“Silence is Not Consent”: Plantation, Poison and the Politics of Planning for Urban Agriculture in Boston.

(Credit: Shiftboston)

(Credit: Shiftboston)

Urban agriculture has enjoyed a near meteoric rise in popularity in recent years. Projects began mostly through the grassroots efforts of non-profit organizations, but now urban planners and many city officials are also very interested in its interlinked economic, social, health and environmental benefits. Many of these officials and planners see urban agriculture’s greatest potential in low-income and communities of color where fresh food and employment opportunities can be scant, even though such desires may or may not have been articulated by community members. The official assumption seems to be that the benefits of urban agriculture are so compelling that everyone will want it. Period.

While some communities of color have become active proponents of urban agriculture and alternative food systems (Alkon and Agyeman 2011, White 2010), critical agrarian scholars contest the presumed universal appeal of urban agriculture. They argue that urban agriculture, and alternative food systems more generally, often reflect the desires of racially and economically privileged groups that are then pushed onto communities of color (Guthman 2008, Slocum 2006 a and b). In this way, urban agricultural projects existing in, but not led by communities of color, can be seen taking the space to which one group has been restricted and handing it to another. Urban agriculture can also be viewed as fostering gentrification, as “alternative” individuals attracted by the gritty do-it-yourselfness of both urban farms and marginalized neighborhoods change the atmosphere into one that attracts developers and affluent consumers (Zukin 2008, Cadji and Alkon 2014).

This Blog post presents a case from the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, MA, in which long-term black and brown residents initially contested a city-led urban agriculture project. Their concerns focused on a lack of inclusion in the planning process, which they believed indicated a desire to turn control of land in their community over to non-residents, who were largely white and middle class. Of particular interest is the way in which residents used racialized language in order to fight for spatial justice and to claim their right to the city. This was widely resonant given the neighborhood’s racialized environmental history (Norgaard, Reed and Van Horn 2011), in which racial inequalities have been formed and expressed through land use and development processes. This case demonstrates how a lack of participatory planning can negatively affect community responses to zoning decisions, even when the proposed land use change has generated considerable popular attention.

It also suggests that planners must develop an increased and deepened understanding of the related concepts of recognition, difference and cultural competency, the latter of which is defined by Agyeman and Erickson (2012) as:

the range of awareness, beliefs, knowledge, skills, behaviors and professional practice that will assist in planning for, in, and, with ‘multiple publics’ (Sandercock 1998).

Goonewardena, Rankin, and Weinstock (2004, 12) argue that planners: “retain[ed] a belief in the planner’s expertise . . . in many instances committing the cultural injustice of non-recognition by failing to involve marginal groups directly in the planning process.” This critique ultimately comes from the work of Young (1990), who notes that recognition of difference should lead not to equality of treatment but to different treatment of groups or individuals based on the extent of their cultural and group marginalization, and lack of privilege and power. Our case suggests that cultural competency must include this recognition of difference and incorporation of cultural groups in a way that is cognizant of their relative power and privilege.

And yet, this post is more than just another cautionary tale emphasizing the dangers of social, racial, cultural and community exclusion. In this case, planners responded to organized community opposition by slowing down an urban agricultural overlay zoning process to allow for community participation, and by significantly revising their land use plan. For their part, community members participated actively in (re)negotiating the implementation plan and many, though certainly not all of them, became supportive of the project. We argue that planners displayed a lack of recognition and cultural competency in their approach to this issue, in this community, allowing or even forcing residents to deploy a racialized language that helped community members garner recognition that could create space for their participation and yield a more just and equitable result.

Planning and urban agriculture

The origins of urban planning’s current flirtation with urban agriculture go back at least to Howard’s (1902) ideas in the U.K. around the Garden City. He saw urban agriculture as both a productive enterprise and a source of labor for the poor. In the Second World War, the U.S. Victory Gardens and the U.K. Dig for Victory campaigns encouraged urban dwellers to secure their food supply by growing food on local lots (allotments in the U.K.). The recent interest of U.S. urban planners in the broader food system of which urban agriculture is a part can be dated to Pothukuchi and Kaufman’s (2000) seminal paper: ‘The Food System – A Stranger to the Planning Field.’ In the paper they note that the food system is “notable by its absence from the writing of planning scholars, from the plans prepared by planning practitioners, and from the classrooms in which planning students are taught” (p113). Wekerle (2004) similarly suggests that planners attend to urban agriculture efforts as “examples of citizen-initiated policy making and new forms of governance or as cases of citizen planning and grassroots democracy [because they] should be of interest to urban planners focused on various forms of citizen planning” (p 379).

Since the publication of these works, planners and planning scholars have become increasingly interested in urban agriculture. The Journal of Planning Education and Research in June 2004 was a special on planning and food systems and in Winter 2004 Progressive Planning produced a ‘Food and Planning’ special. In 2007, the practitioner-focused American Planning Association adopted its Policy Guide on Community and Regional Food Planning (APA 2007) followed in 2008 by its more practical ‘how to’ guide ‘A Planners Guide to Community and Regional Food Planning’ (Raja et al 2008a), which focused on the involvement of planners in “six communities efforts to promote healthy eating.” Planning scholars have argued that urban agriculture is a particularly good fit for the planning field due to compatible processes, tools and techniques.

Campbell, for example, (2004) argues that: “community food assessment’s focus on system analysis has striking parallels with comprehensive planning analysis and indicates a clear intersection between food systems work and planning” (p 352). Beyond a systems perspective, urban agriculture and planning share a commitment to creating environmental sustainability and social justice (Agyeman 2005, Pearsall and Pierce 2010). Planners are often among those advocates of urban agriculture celebrating its health benefits, namely the provision of healthy, locally-sourced fruits and vegetables (Brown & Jameton, 2007, Colasanti & Hamm, 2010), environmental benefits such as reduced greenhouse-gas emissions and food miles (Jansma, Sukkel, Stilma, Van Oost, & Visser, 2012, McClintock 2010), and social benefits including increasing civic engagement (DeLind, 2002, Hale et al., 2011; Litt et al 2011).

While the planning literature tends to regard urban agriculture, and planners involvement in it, as a desirable outcome, critical food scholars have taken a more measured approach. Most relevant to our case are those studies that have sought to examine the relationship between race, class and alternative food systems, an umbrella term that encompasses local, organic, slow and other constellations of production, distribution and consumption that comprise alternatives to the global, industrial model (Alkon and Agyeman 2011, Gottlieb and Joshi 2011).

Many scholars have noted that alternative food systems such as urban agriculture have been anchored largely in affluent and middle-class predominantly white neighborhoods and, even when located in more diverse areas, tend to appeal disproportionately to white, affluent and middle class individuals (Guthman 2008a, Alkon and McCullen 2010, Pilgeram 2012, Bailey 2012, Maples et al 2013). This is in part due to the financial pressure for urban agriculture to be profitable (Kaufman and Bailkey 2000), which deflects practitioners’ attention from the needs of low-income people (Block, Chávez, Allen, & Ramirez, 2011). Furthermore, scholars and activists have questioned whether urban agriculture projects contribute to gentrification by making marginalized neighborhoods seem attractive to more affluent individuals, business owners and developers (Zukin 2008), creating a transfer of land use and ownership from marginalized communities to more affluent ones (Holt-Gimenez and Shattuck 2011).

This is not to say that communities of color have not articulated a desire for and developed noteworthy urban agriculture projects. Often under the banner of “food justice,” activists attempt to use sustainable local food systems not only to create environmental sustainability and community, but to address racial and economic inequalities (Alkon and Agyeman 2011, Gottlieb and Joshi 2011). Detroit’s D-Town Farms and the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, for example, are noteworthy for their longstanding community leadership and their emphasis on creating economic and food security in the black community (White 2010).

Another example is the Growing Food and Justice Initiative, a network whose member organizations offer a race-conscious take on sustainable agriculture and aim to deploy alternative food systems as a tool toward ending racism (Morales 2011). Immigrant communities often come from agrarian backgrounds, and for them, urban agriculture can become a way to achieve food security, maintain and celebrate cultural foodways and create translocal food and agricultural practices that reflect their migratory journeys (Valiente-Neighbours 2012, Mares and Peña 2011). Projects rooted in these communities, however, tend to be less well funded than their white counterparts and often garner less support from city agencies.

In 2006, Born and Purcell urged planners to attend to the wider and more critical food systems literature rather than be taken in by the romance of ‘the local’ in alternative food systems. But whereas their research focuses on scale, ours looks to the relationship between race, class and food systems to argue for the importance of participatory planning and cultural competence in historically marginalized neighborhoods. This remains true even when the proposed land use seems to be generally well liked, as was the case with urban agriculture in Dorchester.

Boston’s Urban Agriculture Overlay District (UAOD)

The City of Boston, and former and late Mayor Thomas Menino in particular, were recognized as national leaders in food and agriculture. Non-profit farms and community gardens have been popular for decades and local organizations such as The Food Project have promoted urban agriculture as part of their green economy models to create jobs for local residents.

This post describes our research into events between the first community meeting in November 2010 and the agreement by the City of Boston in December 2013 to Article 89, allowing for commercial urban agriculture across the city. Prior to Article 89, the newest Article in Boston’s zoning code, for-profit urban agriculture was forbidden, though the city’s community gardens were covered under its Open Space Zoning District. In 2010, the city initiated a process to establish an Urban Agriculture Overlay District (UAOD) to allow the cultivation of fruits and vegetables on land in the city. Phase I, the basis for much of this post, included a pilot project to attract for-profit farms to four specific city owned lots in the Codman Square area of Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood (Figure 1). The program was administered by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) the planning authority for Boston.

Figure 1 Urban Agriculture Rezoning- Proposed Parcels

Figure 1 Urban Agriculture Rezoning- Proposed Parcels

A racialized environmental history

It is important to understand residents’ concerns in the context of the neighborhood’s history. After World War II, and despite its thriving commercial district in Codman Square, Dorchester was among those Boston neighborhoods classified as blighted and denied loans by the Home Owners Loan Corporation. The situation worsened in the 1960s and 1970s when the heads of 22 Boston savings banks designated specific neighborhoods where African Americans could obtain federally insured home loans (Hall 2004). The designated areas aligned almost entirely with Boston’s Jewish community, which were coincidentally unprofitable to bankers because so many of the residents had paid their mortgages off (Levine & Harmon 1992). The program’s impact on the target neighborhoods was “chaos” (Wright 2002 p 53). Block busting, panic selling, and racially motivated street violence and vandalism ensued, all of which contributed to a diminished demand for housing in Codman Square and other parts of Dorchester (Wright 2002). Those who could afford to moved away; vacancy rates soared and property values declined (Hall 2004, Wright 2002).

Between 1950 and 1980, the city of Boston lost 30% of its population. This “white flight” was acute in Codman Square which, during the 1970s, lost nearly 29 residents each week. (Walczak n.d.). Falling tax revenues in the inner city reduced the city’s ability to maintain municipal services (Warner 1987). Historian Thomas O’Connor, nicknamed the “unofficial dean of Boston history” recounts the effects of reduced city services on the neighborhood. “Homes fell into serious disrepair, streets were no longer cleaned, garbage piled up in the alleyways, parks and playgrounds were soon neglected, and vandalism became commonplace” (O’Connor 1993 p 67). Rents fell, causing extensive landlord abandonment and arson.

These socio-historical processes helped to shape the geography of the neighborhood, increasing vacant land thereby decreasing development pressure. These factors are likely among the reasons that the UAOD project was targeted to the area. These processes are also among the reasons that participatory planning is so important in this neighborhood. As one organizer we talked to during our focus group put it:

You’re coming into a neighborhood that’s been through so much in the past… You have to get [residents] involved because these people have been through a lot. So you have to come and approach them.

The lack of participatory planning processes that occurred with regard to the UAOD fits a larger pattern of disputes between the neighborhood and the city. Despite a decades-long history of community organizing and what Councilor Yancey calls a “very active” group of residents, those living in Dorchester describe it as a “forgotten” neighborhood due to its lack of investment and city services. Each of the residents who attended our focus group described a scenario in which city officials either neglected a lot in their neighborhood or prevented them or a neighbor from maintaining one.

The UAOD was proposed at a time when the demographics of Dorchester have again been shifting. Today, Dorchester is home to an income-diverse group of people from 50 countries including immigrants from the West Indies (especially Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad), as well as young, predominantly white professionals relocating to the city from the suburbs. Additionally, community organizations have formed in order to highlight community problems, mobilize residents, and attract public and private redevelopment funding. These new residents and organizations have revitalized the neighborhood, initiating new businesses and raising property values (Walczak n.d.).

Combined with the UAOD’s lack of participatory processes, this demographic transition caused some residents to be suspicious of the city’s newfound interest in their neighborhood. In the words of one resident:

if you look at the neighborhoods, it’s changing a lot. Is it really for poor folks? Or is it, the neighborhood is changing and the people who are coming in will benefit from it? That’s how I think. We used to have to clean the streets for ourselves. The city would never come clean the streets. Now, they’re towing your car.

The debate about the UAOD needs to be understood in the context of this racialized environmental history. Long-term community residents can cite a history of policies encouraging divestment and neglect as evidence for their belief that city officials are uninterested in their wellbeing. Against this backdrop, a lack of participatory planning processes can reasonably seem malicious, rather then the careless result of a rushed mayoral directive. In addition, the community members perceived inabilities to access the benefits of these urban farms can be read as a desire by the city to engage in redevelopment projects that suit the needs of outsiders and newly-established wealthier residents rather than revitalization projects that benefit community members.

Dorchester residents resistance to the UAOD

Despite the popularity of urban agriculture, many Dorchester residents had strong, negative reactions to the UAOD project. They did not automatically treat the proposed farms like a desired land use; they strongly opposed bringing in animals and had particular concerns about the quality of the soil. In addition, community members felt they were left out of the process, and believed the proposed farms would benefit outsiders rather than local residents. Their anger reflects not only their experience of the planning process but a history of marginalization through urban development.

Animals, Rodents and Soil

Residents’ most immediate concerns pertained to animals, rodents and soil. At the opening community meeting, in November 2010, city staff introduced the project and potential uses of the farm sites. Concerns over animals, according to one organizer “really ticked off a lot of people… I think it’s that one factor that kind of dominated the…negative views of urban farms coming into the community.”

During our focus group, residents discussed their initial reactions to the city’s plan to raise animals in their neighborhood. “When I first heard it,” said one, “they were talking about farm animals: chickens and goats and stuff like that. That was near where I live. Oh my goodness [I thought] they can’t do something like that!” Another neighbor expressed a similar reaction. “But they just said ‘We’re going to be bringing in pigs’ and everybody said ‘Oh no, you’re not bringing in pigs.’”

Concern about the presence of animals was among the primary issues that motivated residents to become involved in the zoning process. A related issue was residents’ fear that urban farms would drive up the neighborhood’s already substantial rodent population. According to one resident who participated in our focus group. “We have a rodent problem here. And if the city isn’t taking care of the rodent problem now, and yet adding all these farms, who will take care of it then?” Concerns about animals and rodents were particularly important, as this last individual states, because the city has neglected taking care of properties in this neighborhood in the past. Residents’ objections were certainly about the animals and rodents themselves, but also about their lack of faith in the city’s ability to fulfill its obligations to this neighborhood. This reflects the neighborhood’s historically marginalized status within the city.

Questions about soil contamination also reflected a strained history of city-community relations. Residents argued that the city had not prevented identified sites from becoming dumping grounds, and worried that these land uses had poisoned the soil. They repeatedly asked that it be tested by the city. For example, during one of the BRA meetings, a resident said the following:

If we are in fact going to address health issues, we don’t want to end up jeopardizing them by farming on soil that is not tested prior to use and is not clearly verified as a good planting base. In addition, we would like to have whatever produce is farmed here tested before it is sold.

City Councilman Charles Yancey, whose district includes the Dorchester area, was particularly vocal on the issue of soils. When addressing the Zoning Commission during a meeting, he argued that one of the sites was home to a former oil company and the soil could “poison people down the line” (Gaffin 2011).

However, Massachusetts has specific laws about cleaning up contaminated soil that the city claims prevents them from testing the soil. With certain exceptions, these laws hold land-owners liable for any hazardous materials, even if they did not cause the contamination. Senior BRA planner Tad Read said the city could not do the soil test because if contaminants were found, legally required remediation could cost millions of dollars. Instead, city official suggested the construction of raised beds with imported soil, as has been used in nearby community gardens and is supported by soil experts.

Throughout the process described below, many community residents came to agree that this method would provide adequate protection. Others, however, remained unconvinced. Indeed, even after other concerns were resolved, fears of soil contamination remained a sticking point.

Community Input

The most common concern voiced by community members and organizers was that the plan had been developed without their input. Given the neighborhood’s racialized history of marginalization, this concern needs to be read as a racial one in which predominantly black residents feel overlooked and disrespected by a predominantly white city government and planners. “People take this very personal,” said one neighborhood resident. “We have no say in what’s going on. It’s a done deal. They had their minds made up. Evidently someone said ‘Talk to the community’… And they said ‘Oh. What community? You mean those folks?’” Another resident expressed similar sentiments, exclaiming, “We should not be ignored. We’re taxpayers and we should be informed about what’s going on. I would like to know who made the decision about turning that property over into a farm.”

It’s important to note the feelings of deep disrespect conveyed by the residents. From their perspective, the lack of recognition, of community consultation is not accidental, but stems from a belief that city officials are not concerned with their opinions, ideas or wellbeing. This belief is supported by residents’ memories of other planning processes that lacked community participation, which they recalled during the focus group, and by the neighborhood’s racialized environmental history.

Perhaps the strongest words on this topic were spoken by Councillor Yancey, who, when addressing the members of the BRA, specifically referenced racial inequalities”

I think there was a level of arrogance displayed in this process… The BRA totally ignored the community concerns when they voted to approve this project, which in reality had been already approved by assigning their staff to do it. But that’s not a legitimate process… This is not a colonial regime! This is not a plantation! These are residents who deserve respect.

Yancey’s reference to a neighborhood of immigrants and African Americans as a colony and plantation were certainly not coincidental, but reflect historical and present day inequalities between the city and the community. Mimi Ramos of New England United for Justice (NEU4J) who would later organize city residents to participate in the UAOD process, explained this further:

Using [plantation] was very aggressive but [Yancey] did it because he knew that the community had this notion already… [We] connect to that race, income, equality theme and emotion that they’ve always had in the city

The city’s lack of participatory planning was read in the context of past and ongoing inequalities between neighborhood residents and the city. These inequalities intersected with what by all accounts was a rushed process. Project leaders, under pressure from the Mayor’s office, were hoping to gain official approval in just a few short months. Jolie Olivetti, who would become the farm manager when the non-profit Victory Programs eventually leased one of the sites, describes community opposition in this more racially neutral way:

It was a matter of the City rushing into something… They talked about how they did door knocking and they tried to reach out and people weren’t coming to their doors.

But Olivetti does not believe that a rushed timeline excuses the lack of participatory processes. She continues:

I think that that misses the point. You can try, and if it doesn’t work, that doesn’t mean that you’ve just been given consent. Silence is not consent… If people are not responding to you, that doesn’t mean go ahead and do your project.

City representatives also scheduled community meetings, but several were canceled due to severe snowstorms. Meetings were not rescheduled until the community organized to demand additional ones. The city’s decision to approach the project in this way was not inevitable. One community organizer who participated in our focus group offered an alternative strategy:

They could have taken a map and said, ‘Here’s this area. Here are these lots. What do you think we should do with them?’ I’m sure you would have heard garden. Maybe farm. But start there and let that conversation guide the discussion.

However, the city was not prepared to undertake an open visioning process around vacant lots; they had a specific goal to find sites for urban agriculture, and had no money to fund any non-farm based suggestions. Lack of community participation was not only a question of process, but a truly participatory process was at odds with the city’s already chosen goal. Indeed, in city policy and planning circles, it was commonly stated that the primary motivators for the project were to increase the mayor’s prestige and reputation within the city, and to increase Boston’s prestige and reputation in a nation that is increasingly smitten with urban agriculture. In this sense, community meetings were merely a means to placate residents, to bring them on board with an already-chosen project.

Community benefits

Most Dorchester residents were generally supportive of urban agriculture, but did not believe that they would benefit directly from the UAOD farms. At various community meetings and during our focus group, residents spoke favorably about school and community gardens and expressed hope that urban farms could lead to economic development. Interestingly, the previously described concerns about soil testing were never mentioned with regard to school and community gardens.

Dorchester residents objected to the UAOD farms however, because they did not believe this project would yield the kinds of benefits they associated with urban agriculture. During one community meeting, the BRA invited Glynn Lloyd, the founder and CEO of for-profit City Growers (which eventually leased the Glenway St site), to discuss the process of starting an urban farm. Lloyd estimated start-up costs to be between $5,000 and $10,000. A resident described his reaction:

At first when people were thinking about a farm for gardening, they were thinking about a garden that I could work in… [but] nobody in this community that I know of can afford to do the kind of farming that was talked about for this community.

Community members quickly realized that if they were effectively prohibited from leasing these farms, that the city’s goal must be to invite outside groups. In the words of one resident “People in this neighborhood don’t have that kind of money. So you’re talking about maybe rich white people coming into our neighborhood, taking over the community and making money off of our people.” Another resident also couched his response in racial terms. “We’ve been forced to work the land all of our lives, but you’re not going to give us something that we can own!” In the context of the neighborhood’s racialized environmental history, the lack of participatory planning and lack of community benefits seems particularly pernicious.

Furthermore, residents feared that they might not even have access to the produce grown on UAOD farms. As one resident put it, “We couldn’t afford it at the prices they’ll have to charge.” “So who are you building it for?” chimed in another. “For poor folks? Or the types of people who can buy that?” Community members recognized that the farms’ high start-up costs would require the produce they sold to be more expensive than they could afford, further excluding them from not only the process, but the completed project.

While Dorchester residents were generally supportive of urban agriculture, they resisted the UAOD farms. Perhaps because residents were not able to participate in the development of the project, it was designed in such a way that they felt they would be unable to reap its benefits.

Better late than never: Developing community support

There were many reasons that community members opposed the development of urban farms in their neighborhood. Proximate concerns about animals and soil masked deeper struggles around community participation and community benefits. However, just a few short months after tensions between the city and community came to a head, many community members became active supporters of the UAOD. We argue that this dramatic transition was based on three important criteria: the existence of well connected community-based organizations, the city’s willingness to slow down the process, and the actual incorporation of community concerns into official decisions and documents. Residents’ anger succeeded in garnering city planners’ attention and creating space for a more participatory dialogue. This demonstrates that even in historically marginalized neighborhoods, and even when opposition is fiercely racialized, participatory planning can lead to mutually beneficial solutions.

Community-based Organizations

Boston has a long history of strong community-based organizations. Since the 1990s, block groups and civic associations were created and strengthened, covering most of Codman Square (Walczak n.d., 24). These community organizations have represented residents’ concerns about development. City-and foundation-driven attempts have failed because, “from the perspective of its residents, the plans had been imposed from above, as thinly misguided acts of charity” (Settles 1994 p12).

Area residents, for their part, are not naïve about what participating in development processes entails. A new playground installed in 2009 took ten years of resident activism and work. Community organizer Mimi Ramos says that the organization’s members and local residents “have constantly been in struggle, whether its abutting issues, vacant land concerns with the BRA….” But, she said that the City and the BRA have done an “amazing job” in the past to “really bring organizations and residents together.” Even Senior BRA Planner Tad Read admitted that they didn’t move the UAOD process in the way they normally do, presumably due to pressure from the Mayor’s office.

The neighborhood’s strong community-based organizations supported Dorchester residents when they became frustrated with the UAOD. Indeed, organizers describe being made aware of the issue by community residents, and then deciding to become involved:

Urban farms wasn’t on our platform really, it wasn’t on our plate. But [a resident] brought it to me and the organization and members during a meeting. That’s when we started to get involved.

Residents expressed anger during community meetings, often in racial terms. However, the existence of strong community organizations enabled them to move from opposition to constructive participation. This was possible because NEU4J was both perceived as legitimate by residents and had pre-existing relationships with the city.

Silence is not Consent: The City Listens

To their credit, once community concerns were voiced, city officials turned away from their previous timeline to ensure that community members had ample opportunity to make themselves heard. A Zoning Commission hearing to implement the zoning change was postponed from March to November (Dumicus, May 26, 2011) and the city staff clearly modified their approach. BRA Director John Palmieri describes how community concerns would affect the UAOD process as it moved forward:

Who is going to be selected to farm? How does the neighborhood get involved? Will children be engaged? All legitimate concerns. I think that those concerns are the concerns that will be addressed when we go through the Request for Proposals (RFP) process. We have to prepare an RFP, vet it with the community. It won’t go anywhere unless the community overwhelmingly supports the request.

In addition, city staff scheduled two additional meetings and approached community organizations for help in revising the process. Said one community organizer:

If I can be very direct, they were getting their asses kicked because the community was very angry. That, at least for me, gave the neighborhood some respect when there was so much push back to give us more time…We asked the city to pause for a minute to see where people were getting confused and understanding where people need more information.

In addition, the city redoubled its outreach efforts. City staff created educational brochures and postcards and staff-community member teams went door-to-door. Mimi Ramos of NEU4J praised city staff for their efforts to present the next phase of the process in easy-to understand language:

I really appreciated [their] intent to come up with a menu of ‘What are the things that you would like to see in this RFP? [and] to try to work that into their process. That was powerful and important.

Residents’ vocal anger prompted city planners to slow down and attempt to bring them on board. In response, residents worked through a trusted community-based organization to participate in the process.

Process Reflects Community Concerns

Urban planners need to be concerned with the existence of participatory processes from both a legal and an ethical standpoint (APA 2009), meaning that those who are affected by planning decisions are able to share in the decision making. But while participation is important as an end, it is more so a means to influence outcomes. With regard to the UAOD, not only did the city eventually hear from community members, but their concerns were integrated into the process in meaningful ways.

The BRA made two decisive decisions that quickly incorporated community concerns. First, they responded to residents’ resistance to animals by permitting plant cultivation only. Secondly, the BRA eliminated one original site where residents working with a local community development corporation had long been petitioning to create a playground. Seeing their views affect outcomes encouraged community residents to continue participating in the process.

The project’s next phase was to create an RFP through which urban agriculture groups could apply to lease the remaining sites. The RFP required ongoing community participation and engagement to be a key feature of any farm’s proposal. This allowed residents to be key decision makers in shaping the farm’s operations. With regard to community members’ concerns about soil quality, the RFP specified that farmers will be required to follow “established practices of the Boston gardening community” for separating the existing soil from contact with people and produce. Mechanical equipment use was limited to specific times of the day, and farmers were asked to consider traffic flow and parking needs in their proposal. Proposals were ranked based on how well they demonstrated technical farming experience and a sound business plan, as well as how they addressed community benefits such as making produce available to residents at affordable prices or providing job training and internships for local residents.

Jolie Olivetti, of Victory Program’s ReVision Urban Farm outlines her organizations response to the RFP:

All of the questions were about community benefits. How is this going to benefit the community? How many youth are you going to employ? How many volunteers are going to be there? How many pounds of food are going to be donated?

Clearly, community input had affected both the content of the RFP and consequently, the content and focus of the proposals that were submitted. Ultimately, two proposals were received from established farming entities, the non-profit Victory Programs’ ReVision Urban Farm for the 23-29 Tucker St lot and the for-profit City Growers for the 131 Glenway St lot. At City Growers’ September 2011 proposal meeting, only a handful of community members were actually in attendance and the sponsoring community association determined they could not hold a vote. Community members expressed that they appreciated City Growers’ presentation, but wanted to address the underlying issues of soil safety and farming in their neighborhood in general. It seemed that despite the City’s efforts to assuage community concerns, the community members in attendance felt their concerns were as of yet unresolved. After additional outreach to neighbors, City Growers was granted approval. Founder and interim CEO Glynn Lloyd described the process of getting that approval:

We spent many a Sunday knocking on doors. And it was like 99% in support. People were excited to talk with us and ask ‘Can I get a little piece? How can I help?’

Victory Program’s meeting went much more smoothly. Jolie Olivetti speculates that the organizing work that City Growers did helped to pave the way for their proposal:

I don’t know if that’s because people felt like they got their demands met, or because people who showed up to that meeting were local to that site. I do know that City Growers did tons and tons of outreach right after that experience and I know that they’ve got folks on board in a big way. I think that they are quite adept at community outreach.

Since Victory Programs began farming their site, they have maintained the dedication to community concerns required by the RFP. As farm manager, Olivetti has begun to attend the meetings of the various community associations representing neighborhoods that border her site. She describes how one was interested in making produce available at the local corner store. “Without that type of input,” Olivetti said, “I might not have thought of that, prioritized that… We’ll respond to their needs and interests.” Participation seems to have given community members not only influence in the permitting process, but in the operations of the farms themselves.

Alongside, and related to this story runs another one, wholly more optimistic in which a network of organizations including many of those involved in Phase I, especially City Growers, and others such as Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI), Haley House Bakery Café, The Food ProjectDorchester Community Food Co-op and CERO (Cooperative Energy, Recycling, & Organics) are creating an emergent food economy. In “Land, Co-ops, Compost: A Local Food Economy Emerges in Boston’s Poorest Neighborhoods“, Loh (2014) describes this emergent integrated local food economy:

Today, City Growers is part of an emerging network of urban food enterprises in Roxbury and neighboring Dorchester. From a community land trust that preserves land for growing, to kitchens and retailers who buy and sell locally grown food, to a new waste management co-op that will return compost to the land, a crop of new businesses and nonprofits are building an integrated food economy. It’s about local people keeping the wealth of their land and labor in the community.

Lessons learned

This Blog post has mostly chronicled Phase I of the Boston UAOD Project. Phase II consisted of a the city-wide rezoning process which ultimately lead to the agreement to Article 89 in December 2013.

Yet in so many ways, Phase I of Boston’s UAOD story is not new. Urban planners have long known, especially since Arnstein’s (1969) classic ‘Ladder of Participation,’ that lack of community consultation and participatory planning, especially in communities with a history of redlining and disinvestment, can negatively affect community responses to any local change, in this case zoning decisions (see Incomplete Streets for a similar case in Portland OR, but related to planning and bike lanes). They have also learned that the ethical principle of ‘planning for the public interest’ (APA 2009) is problematic when there is a lack of recognition of difference and that there are in fact a) multiple publics, and b) that most planners themselves do not look like nor share the values of many of those multiple publics.

Our findings therefore suggest the urgent need for an increased and deepened understanding of the concepts of recognition, difference and cultural competency and that these concepts are turned into actions that require planners to understand the ways that urban space has been deployed by city officials as a tool to marginalize communities of color. Without this deep cultural competency, planners will remain like a child playing with a Jack-In-the-Box, consistently surprised by the same result.

And yet, this is also a very optimistic story. It went from officials ‘getting their asses kicked’ to rethinking the process and crucially, altering the RFP so it focused on tangible community benefits from the farms. The community garnered recognition from the planners, and created space for their participation in the planning process. Additionally, the community saw desired outcomes, such as no animals and the elimination of one site where residents wanted a playground. This was a long way for city officials to travel in a short time. But they did. And this was in no short measure due to both residents who were not afraid to voice their anger, and to the neighborhood’s strong community-based organizations who offered expertise and helped residents amplify their concerns.

Community members were therefore able to disrupt the process in a way that forced city officials to address their needs. Although not every community member was eventually brought onboard—some continued to express criticisms throughout the remainders of the process­­—many residents and neighborhood organizations seemed satisfied with the results. Several were even committed enough to join each site’s Community Advisory Board. The city’s rhetoric as it moved into Phase II and Article 89’s city-wide rezoning was no longer about a rushed timeline, but highlighted the need for community involvement in order for urban agriculture in Boston to be successful. In sum, we hope this post can serve to remind planners and other city officials that there is no substitute for participatory processes, even when the land use at hand is presumed to be well-liked. Rooting planning decisions in participatory models can help to avoid conflict, and can more efficiently lead to successful outcomes.

Julian Agyeman and Alison Hope Alkon (with thanks to UEP alumna Molly McCullagh for her research inputs)


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