Urban agriculture could transform Baltimore's blighted neighborhoods

A new zoning code that went into effect last summer allows urban agriculture and farm stands (after a required zoning board hearing) in all of Baltimore’s residential areas. So now that spring is here, it’s time to get planting.

As a community planner, I know that a thriving neighborhood needs a variety of resources and opportunities. Urban agriculture offers numerous benefits besides the obvious one of providing fresh, locally grown food. It can bring jobs, income and community building — things that are especially needed in Baltimore’s stressed neighborhoods suffering from vacant properties, loss of jobs, substance abuse and crime.

Urban farming is a growing enterprise. Today, there are more than 100 community and school gardens in Baltimore, as well as more than 20 urban farms and several organizations working to support urban producers. The 12 member sites of the Farm Alliance of Baltimore and more than a dozen other farms are growing and selling fresh fruits and vegetables. Farm Alliance members share a website and pool resources to sell their goods at locations around town. Consumers are clamoring for locally grown products. Restaurants often tout these products on their menus. The demand is there. Can community farms meet it?

Baltimore’s latest sustainability plan draft (baltimoresustainability.org) includes a chapter on urban agriculture with recommendations such as creating paths to ownership of land and ensuring that opportunities and supports are made available, specifically to residents who may face high barriers to participate in urban agriculture.

Urban farming requires four skills and activities that can produce income for residents: production, processing, distribution and marketing. At first, these might not all be full-time or high-paying jobs, but they provide opportunities for learning skills to help people move up the ladder. Further, urban farms convert underused buildings and vacant land for productive use in neighborhoods where abandoned properties — historically seen as barren places — can serve as a focus of new economic activity.

Successful examples abound. The Black Church Food Security Network supports growing food on church-owned properties. Another local example is the highly successful “hoop house” greenhouse project at Civic Works in Clifton Park, now operating for eight years. Such hoop houses are popular all over the world; in England, 90 percent of strawberries are grown in these, and use of toxic pesticides and herbicides is avoided. Further, the recent outbreak of E. Coli in lettuce grown in Arizona ought to provide further motivation to get fresh, clean, local food.

Neighborhood-based agriculture builds community spirit and self-confidence as people work together in positive relationships to do the work of farming. In addition, worker co-ops and entrepreneurship lead to more money circulating in the neighborhoods and, for some, healthier eating and less dependence on a job elsewhere.

While organic food, increasingly popular, is traditionally grown in urban gardens and farms, there are “cash crops” with high profit margins that can be cultivated as well. For example, decorative flowers, ginger and comfrey are very profitable. Lavender produces oils used to make candles and soaps. Sedum, a flowering plant easy to maintain, is used on energy-saving “green roofs” and can yield thousands of dollars in profits. As a land use planner, I see opportunities for neighborhoods to use a system of vacant properties to grow a range of products.

There are other opportunities. Bees are necessary for pollination, so beekeeping and harvesting honey could become a business for some. Composting is necessary for building the soil, and composting projects are being created to meet that need. The Baltimore Orchard Project is assisting groups in growing and maintaining fruit trees. Blue Water Baltimore and the Parks and People Foundation lead workshops for those wanting to learn the skills needed for the various kinds of agriculture that are cropping up (literally!) throughout the city.

We don’t need to wait for outsiders to improve things in our neighborhoods. Urban agriculture empowers us to meet these needs through a diversity of locations, occupations, products, and community building.

Let’s seize the initiative to create new opportunities for health and wealth using the latest technology and techniques to produce goods and services in local communities, develop a new base of economic activity, restore neighborhoods and expand hope and pride in our city and region.

Brent Flickinger is a community planner and planning supervisor in the Baltimore City Department of Planning. He can be reached at brenton.flickinger@baltimorecity.gov.

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