One of my dissertation’s major themes is that the local and state governments need to act intentionally regarding urban food enterprise development. My research found many examples of how local and state policies unintentionally negatively affected the ability of entrepreneurs to grow their operations. One example of these unintentional policies I commonly observed is when local and state governments provided urban farmers access to publicly owned, vacant land under less than ideal conditions. In these cases, government officials sought to utilize urban agriculture as a short-term stop-gap for a piece of land until development pressure for a higher and better use (e.g. an residential or commercial building) for that land returned. Often this manifested as short-term leases (e.g. six month or one year leases), which farmers noted prevented them from investing in infrastructure, such as soil improvement or water access, to improve their farm’s economic viability. However,some officials I spoke with said they would like to provide longer-term access to publicly owned land that faces less development pressure in the short-term so that farmers would have more flexibly to develop infrastructure.
I believe that urban agriculture generally, including both commercial farming and non-commercial gardening, can play a role in providing short-term uses for land that will be developed in the near future. I refer to this as a transitional use. However, I also believe that urban agriculture, specifically commercialized farming, can potentially have a transformative effect on the surrounding neighborhood if farmers have the proper infrastructure and time to develop their farms. I refer to this as a transformative use. Government officials seeking to engage urban agriculture for either use should intentionally identify public land that would be well suited to short-term land access as well as long-term land access. However, to avoid potential accusations of being arbitrary or capricious through land access programs, officials should utilize an empirical system to determine which land should be targeted for transitional use and which land could be targeted for transformative use. Land Evaluation and Site Assessment (LESA) is a spatial analysis technique that uses geographic information systems (GIS) technology to generate a score for all potential land in a given community or neighborhood based on a number of variables. Officials could then make land that scores high for transitional or transformative uses available to urban farmers. The score produced by a LESA can also include physical or spatial characteristics of land that are likely to encourage urban farmers to succeed in developing economically.
I have recently thought about what variables might be important for such a LESA. Here are a few examples:
a) soil type (assuming original soil)
b) land slope
c) access to water infrastructure
d) road distance to closest food hub or regional aggregation point
e) likelihood of development pressure in next 3-5 years
I found Tulloch, Myers, Hasse, Parks, & Lathrop (2003) provided a good overview of the general LESA technique, but others likely exist as well. If your jurisdiction or organization is interested in this type of LESA for your community, I am capable of performing this analysis on a consultant basis. Please contact me for more details.