Michigan Land Use Institute

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A New Plan for Green Space

March 26, 2009 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Cynthia Price
One important step is to make space for food and gardening in land use regulations.

The township long had allowed processing, such as canning or freezing cherries, in agricultural zones. The amendment went further; it defined retail sales and processing as part of the farm operation itself. This eliminated the long and often contentious process farmers faced when they applied for special use zoning permits to develop new businesses.

It also reflected a growing recognition among community leaders that a new brand of entrepreneurial agriculture not only can fit well with the rural landscape, but also is vital for providing the new sources of income farm families need to keep working their land.

If you were to look around your community through the eyes of someone like Andy Bowman or Cynthia Price, you would see some interesting activities popping up in city parks and even suburban neighborhoods.

Through the eyes of these Grand Rapids-area visionaries, you would see city parks where fruit trees and vegetables mingle among the tulips and the swing sets. You might see fruit from those trees picked for a neighborhood school’s snack selection.

And you would even see subdivisions’ green spaces suddenly busy with people tending market gardens and small chicken coops.

Viewed through one’s own eyes, however, it all disappears. One big reason: Local zoning ordinances governing what you can do in your backyard, or even on your farm, either prohibit or ignore such local food opportunities.

That is why Mr. Bowman, Ms. Price, and many other people in Michigan and around the country work to clear away old zoning approaches and make way for a new, local-food day in urban, suburban, and rural areas.

Mr. Bowman works for the Grand Valley Metropolitan Council, the regional body that brings together local leaders from Grand Rapids and its surrounding townships and villages to address how the region works as a whole. Ms. Price is a founding leader of the Greater Grand Rapids Food Systems Council, people who come from agriculture, health care, business development, and elsewhere to make good food available and affordable to all.

The two have launched an effort to show metro Grand Rapids how land use rules can allow for more local food production, processing, and retailing.

Their guide, New Approaches for Growing in Our Communities, shows how agriculture can fit into our daily lives and local government thinking—from city streets to rural communities.

“It has to do primarily with how you establish agricultural uses on green spaces and open lands or vacant lots within the city,” Mr. Bowman said. “In many cases, it involves the city not only agreeing to but also sponsoring the concept.”

For example, a neighborhood association might want to buy some vacant lots and turn them into a community garden growing food for families and businesses, he said. At present, there is nary a mention in the city or township’s regulations about that kind of land use, let alone a way for the group to approach the local zoning board and explain how it would manage the garden responsibly.

That is why Mr. Bowman and Ms. Price produced the guide: They want to clarify how such things can happen and how local governments and residents can work out the details.

And it looks like Grand Rapids is ready for it, Mr. Bowman said. The city is opening doors for new local food activity in town with its Green Grand Rapids initiative and a new citywide zoning ordinance that allows for a greater mix of uses in every zoning district.

Look for their urban agriculture zoning guide at http://www.foodshed.net/.

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