On Thursday, City Council held a public hearing on a new bill to develop a comprehensive urban agriculture plan that addresses land use policy and other related issues to promote the expansion of urban agriculture in the city

Urban rooftop farm Brooklyn Grange at the Navy Yard. Photo: Brooklyn Grange

In a congested place like New York City, it may come as a surprise that there are underused spaces. The truth is: the city has 14,000 acres of unused rooftops; the neighborhood of East New York alone has more than 45,000 square feet of publicly-owned, unused land. What should New Yorkers be doing with these spaces? With a new bill, Introduction No. 1661, the New York City Council attempts to provide an answer to the question: Grow food on them.

On Thursday, the Committee on Land Use held a public hearing on Introduction No. 1661. Councilmember Rafael Espinal of the 37th District, and David Greenfield of the 44th District, who is also the chair of the Committee on Land Use, are spearheading the new legislation which would require the Department of City Planning (DCP) to develop a comprehensive urban agriculture plan that addresses land use policy and other issues to promote the expansion of urban agriculture in the city.

During the hearing, representatives from the DCP answered questions regarding the application of the bill, and members from various advocacy groups including Teens for Food Justice and the New York City Community Garden Coalition, as well as agricultural innovators and urban agriculture practitioners such as Jason Green of Edenworks gave their input and expressed their support for the new legislation.

Councilember Espinal, sponsor of Introduction No. 1661

The bill aims to address, but is not to be limited to, the following issues:

  • change of land use policies to promote the expansion of agricultural uses in NYC;
  • cataloguing existing as well as potential spaces suitable for urban agricultural uses;
  • the integration of urban agriculture into the citys conservation and resiliency plan.

The bill comes in the nick of time as the nascent hydroponic farming industry is expanding and can be seen as a call for the city to “officially recognize” urban agriculture as an industry. Such an acknowledgement, so the hope, would help to support and promote the growth of the urban agricultural business sector by providing clear legislation, and thus a solid foundation to start-ups and entrepreneurs.

The need for clear regulations of how spaces and buildings can be used for urban agricultural purposes is evident. For example: Currently, rooftop farming is only allowed on top of commercial buildings, but not on residential buildings. Or: Existing regulations prohibit growing and selling produce on the same lot, regardless of what the lot is zoned for. As Councilmember Espinal explained: “The vegetable grown on the roof of a building cannot be sold on the stoop of the same building.” 

Such regulations may not only be confusing, they are also at odds with people’s increasing needs and wants for local food, food that is grown in a space as close to them as possible. In response to that need, the bill also calls for urban agriculture to be used as a means to tackle the lack of access to healthy food in neighborhoods identified as food deserts.

According to a 2016 report by the Food Bank NYC, Brooklyn has a food insecurity rate of 20 percent, the only borough with a rising trend since 2009. The paradox: there is a plethora of bustling farmers’ markets in New York City. Yet, there are few if any in the communities that would benefit from them the most. Introduction No. 1661 could provide a solution: if farmers’ markets don’t come to the people who need them the most, the city should provide institutional support for the people to grow their own food.

Community gardens also play a crucial role in transforming food deserts. Currently, there are more than 600 community gardens in NYC. East New York Farms and other community gardens-turned-farms play a key role in providing healthy food for the residents in so-called food deserts. A representative from the New York Community Garden Coalition made a plea for the preservation and support of community gardens; in times of gentrification, also community gardens are targeted by real estate developers and landlords, as the example of Bushwick City Farm shows which has been facing eviction since August. At the hearing, a representative from Bushwick City Farm asked the city to buy the land so that the farm can be kept.

Bushwick City Farm Photo: DNAinfo

In conclusion, DCP pointed out that not all of the requests fall into the department’s jurisdiction, but agreed to continue the conversation with other government agencies to find solutions and to develop a possible plan. The department would be required to deliver such plan to the mayor and the speaker of the City Council by July 1, 2018.

“The bill will be reviewed and amended with consideration of the public testimony. At this time, the administration would like to have a discussion with stakeholders about the best way to move forward. But I believe this bill must ultimately become law to ensure the appropriate resources are put in place by the city to make this a reality,” said Espinal.

There has been a trial on the grassroots level to use agriculture as one way to revive formerly decrepit urban spaces and to serve underprivileged communities in New York City. Introduction No. 1661 could help the government to recognize what has been already achieved and to continue on that path. 

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