In The Zone
By Kiley Jacques
Article 89 gives Boston a new lease on urban agriculture.
Boston neighborhood planner Marie Mercurio visits a greenhouse in Roxbury run by the Food Project. Photo: Eric Roth
The list of favorable things former Mayor Menino did for Boston could very well run the length of Washington Street. Among the items on that list is Article 89, which permits and regulates urban agriculture as a by-right land use. No other city has anything like it.
The seed that would become Article 89 began germinating five years ago, when a farmer wished to put vacant city lots to use for food production, but couldn’t secure a permit to do so. So he went to the Mayor’s Office. That farmer was Glynn Lloyd—founder and CEO of City Fresh Foods, City Growers, and the Urban Farming Institute—and he is greatly responsible for getting the article off the ground and into the garden.
It wasn’t long before the idea gained support from all corners of the city. By 2010, a community-based effort to draft Article 89 was well underway. Three primary entities collaborated to move the new zoning forward: the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), a mayor’s group comprised of urban farming advocates, and the Office of Food Initiatives—whose mission it is to increase access to fresh food and expand opportunities for urban agriculture. “We worked very closely with the mayor’s office, which was a big advantage,” says BRA senior planner John (Tad) Read. “To have the weight of [his] office behind us was very powerful. This really was a bottom-up and a top-down initiative.”
Other key players included Boston Natural Areas Network, which oversees many of the city’s gardens, and has a long history of working with the community to promote urban agriculture. Additionally, the Trust for Public Land continues to acquire and prepare land for farmers who are not in a position, whether for technical or financial reasons, to use their own land.
Working farmers were also at the table, attending meetings and offering advice. “This is a community that is passionate about what they do,” notes Read. “We found them extremely reasonable and practical.” Stakeholders also included farms like the Food Project, which provides programming for at-risk youth, and operations like ReVision Urban Farm and Freight Farms. BRA planners relied on Courtney Hennessey and John Stoddard of Higher Ground Farm, among others, for their professional expertise in order to draft the rooftop-farming piece of the ordinance. “There are very competent, creative, and motivated farmers in the city—real leaders,” notes Read.
Three years and many meetings later, the article was finalized in 2013. Standards for the siting, design, maintenance, and modification of agriculture-related activities are now detailed and readily accessible. The article’s citywide implementation has meant farmers are able to grow and sell their produce in the city without bumping up against barriers.
“Article 89 makes it possible to locate in the city, close to our market and the distribution system,” says Shawn Cooney, owner of Corner Stalk—a shipping container farm in East Boston. “Without farm zoning we would have been forced out of the city to more rural suburbs…not a bad option, but it does not address the city’s need to use some of the underutilized and distressed properties in the city, and [it does] not allow us to easily access the city labor pool.”
The legislation was put into action with a pilot project on two Dorchester properties owned by the Department of Neighborhood Development (DND). “They have the land in the city and they have been extremely resourceful and creative about making that land available for farming. They have done everything within their power to make sure [of it],” says Read.
“For the pilot farms,” explains BRA senior planner Marie Mercurio, “the zoning was merely an urban agriculture overlay versus what we have worked on [subsequently], which is the citywide zoning that became a whole urban agriculture zoning ordinance for people of the city.” To date, DND has enabled farming on three additional sites with more in the pipeline. “I think the momentum is going to continue to build,” enthuses Read.
The types of operations benefitting from the ordinance vary. Expansion by both nonprofit and for-profit farming on city-owned land has been made possible with its implementation. For-profit beneficiaries include City Growers, which sells its produce to area restaurants, and Freight Farms, among others. “There’s a [real] blend of nonprofit and for-profit interests involved here,” notes Read. “With nonprofits, it’s not so much about the volume of food produced as it is about engaging with the community and teaching business development skills and job training.” The for-profit model is about scale and quantity of food produced and distributed. “Those models are equally important in this city,” he says. Both camps contribute to increased food access.
The legislation’s impact is felt citywide. “Before Article 89 ever came about…commercial agricultural ventures [were] not found in the zoning code,” explains Mercurio. Now, every last zone in the city allows farms of up to one acre. “That’s a huge change—from forbidden everywhere to allowed as a right everywhere,” notes Read. “That means no trips to the zoning board of appeal…that obstacle is now gone.” At this stage, the Mayor’s Office is trying to make the whole process more transparent. “I think we have removed a very significant barrier—the zoning barrier—but there are still other permitting challenges that have to be addressed,” says Read. “Anything we can do to streamline the permitting process will reduce the economic burden on farmers.”
Cooney shares the sentiment: “I would like to see better, faster access to city-owned lands—even as short-term leases. The Assets Department is still big-city slow. Tax breaks for landowners leasing land for farming would accelerate access for non-city owned land. There is legislation at the state level that is being submitted. “
Beyond removing obstacles to permitting, the ordinance also creates opportunities for community-supported enterprises to fill professional, educational, and social roles. For example, jobs that didn’t exist two years ago exist now. “These are people who are educated in environmental science or horticulture, and they are becoming farm managers on small community farms,” explains Mercurio. “There are so many different kinds of jobs out there [in the field] of urban agriculture.”
Far left: Glynn Lloyd is the founder and CEO of City Fresh Foods, City Growers, and the Urban Farming Institute. Photo: Melody Ko. Middle: Shawn and Connie Cooney started Cornstalk, a freight farming operation in the city of Boston. Right: Kesiah Bascom at the Roxbury Food Project greenhouse. Photos: Eric Roth
BRA continues to have a finger on the pulse of Article 89. They work with new farms gearing up to take advantage of the legislation. “I’m still in love with this project,” says Mercurio, who helps people interpret the article and conducts Comprehensive Farm Reviews—a design review process that ensures the farm in question will be a good neighbor to abutting property owners. A farm’s layout, the activities it will support, the height of its structures, its signage, etc., are among the considerations. “We are looking at all of these factors so hopefully they won’t create any nuisances,” says Mercurio. The city also mails letters to property owners within a 300-foot radius of a proposed farm so its development doesn’t come as a surprise.
The inquiries fielded by BRA run the gamut. “It’s not just the farms,” notes Mercurio. People ask about permitting for things like growing micro greens, erecting a new shed, or building a hydroponic facility. “I help them determine the zoning for any type of urban agriculture activity they want to do.”
The passing of the mayor’s torch to Marty Walsh ensures Article 89’s continued success. A strong proponent of local food production and the programs that support it, Mayor Walsh furthers the work initiated during Menino’s time in office. It is clear the new administration values the ways in which Article 89 weaves urban agriculture into the fabric of the city and ties people together on multiple fronts. “This was something so many facets of a diverse community got behind,” notes Read. “It was something that appealed to many groups on many levels—food access, food justice, and the ‘cool factor’—everyone got excited about it.”