Sustainability: Urban gardens sow community growth

by John Anderson

Melodie Lapot / Staff Artist
Melodie Lapot / Staff Artist

Despite how it feels at the pump, gas remains significantly less expensive than my blood. Conflicts half a world away are closing the gap more than I’d like; prices are nearing record highs here in San Diego. As oil prices soar, the cost of manufacturing and distributing food stuffs is rising as well. City residents cannot continue to rely on imported food to meet all of our needs — the prices, environmental effects and risks are too high. In the face of rising oil prices, we need to start thinking about growing more of our food locally. Though there certainly isn’t room for Archer Daniels Midland to set up corporate farmland in La Mesa, there is certainly space for small-scale farming and gardening. In many parts of San Diego, community gardens are illegal. The depressed construction market means these lots lie stagnant, unused and barren, useless, doing significantly more harm than good. There are empty spaces all around, yet despite city action, a significant amount of red tape still stands between potential urban farmers and their plots.
Urban gardening has immense environmental, social, economic and security advantages. Gardens provide our cement jungles with some much needed greenery. Planting vegetation helps to offset climate-changing greenhouse gasses generated in the cities. Rooftop gardening reduces energy demands by shading and insulating buildings, and also reduces storm water runoff. Plus, green areas simply look nice. From a social standpoint, gardens provide city residents with a place to exercise, socialize and learn about the foods they put in their bodies. They provide city dwellers with space where they can immerse themselves in nature without having to drive for miles to reach it. Growing food instills a sense of pride and accomplishment, while saving money. Members of Community Food Security Coalition’s North American Initiative on Urban Agriculture claim a 10-square-meter plot can supply nearly a year’s worth of vegetables for a household. Hyper-local food production greatly reduces the threat to food security for urban areas like San Diego. This creates an insulating effect from problems outside the community and stabilizes food supplies and prices.
Our city is spotted with depressingly empty lots and unused space. Just down College Avenue there is a large field lying dormant, screaming out for someone to plant something on it. On El Cajon Boulevard, the cracked foundation of an old shopping center languishes behind chain-link fencing. The crumbling remains of an old Greek residence on Montezuma Road are fenced off, littered with garbage, lessening property values. With a little work, these distressed properties have potential to do huge amounts of good for our community.
Unfortunately, the amount of red tape around urban gardening is baffling and frustrating. As the law stands in San Diego, gardens cannot be planted on any land designated as commercial, even if the owner supports the plan while other areas require a permit. Applying for and receiving a permit to even construct a garden is prohibitively complicated, and expensive. If you want to sell the food grown, things get even more bureaucratic and difficult. San Diego State’s own Dr. David Larom was blocked from selling produce grown on his sustainable farming project, cultivated on SDSU-owned land on the Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve, rendering the project temporarily infeasible. The future of Larom’s project and that of any group wanting to set up a plot depends on changing the offending laws.
Deserving of applause, Mayor Jerry Sanders and Councilman Todd Gloria have recently introduced amendments to the city’s zoning regulations that will make establishing urban gardens much easier. They plan to strip zoning restrictions and permit requirements from the law to encourage urban gardening. Our local leadership needs to pass these amendments; we must demand it of them. Amending the law is a fantastic step in the right direction, but we can go further. Making it easier to sell the goods at farmers markets and co-ops such as Ocean Beach People’s Organic Food Market would make urban gardening even more appealing.  We could even give tax incentives to property owners who establish urban gardens. Cities need to get with the times and take advantage of urban gardening. The benefits to citizens and the environment are tangible, and can be realized now.

—John Anderson is an ISCOR senior.

—The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Daily Aztec