Kansas City, Missouri, leaders recently wrestled with an interesting question: How will our run-down neighborhoods face the future?
The debate was not framed this way, of course. No one stood up and used the word shitbox. But the topic under discussion — urban agriculture — has more to do with answering that question than the City Council seems to realize.
The council voted on June 10 to rewrite the rules on city gardening. The changes promote and encourage residents to turn lawns and vacant lots into food sources.
It took months of negotiation for the ordinance to make its way to a final vote. Urban farmers wanted a permissive ordinance that would allow, among other things, on-site sales. Real-estate agents, meanwhile, complained about hoop houses bringing down property values. The discussion became pretty tedious. Toward the end, council members were debating height limits on crops grown in front yards. Finally, in front of a group of 35 urban-agriculture supporters, many of whom wore green ribbons pinned to their chests, the council approved the ordinance by a 10-3 vote. Those wearing ribbons applauded.
Passage wasn't a sure thing. Before the final vote, Councilman Bill Skaggs tried to gut the ordinance. He introduced an amendment that would have removed many of the key provisions. Skaggs, who lives north of the river, demonstrated an inability to look beyond his fingertips. "I don't see anything in this ordinance that improves my backyard garden," he said during a floor debate.
Regulating traditional backyard gardens was never the point. Urban agriculture is, on a deeper level, about remaking communities in ways that make them more useful. Promoters of small-scale agriculture point to the need for fresh food in parts of the city where supermarkets may be harder to reach. Successful growers can also make a buck or two, a significant consideration in hard economic times.
Many cities are rewriting laws to accommodate urban farms. It's a hot trend. Seattle has designated 2010 the Year of Urban Agriculture.
Meanwhile, Kansas City typically started from a reactive position. The council was forced to act, in part, because an art-school dropout had ticked off her neighbor.
In 2007, Brooke Salvaggio and her husband, Daniel Heryer, began a farm at her grandmother's house near 95th Street and State Line. A neighboring homeowner complained about the couple's goats, prompting visits from city inspectors. The goats were sent to live someplace else. But questions persisted about the farm that Salvaggio and Heryer had named BadSeed. Were crop subscriptions illegal? Was it improper for BadSeed to use volunteers or pay helpers? The city's regulations on home-based businesses were not designed with weeds and growing seasons in mind.
One day in May, the City Council heard from residents about the proposed changes. Several opponents who spoke were sellers of residential real estate. They described the threat to their commissions that fruit stands in neighborhoods posed.
"All you need is one with a red tent and a purple sign," Stacey Johnson-Cosby, a home seller and a resident of the 6th District, said. "All you need is one to impact what their perception of what the value is for that house."
More ominously, Johnson-Cosby related a conversation she'd had with an unspecified police officer, who warned that criminals may be prowling for urban farmers' cash boxes.
Dan Henderson, a mortgage broker who spoke at the May meeting, described the ordinance as "ridiculous" when I followed up with him later. Henderson said it was bizarre that the city would allow food to be grown and distributed with so little oversight from the Health Department and city planners.