City Farms Could Flourish Under New Zoning Code

July 4th, 2010

Planners want to make Baltimore healthier, more walkable

The Baltimore Sun
By Julie Scharper

In a simple greenhouse fashioned from sheets of paint-spattered plastic, Larisa Bishop is learning to love vegetables.

The Heritage High School freshman guides visitors past rows of fuschia- and yellow-stalked chard, curly kale and feathery carrot tops. She bends over a line of beets the size of tennis balls, explaining that she prefers these fresh ones to their canned counterparts.

“I never used to eat my vegetables,” said Larisa, 14. “They look pretty in the grocery store, but they don’t taste like anything. The carrots are so much sweeter when they’re just out of the ground. And the sugar snap peas are so sweet.”

The sweltering, loam-scented greenhouses on the grounds of Lake Clifton Park are now an anomaly in Baltimore. But officials hope that an overhaul of the city’s zoning code, the first since Richard Nixon was in the White House, will nourish a bumper crop of urban farms.

Encouraging farming is one of several ways that planners, rolling out a new zoning code for only the third time in the city’s history, say they will make the city more livable and residents healthier.

They say the draft code, to be presented at a series of public meetings beginning today, would move Baltimore forward by taking cues from its past, when the city was an easier place to walk, shop and even farm.

“In 1971,” the last time the rules were revised, “the world was very much automobile-dominated, the suburbs were exploding and state-of-the-art zoning sought to mimic the suburbs,” with lots of large parking lots and few opportunities to walk, said city planning director Thomas J. Stosur.

“This is almost taking us back to the roots of development in the city in the teens and 1920s and 1930s, when neighborhoods were more dense,” Stosur said.

The revisions, which are unlikely to become law before next year, would ease restrictions on small businesses in residential neighborhoods, to encourage the development of more shops and services to which residents could walk.

Surface parking lots would be barred in downtown Baltimore to encourage would-be drivers to use public transportation.

And in a section inspired by the burgeoning locavore movement, which extols the ecological, social and health benefits of eating food raised close to home, the city would officially recognize community gardens and urban farms, making it easier for residents to grow and sell produce within the city.

Many of the proposals were championed by members of an advisory board that includes representatives of the city Health Department and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who say good zoning can create environments in which residents can thrive emotionally and physically.

“This reflects the thinking that health disparities are less a function of health services and more a function of your community and environment,” said advisory board member Madeleine Shea, a commissioner with the Health Department’s healthy homes division.

Officials hope the new zoning laws will encourage residents to walk, increase access to nutritious food in the city’s so-called food deserts — areas bereft of supermarkets or grocery stores — and make the streets safer by fostering opportunities for neighbors to socialize.

When residents walk instead of driving to buy groceries or get a haircut, public health experts say, they not only get exercise and decrease pollution, but they are more likely to chat with neighbors, creating bonds that make neighborhoods more safe.

Baltimore’s corner stores are often seen as purveyors of cheap booze, chips and cigarettes. But advisory board member Anne Palmer, director of the Center for a Livable Future at the Bloomberg School, says they could be key resources in bringing healthy food to neighborhoods lacking grocery stores.

Some cities offer incentives to encourage corner stores to sell fresh and frozen produce, Palmer said. And if Baltimore’s regulations succeed in fostering new farms, she said, local stores could purvey the harvest of nearby fields.

Urban farming — which was effectively outlawed in the 1971 zoning revision — will now have the city’s blessing.

Holly Freistat, the city’s new food czar, says gardens and urban farms can help Baltimoreans — with our penchant for chicken boxes, fried lake trout and Natty Boh — pick up healthier eating habits.

“There are very few gardeners out there who don’t eat fruits and vegetables,” said Freistat. She also touts the social benefits of public gardens, which can became havens for residents and unofficial open-air community centers.

As manager of the six-acre Real Food Farm in Lake Clifton Park, Tyler Brown might qualify as one of the city’s few farmers. Scores of teens from nearby high schools have worked in the farm since it was started in October.

“I actually have to tell kids to stop eating the radishes,” said Brown, adding that most of them hadn’t tasted radishes — or the kale, chard and beets grown at the farm — before.

Run by the nonprofit groups Civic Works and Safe Healing, Real Food Farm consists of three “hoop houses,” which, Brown says, “are about as minimal a design as we can find.” Plastic sheeting is wrapped around a domed roof of metal pipes reinforced by fishing line. The sheets stay closed when the weather is cold, trapping the sun’s heat inside, and are opened in hot temperatures.

Vegetables and flowers are grown in soil heaped on cloth barriers, eliminating worries about soil contamination, and are watered by a rudimentary irrigation system. The structures cost $7,000 each, soil and all, and were set up by volunteers in three days, Brown said.

Brown and several students and volunteers sell their produce twice a week at small farmers’ markets at the school and in the nearby Belair-Edison community.

Freistat would like to see the farm become a model for urban agriculture entrepreneurs. Transforming some of the city’s multitude of vacant lots into peaceful green spaces producing healthy food would bring myriad benefits to the city, she said.

Using zoning to benefit public health is far from a novel concept, said Seema Iyer, the city’s chief of research and strategic planning. Zoning regulations grew in the first place out of the early public health movement in the 1920s in an effort to reduce overcrowding and prevent families from living too close to factories pumping out pollution.

Work on the city’s first zoning rules began around that time, and a code was finalized in 1931. Forty years later, Mayor Thomas J. D’Alesandro III and City Council President William Donald Schaeffer signed a major revision into law.

Since then, the city’s zoning regulations grew with a dizzying number of amendments — “death by a thousand cuts,” Iyer said.

The city issued a comprehensive master plan in 2006 that called for a more streamlined code to reduce bureaucratic hassles. Stosur, the city planner, said the new code aims to simplify the rules — reducing the number of steps, for example, before a homeowner can make a minor change to a home — and to prevent zoning from hampering growth in areas that need a boost while preserving Baltimore’s unique character.

“It’s important that folks understand a primary goal is to preserve and enhance all the great neighborhoods we have,” he said. “We’re going to be very strategic where we loosen up the regulations and work closely with community stakeholders.”

Residents can review the draft code online and learn more about it at a series of public meetings that begin today with a session from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Polytechnic Institute. The code — and the accompanying zoning maps — will be the subject of many hearings and will likely not be signed into law until late 2011.

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