton, Chicago’s city government, said restaurants have been the driving force. “They want sustainable, local produce.” Currently, there’s nothing official on the books in Chicago. “The zoning code doesn’t even allow urban farming.” However, the city is in the process of revising and creating some very progressive codes. Community gardens can be a maximum of 18,750 square feet. Incidental sales will be allowed. Commercial gardens will need parking, screening, and retail areas. The city has also made commercial and residential composting acceptable. As with any big change, “some residents were big advocates and others were opposed. That’s just Chicago.”

Learn more at the E.P.A. urban agriculture Web site.

Image credit: Urban Farm, Detroit / Celsias

One thought on “Keeping Urban Farmers Safe

  1. Jonathan F. 04/27/2011 / 3:03 pm

    Increasing the number and size of community gardens where possible seems like a fine idea given that existing ones are almost always oversubscribed. Having some fresh lettuce in early summer or some butternut squash in the fall is lovely and who doesn’t like some fresh cut flowers on the table?

    At the same time, I haven’t heard anyone advocate subsistence farming in the city, although I’m sure there are a (very) few who would like to give it a try. There is, after all, a reason that we, as a culture, especially an urban culture, have moved away from subsistence agriculture. It is backbreaking work every day and the results are always uncertain. Is anyone volunteering to live like a peasant?

    And although the article alludes to farmer’s markets, I think that commercial-scale farming in our cities is equally unlikely. My brother- and sister-in-law are 5th generation farmers in upstate New York. They have agriculture degrees from Cornell–they know how to run an agricultural operation. Still, without the outside income from second jobs (they work 12-16 hour days) they would be bankrupt and would have lost the farm years ago. It’s a chancy business, even more so than landscape architecture. Commercial agriculture on small, city plots is extremely unlikely to produce enough income to support a family.

    Vertical or rooftop agriculture on anything larger than hobbyist scale is even more fraught. Plants, being gravitotropic, don’t like to grow on walls. They need extraordinary care even to survive, as many of us know from our LA practices. Even if vertically grown crops were able to yield enough food to be worth the trouble (unlikely), what’s the plan for the harvest of beans 60′ in the air?

    I could go on, but I hate to be thought of as retrograde. It seems to me, though, that “urban agriculture” is much more like backyard gardening than it is like farming. Gardening a wonderful, even restorative activity for those who enjoy it but promoting it as a sort of world-saving idea or moral crusade seems a bit much.

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