Vacant city lots are rarely considered neighborhood amenities. But with the Minneapolis City Council’s adoption of the Community Garden, Market Garden and Urban Farm Policy last November, that’s just what they may become.
Like San Francisco and a handful of other progressive cities, Minneapolis already leases some vacant, city-owned lots to community gardening groups through the Homegrown Minneapolis initiative, which was launched in 2010.
The new policy expands that effort in several ways, including increasing the available number of city-owned lots; extending lease terms for some types of parcels; and defining, reducing, and streamlining administrative and insurance fees. Most notably, it also makes city-owned lots available for lease to urban farmers and market gardens (such as commercial growers who offer community-supported-agriculture (CSA) shares) for the first time.
“This change not only will turn vacant lots into gardens, it makes Minneapolis a more sustainable and healthier place to live and may lead to more urban food production,” says Russ Henry, one of many activists, urban farmers, community members and others who have worked on this issue for the past four years.
The process was facilitated by the Homegrown Minneapolis Food Council—part of Homegrown Minneapolis, a city-community partnership working to build and expand a healthy, local, sustainable food system. Groups involved in supporting the new policy include: Appetite For Change; the Land Stewardship Project; Waite House; Hope Community; and many urban farms, including Stone’s Throw Urban Farm, which currently leases 16 vacant lots in Minneapolis and St. Paul from private landowners.
Though community gardens will continue to have priority access to available city-owned lots, the decision to also lease city-owned land to urban farmers and market gardens creates new entrepreneurial opportunities for people interested in starting up or expanding an urban agriculture-based business on lots that might otherwise be unaffordable.
“Land is so expensive in the city, people usually can’t make enough from what they grow to pay the rent or pay a mortgage,” Henry says. “This puts undevelopable lots to the best use, urban food production.”
It also opens up the potential for changing the way Minneapolis, and other cities, think about using urban land for agriculture, says Caroline Devany, one of Stone’s Throw’s full-time employees. “Up until now, the leases that have been available to businesses like ours are the result of foreclosures, or other issues, and are temporary. Under longer-term leases, Stone’s Throw hopes to continue to refine practices for growing food in the city and establish a viable economic model.”
At the same time, the new policy also benefits taxpayers. According to recent estimates, the Minneapolis spends around $3,000 to $4,000 a year to maintain city-owned lots, which are often acquired through tax forfeiture following catastrophic events like the tornado that tore through North Minneapolis in 2011. Under the new policy, farmers and community gardens leasing the lots will be responsible for property maintenance such as lawn mowing and snow shoveling.
City Council Member Cam Gordon (Ward 2), a member of the Food Council, has long supported the use of vacant, city-owned land for food growing and hopes the shift in policy will increase urban food production over time.
“When we looked at the land we had and the city was holding onto, we realized there was plenty that could be held back for other uses while some could be leased for community gardens and commercial growers,” he explains. “The longer-term leases are much more agreeable to growers because before they weren’t really interested in putting time and money into soil remediation for a lease that was just one year.”
Eventually, activists like Henry hope that permanent growing areas will be established in the city, allowing neighbors to get together and grow food close to home. Soil tests are already underway on all of the lots available for lease in 2016 to determine what types of soil remediation may be needed.
Meleah Maynard is a freelance writer and editor and author of the Southwest Journal’s Everyday Gardener column.
Anyone interested in finding out more about reserving a lot for spring can contact Karuna Mahajan in real estate development services at Minneapolis’ Community Planning and Economic Development office (612) 673-5051 or Karuna.Mahajan@minneapolimn.gov.