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What U.S. Municipalities Can Learn From San Francisco's Urban Farming Movement

The guerrilla urban farming movement is taking root in San Francisco. These projects are easily replicable and would make measurable difference in the quality of life in every city throughout the country.
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Last year my 26-year-old niece left her job as an executive assistant at a well-known advertising agency to become an apprentice gardener at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. Now, when she moves back to San Francisco, she wants to talk her neighbors into tearing down the fences separating their yards so they can build a community garden. She wants to make soap and dye wool to make a living. She and nearly all of the twenty-somethings I meet want to spend the day with their hands in the dirt, not in front of a computer screen; they want food and financial security, they are interested in homesteading, and they are crazy about urban framing.

The good news is that the guerrilla urban farming movement is taking root in San Francisco. Sue Moss lives in the St. Vincent de Paul homeless shelter and created a garden out of a small patch of dirt near a freeway on-ramp. Her tools? Just a plastic fork and whatever else she could scavenge. When the folks at Fort Mason Community Gardeners heard about her they gave her a small rake, a spade and bag of seeds. Volunteers now help her maintain the plot -- she has created food and community in what was an abandoned eyesore.

When Annette Smith and Karl Paige began planting flowers and vegetables around a blighted Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood residents soon stepped in to help. Some gardened while others began to create art and share history. The Quesada Gardens Initiative was born and the community flourishes to this day.

In 1995, San Francisco's now-thriving Alemany Farms was a four-acre, illegal dumping site growing tires, cars and refrigerators. Community leader and former San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners Director Mohammed Nuru spearheaded a unique, community-based collaboration to put at-risk, low-income youth to work transforming the vacant lot into an urban farm. San Francisco's first "urban youth farm" was planted, providing 50 lucky teens with business, landscaping and non-violent resolution skills while offering a healthy alternative to a life of drugs, crime or violence. Today, Alemany Farms stays true to its original vision; growing organics foods and creating green jobs for residents of low-income communities with the values of environmental justice and social equity firmly rooted.

The Garden Project and Catherine Sneed are another urban farming phenomenon. The Garden Project employs recently released inmates from the San Francisco County Jail to work its half-acre garden. While food security, beautification, gardening and environmental sustainability are often the key motivators for urban gardening, the Garden Project has demonstrated that the social and economic benefits of programs like these are even further reaching. The Garden Project has proven that when former inmates are offered a chance to participate in a program that provides job training and education, where they love what they do and can see immediate results, there are lower recidivism and unemployment rates and an even greater commitment towards stewardship of the environment. The U.S. Department of Agriculture called the Garden Project "one of the most successful community-based crime prevention programs in the country."

In just a few months, Hayes Valley Farm has proven that with the right leadership, care and tending a flower can bloom. After the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, the central freeway was deemed unsafe and shut down. Early this year the city re-opened the site as a temporary green garden space. Recognizing this unique opportunity, community organizers and urban farmers poured in and decided to develop "a springboard for urban agriculture all over the city." For now, the site functions primarily as an educational and resource center where curriculum development programs and plant sales are underway. The goal of Hayes Valley Farm is to demonstrate the potential techniques and beauty of urban farming. Our main yield is education," says Chris Burley, Co-Director. "We're trying to teach folks about growing their own food on balconies, in back yards, open air parking lots and on paved areas."

These projects have much in common; they create jobs and build life skills for people in need; they enhance and make safe the urban environment; they provide an element of food security and foster community; they give the participatory citizens of San Francisco a sense of ownership and pride in their own city. But even more significantly, they all happened with San Francisco City and County money, support and involvement. These are exactly the kind of projects that local, state and federal governments should promote and support. With such support and the opportunity for community leadership they are easily replicable and would make measurable difference in the quality of life in every city and county throughout the country.

Last year Mayor Gavin Newsom took urban farming squarely into the political arena when he issued the innovative and groundbreaking executive directive committing the City and County of San Francisco to increase its healthy and sustainable food. He said:

Access to safe, nutritious and culturally acceptable food is a basic human right and is essential to both human health and ecological sustainability. The City and County of San Francisco recognizes that hunger, food insecurity, and poor nutrition are pressing health issues that require immediate action. Further, we recognize that sustainable agricultural ecosystems serve long-term economic prosperity and availability of future generations to be food self-sufficient. In our vision, sustainable food systems ensure nutritious food for all people, shorten the distance between food consumers and producers, protect workers health and welfare, minimize environmental impacts, and strengthen connections between urban and rural communities. The long-term provision of sufficient nutritious, affordable, culturally appropriate, and delicious food for all San Franciscans requires the City to consider the food production, distribution, consumption and recycling systems holistically and to take actions to preserve and promote the health of the food system. This includes setting a high standard for food quality and ensuring city funds are spent in a manner consistent with our social, environmental and economic values.

In this directive, Mayor Newsom also calls on all city agencies and departments to conduct and audit of land within their jurisdiction suitable for, and actively used for food producing gardens and other agricultural purposes.

As the recently appointed president of The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, I have jumped at the opportunity to see what my agency can do with our 75,000 acres of land outside our City boundaries and 1,400 or so within the 49 square miles of San Francisco itself. I have asked the SFPUC staff to determine what lands within our jurisdiction might be available for urban farming and food growing. With the resources of our agency, we look forward to doing our part to revitalize San Francisco's unused public spaces, reconnect our neighborhoods, reduce our environmental impact and help everyone live and eat better. What better way to ensure these goals than to create urban farms all over the City and County of San Francisco? Let's get planting.