Across our city landscapes, an age-old idea is redefining community development. From Detroit to Durham, N.C., the concept of "urban farming" is becoming common among urban planners and social entrepreneurs. The goal of urban farming initiatives is to take vacant plots of land in underused parts of our cities and convert them into productive farms.
Urban farms can provide locally produced, healthy food, cut down on transportation costs and carbon emissions and build a fruit and vegetable oasis in communities where grocery stores with fresh produce often are not available. Furthermore, employment at these farms can provide valuable skills and a sense of pride for traditionally disenfranchised members of our communities, such as recently released convicts.
Chicago's urban farming community, driven by pioneers such as Les Brown and Erika Allen, is a model for the rest of the nation. Miss Allen's Growing Power enterprise runs three farms within the city limits: a traditional community garden next to the Cabrini-Green public-housing project; a half-acre site in Jackson Park used for high-intensity food production and community gardening; and a 12,000-square-foot downtown garden that produces more than 150 varieties of vegetables, herbs and edible flowers. Farmed in part by local schoolchildren, much of this food ends up at local restaurants and farmers markets.
Another organization, Growing Home, runs three certified organic farms in the Chicago area. About half of the people working on the farms are homeless, and an estimated 90 percent have been incarcerated. Growing Home pays all employees minimum wage, provides them one-on-one work counseling and requires them to attend job training classes for six months. More than 100 people have graduated from Growing Home's program, with 65 percent in stable jobs and 90 percent in stable housing. Additionally, all proceeds from the farms - through sales to farmers markets and restaurants - go back into the organization, creating a sustainable social enterprise.
Like fruits and vegetables, these good ideas need rich soil to grow, and policymakers can support them in creative ways. Growing Home acquired its land through the Stuart B. McKinney Act, which specifies that when federal surplus property is distributed, preference must be given to organizations serving the homeless. Growing Home also benefited from investments from a Community Development Block Grant and a $175,000 social enterprise grant from the mayor's office.
Despite these promising initiatives, the scope of the challenge is only growing. According to research by Mari Gallagher of the Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting group, more than 500,000 Chicagoans live in "food deserts," and of this group, 400,000 live in areas where fast-food dominates and fresh produce is a scarcity.
And yet, state and federal policy is lagging innovation. For example, the 2007 Farm Bill set aside $50 million over the next 10 years in matching grant funds to organizations working on issues of food security and hunger. Compare this to the $8 billion in annual crop subsidies in 2004.
Moreover, navigating the maze of zoning laws in most cities is still extremely difficult. Chicago, for example, has an estimated 77,000 vacant lots, but traditional development models usually trump farming - even where traditional developers don't want to invest.
On the bright side, there are encouraging signs that policy may be shifting. In Detroit, where a Michigan State University study estimated the city's vacant land could produce 76 percent of the residents' vegetables and 42 percent of the fruits, the city's Planning Commission just revised city codes to enable large-scale urban farms.
What else can we do? First, we may want to consider carving out a piece of the agricultural subsidy pie to promote urban farming. Next, we should ease restrictions on land for agricultural uses and provide microloans for small-scale farmers in urban settings - especially for those who employ disenfranchised members of our communities.
Urban farming is an idea whose time has come. Now we have to give it fertile ground to blossom.
• Aaron K. Chatterji is an assistant professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business and a Fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington. Christopher Gergen is the director of the Entrepreneurial Leadership Initiative within the Hart Leadership Program at Duke University's Terry Sanford School of Public Policy. Send e-mail to authors@ lifeentrepreneurs.com.