When Urban Planning Fails, Guerrilla Gardening Is the Only Solution

By Albert Kleine

Despite perhaps best intentions, urban planners in major cities have failed to deliver communities with easy and reliable access to food. Case in point -- Ron Finley and guerrilla gardening.

A native of South Central Los Angeles, Finley describes the experience of living in a food desert -- an urban area with little access to fresh, healthy groceries. Overwhelmed with the state of food access within his community, Finley decided to plant fruits and vegetables in any area possible.

Finley's experience is all too common in America. According to the USDA, 2.3 million Americans live more than one mile away from a grocery store, mostly in urban areas. Food deserts are typically located in low-income neighborhoods where residents do not have the luxury of costly and time-consuming transportation to shop for food. This forces them to rely on less healthy options, such as convenience stores and fast food restaurants.

The prevalence of food deserts and the number of Americans living them demonstrates an outright failure of city planning.

In his brief TED talk, Finley outlines one of the greatest barriers to developing sustainable cities with access to food -- vacant land. He suggests that the vast acreage in L.A. that is currently vacant is prime real estate for urban gardening.

I disagree.

One of the principles of good city planning is encouraging valuable urban land to be put to "highest and best use." Because city land has proximity to costly public infrastructure -- roads, public transit, social services, etc. -- policy should be guided to coax landowners to utilize the land to its potential. Since agricultural activity can be relegated low value land distant from public resources, urban farming is sub-optimal, at least from an economic standpoint.

Instead of resorting to urban farming -- an obvious second best outcome -- policymakers should pursue actions that encourage businesses to fill in the vacant land. Applying a robust tax on land that discourages holding it from development, coupled with subsidies for needed businesses (like grocery stores) can help ensure that urban land is used properly, all while promoting the public good of food access.

Based on urban economic principles, encouraging the use of vacant land and more compact development to increase food access is the first-best option, and one that many cities have not pursued. Vacant land plagues almost every major city from Los Angeles and Philadelphia to the notorious desert that is Detroit.

Changing the urban landscape through policy, however, is a daunting task that faces opposition every step of the way. Since the urban planners and policymakers aren't moving, we can only hope for more people like Finley to present us with second-best alternatives.

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