San Francisco’s Policy Thumb Gets Greener
By Isabel Wade & Eli Zigas
On a spring morning last week, Mayor Ed Lee signed a bill that places San Francisco at the forefront of major cities supporting urban agriculture. The law, which changes the city’s zoning code, was the culmination of a year of collaboration between the Mayor, Supervisor David Chiu, the San Francisco Urban Agriculture Alliance and supporters from across the city.
The new law does two things:
1) Makes clear that gardens are welcome in every part of the city.
Previously, the city prohibited the establishment of gardens in certain zones of the city. Going forward, San Franciscans can start a garden or farm less than one acre in size anywhere in the city with a simple over-the-counter permit. These gardens can be traditional community gardens or they can be market gardens that grow for sale. Gardens and farms one acre or larger are allowed in the industrial zones of the city, and can also be permitted in other parts of the city after a more lengthy application and hearing process called Conditional Use Authorization. Home gardens cultivated for personal use are unaffected by this new law.
Whether it’s to make a little extra cash or to make a living, gardeners and urban farmers in San Francisco can now sell what they grow no matter where they grow it. A backyard gardener can sell to their neighbor, a community garden can make a deal with the local corner grocer, and an urban farm can start a CSA or supply produce to a restaurant. Sales are permitted both at the garden site itself as well as off-site. And, San Francisco took a unique step among cities by explicitly allowing gardens outside of residential areas to sell value-added goods such as jams, pickles, and other processed products so long as they follow health code regulations and the primary ingredients are grown and produced on-site.
By passing this law, San Francisco is encouraging the development of urban agriculture throughout the city. Theunanimous support of the Board of Supervisors and the Mayor demonstrates an understanding that urban gardens and farms provide open space in our dense city, offer “green thumb” jobs, serve as a source of fresh produce in “food deserts”, build community, and allow city residents to connect with and better understand the food system. This understanding comes from the success of numerous model projects that have sprung up in recent years. Gardens such as the Quesada Gardens Initiative, Free Farm, and 18th & Rhode Island Garden all provide examples of vacant, untended areas turned into vibrant, welcoming greenspace. Those gardens, and others such as Alemany Farm and Hayes Valley Farm bring together hundreds of volunteers to dig in the dirt and build something meaningful together. Meanwhile, small businesses such as Little City Gardens and SF Landscapes will now have the legal backing to sell produce grown in residential areas to their neighbors and others throughout the city. Altogether, these gardens — whether they grow for sale or not — strengthen their neighborhoods and communities by bringing people together out of their homes and around a specific place and their harvest.
While this change to the zoning code is a great step forward for San Francisco, we believe it is only a first step forward. Other actions that would enhance food production and the city’s sustainability deserve attention as well.Â Foremost among them is land access and land tenure.Â San Francisco is a dense city where available land commands a pretty penny. Though the zoning code change allows gardens throughout the city, it doesn’t create any new ones nor does it protect spaces that are obvious choices for food production or neighborhood greenspace. The City has begun to look for vacant public land suitable for urban agriculture, but we should also consider other space that could be converted to gardens. Taking advantage of our urban setting, San Francisco could follow in Seattle’s footsteps by allowing rooftop greenhouses dedicated to food production to exceed existing height limitations. Moreover, building codes could be altered to require roof strengthening and appropriate plumbing in all new structures in order to allow rooftop gardening. Another critical step to foster more food production is the establishment of Neighborhood Food Hubs where residents could pick up mulch, compost, and tools for their backyard and community gardening efforts. Further north, the City of Vancouver, Canada envisions these hubs to also offer places to cook, taking cooking lessons, can and pickle. These are just a few examples of further policy steps the City could take.
After the Mayor signed the zoning ordinance into law, we all raised our plates for a “salad toast” to celebrate the occasion. We look forward to many future “salad toast” to a more resilient city at garden ground-breakings, rooftop plantings, and more.