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The urban-farming debate goes beyond hipsters tending goats

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Kansas City, Missouri, leaders recently wrestled with an interesting question: How will our run-down neighborhoods face the future?

The debate was not framed this way, of course. No one stood up and used the word shitbox. But the topic under discussion — urban agriculture — has more to do with answering that question than the City Council seems to realize.

The council voted on June 10 to rewrite the rules on city gardening. The changes promote and encourage residents to turn lawns and vacant lots into food sources.

It took months of negotiation for the ordinance to make its way to a final vote. Urban farmers wanted a permissive ordinance that would allow, among other things, on-site sales. Real-estate agents, meanwhile, complained about hoop houses bringing down property values. The discussion became pretty tedious. Toward the end, council members were debating height limits on crops grown in front yards. Finally, in front of a group of 35 urban-agriculture supporters, many of whom wore green ribbons pinned to their chests, the council approved the ordinance by a 10-3 vote. Those wearing ribbons applauded.

Passage wasn't a sure thing. Before the final vote, Councilman Bill Skaggs tried to gut the ordinance. He introduced an amendment that would have removed many of the key provisions. Skaggs, who lives north of the river, demonstrated an inability to look beyond his fingertips. "I don't see anything in this ordinance that improves my backyard garden," he said during a floor debate.

Regulating traditional backyard gardens was never the point. Urban agriculture is, on a deeper level, about remaking communities in ways that make them more useful. Promoters of small-scale agriculture point to the need for fresh food in parts of the city where supermarkets may be harder to reach. Successful growers can also make a buck or two, a significant consideration in hard economic times.

Many cities are rewriting laws to accommodate urban farms. It's a hot trend. Seattle has designated 2010 the Year of Urban Agriculture.

Meanwhile, Kansas City typically started from a reactive position. The council was forced to act, in part, because an art-school dropout had ticked off her neighbor.

In 2007, Brooke Salvaggio and her husband, Daniel Heryer, began a farm at her grandmother's house near 95th Street and State Line. A neighboring homeowner complained about the couple's goats, prompting visits from city inspectors. The goats were sent to live someplace else. But questions persisted about the farm that Salvaggio and Heryer had named BadSeed. Were crop subscriptions illegal? Was it improper for BadSeed to use volunteers or pay helpers? The city's regulations on home-based businesses were not designed with weeds and growing seasons in mind.

One day in May, the City Council heard from residents about the proposed changes. Several opponents who spoke were sellers of residential real estate. They described the threat to their commissions that fruit stands in neighborhoods posed.

"All you need is one with a red tent and a purple sign," Stacey Johnson-Cosby, a home seller and a resident of the 6th District, said. "All you need is one to impact what their perception of what the value is for that house."

More ominously, Johnson-Cosby related a conversation she'd had with an unspecified police officer, who warned that criminals may be prowling for urban farmers' cash boxes.

Dan Henderson, a mortgage broker who spoke at the May meeting, described the ordinance as "ridiculous" when I followed up with him later. Henderson said it was bizarre that the city would allow food to be grown and distributed with so little oversight from the Health Department and city planners.

Henderson also said it was absurd that urban ag's boosters had mentioned efforts made in Detroit and Cleveland to foster urban agriculture. "I'm still shocked people would use Detroit, Michigan, as a good example," he said.

Henderson, whose office is on Ward Parkway, has the luxury of sniffing at Rust Belt hulks. The reality, however, is that parts of Kansas City really do look like Flint, Michigan. And these are the parts of town most likely to attract — and benefit from — small-scale agriculture.

"Someone the other day was telling me about driving around and seeing blocks that he described as 'urban forests' because of the weed trees that are springing up where houses used to be," Katherine Kelly, the executive director of the KC Center for Urban Agriculture, told me.

Kelly pushed for a liberal agriculture ordinance. She sees urban farming as a means for Kansas City to begin to address some of its challenges. "The city is going to have to be creative, willing to take some risks and really re-imagine itself on a number of fronts, not just urban agriculture," she wrote in an e-mail.

Ruskin Heights looked ready for some risk-taking when Mayor Mark Funkhouser held a press conference in the neighborhood last month. Funkhouser stood in the driveway of a home being renovated by Neighborhood Housing Services. He wanted to draw attention to an upcoming auction of 200 foreclosed homes. The mayor encouraged local buyers to step up and keep the houses out of the hands of out-of-town investors, who tend to neglect their $7,000 purchases. (The auction was postponed.)

The mayor's "neighborhood abuse" message made it difficult to appreciate the work that had gone into fixing one postwar ranch house. It was also hard to get excited about one renovation when so many neighboring houses looked like dumps. Next door, soggy phone books waited on the stoop for a long-gone resident to take them inside.

Ruskin Heights' curving, sidewalk-free streets are remnants of the disastrous ideas that guided a prior generation of home builders and city planners. With schools no longer desirable, the neighborhood's best hope is for an immigrant community to establish an enclave.

Places such as Ruskin Heights should bring a sense of urgency to public policy. But many on the council act as if Kansas City is just one corporate-headquarters relocation away from becoming Overland Park.

Councilwoman Cathy Jolly, for instance, supported Skaggs' amendment. At the June 10 council meeting, she spoke darkly about the "commercialization" of residential areas.

Councilwoman Sharon Sanders Brooks, who represents the 3rd District, offered a crisp response to Jolly's concerns about unregulated vegetable sales. "There are sales going on," she said. "Pharmaceutical sales [are] going on."

Jolly also talked about the wonders of zoning and how Prairie Village and Blue Springs don't allow their residential streets to become points of trade. The problem with Jolly's argument is that tight zoning rules — houses here, commerce there, farms way out there — often contribute to neighborhood decline. If rigid zoning were the answer, postwar communities such as Ruskin Heights and Raytown would be thriving. They're not.

"There are people who are going to perceive any changes as a loss and a threat to their idea of what a city should look like," Kelly said. "There are others who will welcome a move to more mixed-use communities and different approaches to density."

For this reason, the urban-agriculture discussion became something that was more than a debate about twentysomethings keeping livestock or Bill Skaggs' rutabagas. It became a test of city leaders' willingness to accept business as usual.

To my mind, neighborhoods like Ruskin Heights make any defense of the status quo seem not only silly but also cruel.

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