Urban Agriculture: A New Way to Look At Green
The exit from Interstate 280 South onto the Guadalupe Parkway is not a bad-looking off-ramp, as freeway exits go. Still, the last thing a driver might expect to see adjacent to it is a one-acre farm featuring tidy rows of corn, eggplant, okra and squash with the added zest of chickens and bees. Welcome to San Jose’s Taylor Street Farm, a colorful corner amidst the concrete that exemplifies a hot new California trend called Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones.
Though the name is unwieldy—Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone is often shortened to the acronym UAIZ—the purpose is foodie- friendly. As outlined in the Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone Act of 2013—California Assembly Bill 551—the law gives tax breaks to property owners who transform empty lots, for at least five years, into working gardens or farms.
“It has the potential to give residents access to affordable, fresh produce in their own neighborhoods,” says Santa Clara County Supervisor Ken Yeager, a fitness buff who bikes to work and who shepherded the measure to county approval in 2015. Eligible counties and cities must opt in to the legislation in order to gain its benefits. San Francisco became the first jurisdiction to do so in 2014.
Historically, growers did not need extra incentives to cultivate the rich soil south and west of San Francisco Bay. Thanks to mild winters, spectacular summers and easy access to transportation, Santa Clara County—to cite one example in the region—was home to more than 25,000 farms and orchards during the middle of the 20th century. But after World War II, the county’s population began to double every decade. By 1964, the number of farms had decreased by 90%. “The growth of cities,” say experts Paul Starrs and Peter Goin, “pushes away profitable agriculture at the urban fringe.”
This has proven true in the Bay Area. The region lost 200,000 acres of agricultural land to development, just between 1984 and 2011. The study that ploughed up those numbers was completed five years ago, before the latest boom created more multimillion-dollar motivation for growers to sell.
Which is where UAIZs come in. The concept accepts the reality of lofty land values and accelerating assessments and uses tax savings as a motivator. New taxes on UAIZ plots are calculated to reflect, not soaring residential rates, but the average value of California cropland.
“When I look around San Jose I see a city peppered with vacant lots ripe with potential for new urban gardens near our homes,” says Zach Lewis of Garden to Table, the non-profit that operates the Taylor Street Farm. His research uncovered 585 parcels of land in urban San Jose totalling 371 acres. It is worth noting that this is a tiny amount of land in a state that produces two-thirds of the nation’s fruits and cultivates 800,000 acres of almond trees alone. Still, many of the small parcels in urban areas are in neighbourhoods, and that’s important, says San Jose City Councilmember Raul Percales, a former police officer. “This program not only helps decrease crime and blight on that land, but it can turn it into vibrant green space.”
Barry Swenson Builder is on board. The company owns the Taylor Street property and had no immediate plans for it when Lewis approached them four years ago with his urban farm idea. “Why let vacant land sit idle and pay to maintain it when it can be productive space for growing food?” says company executive Case Swenson.
Growers like Andy Mariani, proprietor of Andy’s Orchard, remain skeptical. He has found it increasingly complicated to continue producing his acclaimed stone fruits on his once-rural land in Morgan Hill. His acreage is gradually being surrounded by homes: farm tractors, dust and spraying don’t always please the neighbors. “Agriculture and urban uses are inherently incompatible,” he says.
But behind the new idea is a vision of change in the way food systems operate. “Yes, it may be challenging,” says Deborah Olson, a friend of Andy’s, who sells his produce at her family’s historic farm stand on busy El Camino Real in Sunnyvale. “But it might be a way we can continue to buy fresh and buy local. Isn’t that really our goal?”
When advocates like Zach Lewis look out on the region, they celebrate its ability to embrace new concepts of green. “I see a growing city,” he says, “with endless potential to improve the local food system and the lives of everyone in it.”