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The urban-farming debate goes beyond hipsters tending goats

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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.

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