Shawn Hubler

Op Images: Urban agriculture ordinances grow more than greenery

A proposed urban agriculture ordinance in Sacramento would let community gardeners like Oak Park’s Mike Viscuso sell produce from neighborhood farm stands. Neighbors would become acquainted and save money by selling each other their crops, he says.
A proposed urban agriculture ordinance in Sacramento would let community gardeners like Oak Park’s Mike Viscuso sell produce from neighborhood farm stands. Neighbors would become acquainted and save money by selling each other their crops, he says. shubler@sacbee.com

Wholesome places aren’t accidental. It takes cultivation to create a warm, friendly neighborhood.

This understanding runs like a root through the urban agriculture ordinances that have gradually made their way into policy, here and statewide. Sliced by freeways, diced by income, inclined by habit and history to be more private than public, most citified Californians will drive 5 miles for a can of Minute Maid before thinking to borrow an orange from a neighbor.

That has ramifications, from increased obesity to social isolation. So cities up and down the state increasingly look for ways to replant communities on a scale that’s more human. Those seeds, it is hoped, will have ramifications, too.

Ask an urban gardener like Mike Viscuso why Sacramento should enact the urban ag ordinance scheduled to come March 17 before the City Council – a set of zoning and other expansions that would allow more urban gardens and neighborhood farm stands – and he’s as likely to talk about connection as about his purple cabbage and Long Island Brussels sprouts.

“Think of a mother with two kids, who comes home from work and has to get something for dinner,” said Viscuso, weeding the tenth-of-an-acre Oak Park patch that he cultivates through his nonprofit, Urban Sustainable Solutions. “Ordinarily, she has to get her kids ready, pile them into a car and drive to a store before she can even start dinner.

“But what if all she had to do was put some shoes on the kids, walk around the neighborhood and buy fresh food from her neighbors? All of a sudden, people who didn’t ordinarily engage would be engaging. All of a sudden, she’d have an extra hour at the end of the day, or at the end of the month, an extra $40.”

Viscuso’s garden, on land owned by a friend’s father, would yield only enough for him to sell produce a few times a month, if he were allowed a farm stand. Few plots in the city are remotely large enough to continually supply enough vegetables for ongoing sales.

But the patch, near Stockton Boulevard and Broadway, already is a source of fresh greens for its elderly neighbors and the kids Viscuso’s nonprofit pays to help tend it. Another ordinance in the pipeline, offering a property tax break for turning vacant lots into gardens, would not only improve food access, but help curb blight.

City Council members have expressed support, though a couple have worried in committee whether occasional farm stands would create a nuisance in dense residential zones. If Viscuso’s garden is any indication, they should cross that bridge if and when they come to it. On the shabby corner where he has planted, any sign of life would be an improvement.

But his emerald shoots show promise. As we chatted, kids wandered by, and the occasional car slowed.

“If this passes, you probably won’t see much change the first year,” he predicted. “But over time? This could change a whole lot.”

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