Land Use

Transplant’s dream of urban farming imperiled by zoning, rising land prices

A Gert Town garden is one of many that have sprouted under the banner of Parkway Partners.

Spencer Thayer

A Gert Town garden is one of many that have sprouted under the banner of Parkway Partners.

When my husband and I decided to move to New Orleans, we had one goal in mind: to work as little as possible.

Back in Chicago, I was always working, and my long office hours left my life lacking. I wanted out, but I didn’t know what else to do.

That’s when my husband and I found a community garden. Even though we were inexperienced, we brought home bundles of organic vegetables every week. We slashed our grocery and restaurant budgets, and began to see that our hobby could help us live more and work less. We just needed more space.

Tegan Jones

Spencer Thayer

Tegan Jones

Cold, concrete Chicago didn’t offer us many options. Faced with short growing seasons and small lot sizes, we decided to look for a new place to call home. When we shifted our sights south, New Orleans was the first place to catch our eye.

We were drawn to the city’s independent culture — less a rejection of mainstream America than an affirmation of itself. And we were impressed by the city’s ability to rebuild in the wake of disaster. It seemed New Orleans had the right mix of ingenuity and collaboration to support a self-sustaining way of life.

But our cross-country leap of faith hinges on the economy. In order to work less, we need to find affordable housing and a place to grow our crops. While rising real estate prices have made it difficult for us to find the right spot, some signs give us hope that we’re headed in the right direction. Most often, they’re signs for community gardens.

Whether large and officially funded or small and informal, these vacant-lots-turned-vegetable-patches dot the city. One local non-profit, Parkway Partners, is involved with 43 community gardens, urban farms and orchards in the New Orleans metro area, and there are plenty of smaller operations as well.

Community-farming projects are popular with nonprofits because they beautify neighborhoods, reduce food scarcity and increase collaboration. Plus, under the right management, they can create an economic engine where none existed before. They can put food on people’s plates — and then some.

If garden surpluses are sold at farmers’ markets, to local restaurants or to food co-operatives, these projects can start to pay for services and even create jobs. And if low-cost local crops begin to filter through the system, fresh food will be cheaper for everyone. But to get this engine running, more people need to get involved.

That’s where organizations like the New Orleans Food and Farm Network come in. To help more communities shorten the food chain, the network has partnered with New York-based non-profit 596 Acres to build an online tool called Living Lots NOLA. This tool lists unused lots by zip code and outlines ways groups can obtain land, such as working out a deal with a private owner or getting government permission to plant on blighted lots.

The local food movement also got a jumpstart in November, when a new urban farm center, Growing Local NOLA, broke ground in Central City. The center will offer garden plots and agricultural classes, and create a source of local produce for grocery stores and restaurants.

But even as it seems that New Orleans is poised to become an urban farming hotspot, new zoning regulations have taken aim at residential gardeners’ rights. The new Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance (CZO) currently under review would make it costly or illegal to use a neighborhood’s natural resources to improve its economic position.

For instance, under the new CZO it would be illegal to own more than six chickens per residential lot. While this may seem reasonable for a homeowner with a coop in the backyard, the rules make less sense when applied to a lot that has become a communal farming space. The new regulations would also make it harder to sell eggs and produce harvested on residential land.

Advocates believe these rules, along with other changes to the CZO, will start to standardize neighborhoods and drive up property values. But it would also push New Orleans’ mixed-used spaces towards the cookie-cutter model that commercial investors prefer. And these big box stores have set their sights on this historically small-scale town.

As the fastest growing major U.S. city, New Orleans has become a target for large national retailers such as Costco, Walmart and Whole Foods, all of which are expanding local operations. And with Mayor Landrieu committed to helping smooth these companies’ access to the New Orleans market, it may not be long before New Orleans’ boulevards are indistinguishable from those in Atlanta or Detroit.

Big-box stores do bring jobs and investment, but their financial success is built on the backs of employees desperate enough to work for less than a living wage. It’s built on white-collar workers who are busy enough to believe convenience is king. It’s built on a society that’s ignorant enough to think what they’re selling is better, safer and cheaper than what we can make for ourselves.

It’s true that taking home a paycheck is often simpler than mastering all the skills required to actually make it through the day. The microwave, the drive-thru, the plastic-wrapped treat — they give time back to us. But what are we doing with it?

I’ve spent enough stolen minutes trying to fatten someone else’s wallet. I came here to find a better way to use my time. I just hope I didn’t get here too late.

Tegan Jones is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in business, environmental and nonprofit issues.

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About Tegan Jones

Tegan Jones is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in business, environmental and nonprofit issues.

  • Thank you for starting the discussion on this important topic. I am curious as to which part of the zoning changes that you think are the main ones to work to remain the same or to change in another way? And have you personally had an issue with finding land to grow food on?

  • Tegan Thunderball Jones

    I’m glad you agree that this is an important issue! I think the new zoning regulations need to recognize that there’s a lot of land out there that’s not being put to productive use. They should provide much more flexibility in regards to how empty lots can be used, especially if those uses will serve the community. More chickens could be allowed in a lot with a special distinction, for example, or a garden stand could help raise money for supplies. By trying to create greater distinctions between residential, agricultural and commercial spaces—rather than looking for a more organic way to develop communities—it seems these rules are more interested in creating consumers than fostering productivity.

    To answer your second question, we have had a tough time finding land, but that’s primarily because many rental homes have very small yards. There are a few empty lots and informal gardens near our apartment we’re hoping to take advantage of while we look for a good property that we can afford.

  • Well. let’s be careful about a “lot of land out there that’s not being put to productive use” as there as still many families fighting to return to their homes. However, I know that you and I are really talking here about the amount of land that is in the hands of organizations that have few choices about what to do with it since much of it is not easily transferable to a new owner. I must also say that it is important to recognize that all city residents may not be necessarily happy about having major food production next door to them and the city has to consider that in their planning. However, let me clear that I agree that expanding food production could be an excellent role for this administration but to do that, we need to show the reasons why this is useful for them to accomplish. I have yet to see any comprehensive information from the advocates of local food showing how urban agriculture in New Orleans has contributed to the economic and social fabric of rebuilding. Listen- I know it can be done, but we need to put useful data in their hands and have a plan for food production that takes everyone’s needs into account.

  • Alan Maclachlan

    Yes to chickens, no to roosters!

  • Alan Maclachlan

    My opinion is that urban gardening, even urban farming in an appropriate location, is a good thing.

    But, keep this in mind; this city has been populated for almost 300 years. Many plots of land have been put through multiple uses, not all of them healthy. Follow the link to see a map of lead contamination of soil along St. Claude Avenue and near the river. There may be available plots of land which would produce crops containing hidden poisons. Don’t just look for available land, look for clean land as well.

  • scotchirish

    High land prices imply more economically productive alternative uses. And I could still make a living manufacturing carburetors or buggywhps if enough economic goods were made “affordable”.

    “Findings are mixed on the impact of local food systems on local economic development and better nutrition levels among consumers, and sparse literature is so far inconclusive about whether localization reduces energy use or greenhouse gas emissions.” – Martinez, Steve, et al. Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues, ERR 97, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, May 2010.

  • kmsoap

    The city’s alarming predisposition to designating use over organic growth is hampering our recovery. There are areas of the city where residents should be allowed to do something…anything…in order to spur development. This micromanagement hampers not only urban farming but cultural development as well. Life in an urban environment is a series of compromises, and sometimes that includes living adjacent to others who have different visions for their property. Those who want ultimate control are welcome to buy everything in their vicinity or encourage like minded people to do so. Alternately, they can get more bang for their buck if they invest in a larger plot outside of the urban area, where they can own their own buffer from vegetables or noise.

  • Nick Kindel

    I think that you are misreading the proposed update to the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance (CZO). First, the current CZO has few provision for any sort of urban agriculture, so the fact that it is addressed in the proposed new CZO is a good step. Also, the new CZO does not limit the number of chickens to 6, it sets a minimum lot area standard for having more than 6 chickens. This makes senses because you wouldn’t want to have 20 chicken on a lot if you only have 100 sq feet of open space. I would take another look at the CZO, because it is more permissive than you think.

    Also, the new CZO does not try to “standardize” neighborhoods, it takes the opposite approach. The current CZO takes that approach, but new CZO treats different neighborhoods differently. The French Quarter has a different set of rules than Algiers Point, which is different from Uptown, which is different from Gentilly, which is different from the English Turn. Since all of these neighborhoods have different characteristics, the new CZO applies different rules to ensure that new developments conform with what is already there. Also, the new CZO has design guidelines which should prevent the cookie-cutter design of big box stores so the Walmart you see in New Orleans will not be exactly the same as the one you would see in Chicago, Cincinnati, Baton Rouge, Birmingham, or anywhere else in the US.

    I am an urban planning consultant, and I can help explain the impacts of the new CZO on urban agriculture if you are interested. Let me know ( thanks. -nick

  • Adam

    I don’t see how a booming city still recovering from the largest natural disaster in US history is the ideal location to come and work “as little as possible.”