Community gardens - A common sense approach to community resilience

LOCAL FOOD: Community gardens on vacant parcels are one way to foster healthful eating, physical activity and community resilience. Photos provided by Mark Apel.

by Mark Apel, Bisbee, Arizona

Local food movements are abounding in many communities throughout the West, even in small towns like Bisbee, Arizona. From weekly farmers’ markets to community supported agriculture (CSAs), communities large and small are embracing age-old traditions of growing, selling and eating local food.

The benefits of this strategy are numerous and include:

  • Local food systems support local farmers and growers, keeping their hard earned dollars in the community.
  • Produce grown locally is fresher since its availability is virtually immediate and doesn’t require shipping over hundreds of miles.
  • Local food systems avoid carbon emissions associated with long distance shipping and transportation.

Community gardens are a growing sector of local food systems that are popping up in the middle of large cities as well as smaller towns and neighborhoods. One non-profit organization, Community Gardens of Tucson, defines them as “a place where neighbors can grow flowers or vegetables together on one plot of land and share water, tools, expertise and upkeep.” These kinds of gardens provide opportunities for people who may not have the resources to start their own garden. Since many community gardens are started on vacant parcels, certain planning issues may arise that can be easily handled through a simple, yet well-crafted ordinance.

In his 2011 Western Planner Conference presentation in Santa Fe, New Mexico, planner and attorney Don Elliott, FAICP, of Clarion Associates, focused on turning esoteric sustainability policies into “nuts and bolts” zoning regulations. After many years of developing zoning ordinances with jurisdictions of different sizes all around the country, Elliott discussed the most common sustainable zoning topics encountered in his work, of which “fostering local food” was in his top five.

According to his advice, allowing community gardens on vacant parcels as a use by right while retaining the original underlying zoning was more advantageous to local jurisdictions. That way, if market forces in the future made the parcel more valuable for a more intense use, such as commercial or residential, the community has preserved that option by retaining the original zoning. Meanwhile, in the interim, community gardens create great spaces for outdoor physical activity as well as small scale economic development and welfare. Many community gardens provide their produce directly to local food banks.

Bisbee, Arizona is one small community that took this advice. While not always small, Bisbee was once known as the ‘Queen of the Copper Camps’ and was one of the largest cities in the West outside of San Francisco in the early 1900s with upwards of 20,000 residents. Today, located over a mile high in the Mule Mountains of southeastern Arizona, Bisbee stands at about 5,500 residents and much of the old brick-building architecture is still present downtown. But, there are also many vacant lots where miners’ shacks once stood in close proximity to each other. Since the mining operations shut down in 1975, very little new construction has taken place. A lot of energy has been spent on renovating historic structures. Nonetheless, Bisbee, as the county seat, is a thriving community with artists, authors, antique dealers, retirees and alternative health professionals. There is an ongoing interest in this small community to engage in activities that are considered more sustainable, including organic gardening, rainwater harvesting, and a busy farmers’ market.

There are several things to consider when crafting new zoning regulations around community gardens. First, the small community of Bisbee had no specific rules on how to treat community gardens on vacant parcels. As noted earlier, there is an abundance of vacant lots in the town that are ideally suited for small neighborhood gardens. Several community members keenly interested in promoting sustainability practices in Bisbee approached the city’s Community Development Department to see what ‘roadblocks’ there may be if neighbors were interested in starting a community garden on a vacant parcel. In turn, the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission and staff were tasked to come up with regulations that wouldn’t be overly burdensome but would provide basic sideboards for community health and safety, easily allowing any individual or group to start a community garden in their neighborhood.

The first precept, per Elliott’s advice, was that Bisbee didn’t need to create a new zoning district or conditional use to allow gardens on vacant parcels. Instead, community gardens should be allowed as a use by right in all zoning districts. Under the second principle, Bisbee didn’t need to fit a ‘square peg into a round hole’ by trying to apply normal site development standards to a community garden.

For example, requiring a certain number of on-site parking spaces or applying standard setbacks to the use just wasn’t appropriate. So the crafting of the ordinance focused on relaxing those kinds of standards while developing a few common sense rules that applied only to gardens. Today, the new regulations, adopted through a public hearing process in 2012, include: parcel owner consent, hours of operation; maximum garden size (10,000 sq. ft.), compliance with light pollution codes, and restrictions which address on-site sales, signs and animals/livestock.

At the same time, the new ordinance exempts community gardens from parking requirements and certain accessory structure requirements for garden sheds and hoop houses provided all structures are removed within 60 days after the site ceases to be used as a community garden. In addition, design review for garden related accessory structures is also waived in the city’s historic district. Anyone interested in the specific wording of the ordinance can visit Article 6.13 of the City’s Zoning Code: http://www.cityofbisbee.com/documents/ZoningCODE1998-updatedMay2012.pdf

Being mindful of a careful balance between appropriate rules and zoning exemptions can foster a common-sense ordinance in any community that is interested in enhancing its own local food system and resources. Community gardens on vacant parcels are one way to foster healthful eating, physical activity and community resilience.


Mark Apel works for the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension as an agent in community resource development. He is the chair of the Western Planner Editorial Board and is on the Western Planning Resources Board.


Published in the December 2013/ January 2014 Issue

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