Why the URA is encouraging urban agriculture with its new Farm-a-Lot program

Sandra Tolliver

Published March 4, 2018



Sankofa Village Community Garden in North Point Breeze and Homewood South could benefit from the URA's urban agriculture pilot program. Photo courtesy Ayanna Jones.


This could be the year Pittsburgh learns just how popular urban agriculture can be.

In 2017, the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council floated surveys to find out who wants to start a farm, at what scale, and what barriers have presented themselves, says Bethany Davidson, the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s manager of land recycling.

Although some future farmers may not have responded, Davidson says, the research gives “some sense of people who have tried (urban farming), whether with privately owned land or tried to buy from the city or URA, or who have rented or leased a plot in a community garden and want to transition.”

Americans want urban farms: A 2013 national study on urban agriculture found increasing popularity for urban farms among both residents and policy makers. Urban farmers are generally younger than the overall U.S. farming population, with an average age of 44.

But the Pittsburgh survey, although not finalized, found that access to land is a significant barrier for new farmers, particularly in urban or suburban areas, says Jon Burgess from the Allegheny County Conservation District, who co-chaired the Food Policy Council’s urban agriculture working group.

Access in the form of a long-term lease is the key to the multi-year process of starting a farm. With that in place, local agriculture would be able to take hold — an outcome that would benefit the city.

“It is essential for our region’s success that local agriculture expands as a vital part of our food system,” Burgess says, “and ‘resilience’ includes sourcing more of what we eat from local growers who use sustainable practices, and keeping those dollars in our local economy.”

Solving that problem

To aid in making that possible, the Food Policy Council has helped the URA draft an urban agriculture policy — just approved by the URA board — that will help standardize real estate matters with longer-term leases or lease-to-purchase agreements as it establishes a pilot “Farm-a-Lot” program.

Produce from the Sankofa Village Community Garden. Photo courtesy Ayanna Jones.

The policy will guide both commercial urban agriculture and smaller-scale farms operated by community groups.

Pittsburgh has 30,000 “distressed” vacant lots among its 145,000 parcels. Roughly 6,000 of those are categorized by the URA as “push to green,” which means greenways, parklets, gardens or urban agriculture might be the best future use, says Nathan Clark, director of the URA’s real estate division.

With lots that are URA-owned, “we’re looking to try out our policies and procedures for urban ag on 10 to 15 parcels or assemblages in the next year,” Clark says. Already existing urban agriculture could be included in the new program, as could parcels of land not currently being used for farming.

Immediate progress?

As these changes are made, two urban agriculture operations that might benefit immediately, Clark says, are Tree Pittsburgh’s Heritage Nursery in Lawrenceville and Sankofa Village Community Garden in North Point Breeze and Homewood South.

Typically, the URA’s short-term leases expire in under a year, or are month-to-month. That’s meant to enable development prospects. But when plots sit vacant, there are insurance and land care costs and a downside for communities. City Planning’s Adopt-a-Lot program offers one-year leases that are renewable for up to three years. That short-term nature has discouraged potential farmers.

All of this has led to a shift in thinking: “We are starting to look at economic development more broadly,” says Davidson, “and understand that urban agriculture is a form of economic development.”

Tree Pittsburgh’s Heritage Nursery in Lawrenceville. Photo courtesy Tree Pittsburgh.

In addition to longer-term leases, the URA needed a policy to outline terms for people who will use its Farm-a-Lot program — including specifics about upkeep, improvements and, potentially, abandonment.

In working with the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council to develop the urban agriculture policy, “we learned, similar to other development projects, that everyone is different,” says Davidson. “So, we needed to set a policy that provided enough of a framework that if a customer were to come to us and say, ‘This is what I want to do,’ we could provide an outline and it could be consistent enough to measure standards against, while being open enough to reflect that every farm is different and we need to be able to adapt.”

Even people who don’t have a green thumb could benefit from the work that went into the Farm-a-Lot program and longer-term leases. The agency also has reformed its land management program, called Land Care, says Clark.

“The real estate department is looking at our real estate to make sure we’re being as proactive as possible about making land available for end users,” Clark says. “Our disposition process to buy a property didn’t necessarily speak as easily to urban ag. This is a pilot, so there could be other end uses where the lease-to-own situation makes the most sense. We’re piloting a different way to dispose of our properties, particularly those that aren’t meant for large-scale economic development projects.”

The URA board has been supportive of the urban ag idea, says Davidson.

“While this is coming from a place of making sure we’re being proactive in managing our own portfolio of land, it didn’t stop there,” she says. “Yes, it has an economic development component to it, but there are second-tier benefits like helping with food deserts and teaching children about healthy eating.

“We’re not looking at this as just a transaction-based program. We’re making sure to set baselines to measure the pilot program against, and we’ll work with partners to make sure we can help them learn from our experiences.”

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