Once upon a time, Kingstonians kept chickens and grew vegetables in their backyards as a matter of routine daily life. But post-World War II, when the car was king and the federal government was funding the tear-down of neighborhoods as a way to stave off urban decline caused by the building of malls and the flight of factories, zoning laws changed. Not only were commercial and residential uses separated, but inner-city agriculture “was zoned out,” according to planning consultant Jennifer Schwartz Berky. “It was all about segregating uses, racial, economic, and functional,” she said. “It was about creating a monoculture and limiting access [to healthy food] for people with limited resources.”
Fifty years later, the failures of that mindset are evident, and things are changing again. There’s a health-based impetus — the nation’s epidemic of obesity is in part being blamed on a car-centric cityscape that lacks healthy food sources and makes it difficult for people to get out and walk, Communities, including Kingston, are seeking to make their streets more pedestrian and bike-friendly. The demand for locally produced food is gaining ground as food prices at the supermarket increase due to rising energy costs and awareness of the link between healthy eating and locally sourced food grows. Plus, the vast acreage of vacant lots in cities with collapsed economies, such as Detroit, is causing a rethinking of the role urban agriculture could play in rehabilitating cities.
In the last few years, Kingston has hopped on the urban agricultural bandwagon. It now has two farmers’ markets, and thanks to the initiatives of the Kingston Land Trust (KLT), has planted many community gardens as well as its first urban farm, located on South Pine Street. In 2011, the Common Council passed Resolution No. 138, which recommends government support for these projects. The momentum is growing with the breaking of ground a few weeks ago of a farm by the YMCA on land located behind its building. (Like the community garden at the Everette Hodge Community Center, the farm will be cultivated by local youth.)
Now the Kingston Urban Agriculture Committee (KUAC), an heir of sorts to the KLT (which, since the departure of executive director Rebecca Martin, has been focused on developing an inner-city rail trail; Martin subsequently founded the KUAC), is seeking to integrate urban agriculture initiatives into the revised zoning provisions occurring under the city’s new proposed comprehensive plan.
The KUAC, in partnership with Pace Law School’s Land Use Law Center for Sustainable Development (LULC), Family of Woodstock, Inc. and Larrecca Music Management (a company formed by Martin, a renowned jazz singer, and her husband, bassist Larry Grenadier), has hired Schwartz Berky’s planning consultancy Hone Strategic to take stock of the current regulations and suggest improvements.
Schwartz Berky will research the current zoning laws regarding urban agriculture, conduct an inventory of vacant lands possibly suited for farming, and make recommendations to the proposed comprehensive plan that would remove current barriers and suggest changes or additions supporting local agriculture.
A regional model
The project is being paid for by a private donation. Schwartz Berky hopes that this work will help make Kingston a regional model for urban agricultural initiatives, and she said the pro bono input of Jeffrey LeJava, managing director of innovation at Pace’s LULC, who offered to help out after learning of the KLT’s initiatives last year, is invaluable. LeJava is an expert on the legal issues and will be particularly helpful on crafting the language of the proposed amendments to the comprehensive plan, she said.
As to specifics on the proposed changes, it’s too early to say, she added. However, she noted that the goals of the project are more far-reaching than simply permitting chickens in one’s back yard.
“At this point we don’t know what the findings will be, although we know there’s a great interest in animal husbandry, beekeeping, and wild forest-style agriculture for foraged foods,” said Schwartz Berky. “First, we need to do a land-use analysis. The purpose is not whether we advocate for one use or another, it’s about removing the legal barriers to doing productive types of agriculture. Formerly, our zoning hasn’t permitted these uses, and we need to go back to these kinds of uses.”
There is a need
Schwartz Berky noted that there is clearly a need for more healthy, locally produced food in the city, given that nearly a fifth of its population — 17.4 percent — is low-income. Four food “deserts” — areas of the city with low-income residents that lack easy access to a grocery or supermarket — have been identified within its environs, and one in five city children suffer at times from malnutrition, she said. Nearly half — 44 percent — of the population of 24,000 is overweight or obese.
Besides the need to provide the population with better access to healthier food, Kingston also has abundant vacant land, as well as many large, deep yards that were probably carved out originally for the purpose of growing row crops, she said. One of her first tasks will be to create an inventory of vacant sites and their potential for agricultural use. A map utilizing GIS technology will be created that classifies the vacant lots’ potential use and constraints, such as a steep slope, deep shade or possible contamination from a former industrial use.
The city could then refer to the map and grant special permits for agricultural use, Schwartz Berky said. “If it’s a vacant site, such as the Kings Inn, which no one is developing now, there could be a three-year period easement while the site was awaiting development,” she said, citing one possible scenario.
Phase two, requiring additional funding, would consist of examining how the city connects with local and regional food systems. “Right now we’re focused on planning and zoning in the city. In the next phase we’d talk to everyone from restaurant owners to local agricultural associations, such as the Rondout Growers Association, to see how we could create an economy based on getting the food to the table,” she said. Jobs could be created around the building and staffing of more facilities to package and distribute the food locally as well as marketing and production, she said. Ways of providing fresh, local food to key institutions such as the public schools could be explored, which might involve overriding regulatory barriers through local legislation, she added.