Urban farmers fight City Hall



What is it about politicians and dirt? You’d think they’d feel right at home, but at least in Buffalo (and I can’t believe we’re alone) the reigning powers in City Hall have a tough time wrapping their minds around the idea of using land for food in the city

First, it was Monique and her chickens. Hopeful news on that front: a “chicken task force” has been set up and lawmakers are figuring out how best to change the law that made chickens illegal here in 2004. Meanwhile, the chickens are safely waiting in sort of a witness protection program.

Now the problem is a couple, Mark and Janice Stevens, who want to buy 2 already-vacant acres on the East Side of Buffalo, where they would build raised beds and grow vegetables. The land belongs to the city, and it might require a zoning change. City Hall says no; they have another purpose for this land, which has been sitting empty for years (it’s actually 27 city-owned lots). After the mayor’s office said that Habitat for Humanity was planning to build on the property, the Habitat people said they’d be happy to step aside and find other vacant property (of which there is plenty in this area). No deal, said the city; building houses here—at some point in the future—is part of a planning strategy from which there can be no deviation.

There has been an outpouring of support for the Stevenses from both unaffiliated citizens and those who are already practicing urban farming in Buffalo. We have 2 on the other side of town and one in the planning stages. These projects have been started and successfully managed by local activists and non-profits. I haven’t noticed a lot of buy-in from the planners in City Hall—maybe some pats on the head now and then.

As far as I can tell, politicians get excited about buildings: stadiums, courthouses, casinos, shopping malls. The bigger the better. I’ve never seen a politician turn up for the ribbon cutting or the first shovel of dirt for a garden or a farm (aside from all the brouhaha over the White House veggies). But cities have changed, especially in the Northeast. We can’t bring back everybody who left for the suburbs, but we can create livable, sustainable urban neighborhoods. And, as we’ve sporadically reported here, urban farms and community gardens are becoming a big part of that.

It seems like all my life, I’ve been affiliated with areas that other people consider “frills:” art, gardening—things that are considered nice or pretty, but not necessarily important. I’ve always disagreed with that; here’s an example where food gardening could turn a neighborhood around or at least make it many times more productive, and once again, it is not being taken seriously. When are these guys going to get a clue?

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. Oh, but if no buildings are put on that land, then they can’t get as much in taxes! That’s what drives politicians, and nothing else. What are a bunch of vegetables going to do for THEM?!! Nothing.

  2. Amen Elizabeth.

    Our small suburb’s mayor just got booted out after authorizing the razing of 5 long-time, solvent, tax-paying old-fashioned independent businesses, sending their building to a landfill in favor of an upscale mixed-use complex near the main intersection of our tiny historic downtown area.

    The new complex never got built. This happened almost four years ago. We now have an eyesore vacant lot in place of an historic building and the sales/real estate tax revenues the business owners generated, and a few less jobs in our community.

    Just another case for the ‘things that make you go hmmm’ files. Those politicians better remember who they’re representing if the want to keep their jobs, especially with issues like this with so much grass-roots support.

  3. I think people seem to be really excited about buildings. Unfortunately. Even garden-related businesses are sometimes more excited about their buildings than their gardens, or their garden-related merchandise.

    Public gardens get all lathered up when they open a new building. When they renovate a garden? Not so much-unless it includes a building.

    How about a garden center that would rather put a building on its advertisement than a bunch of beautiful plants they sell? I don’t get it at all.

    Additionally, for me, gardening is not optional. I have to garden. Like, I kind of freak out if I can’t garden. I adore having my own home for the first time so that I can dig up the entire yard for gardens. Or, at least half of the yard.

  4. I recently suggested a community garden be built in a vacant, run-down acre lot directly across the street from a community center. I was told two things: the vacant lot was going to be turned into a parking lot for the center and other nearby businesses; gardens “don’t belong downtown.” It’s cars over people — once again. Peg

  5. Lack of education is part of it, Elizabeth. People who don’t garden, especially in urban areas, assume that produce just kind of appears wrapped in plastic (we currently live near Penn State, but before lived in Pittsburgh – home of the great garden writer Doug Oster, but I digress).

    So they don’t get the benefits of a community garden. What Peg said is also true – some folks believe that urban gardens don’t belong. If it’s green, it must be surrounded by concrete and covered with bark mulch.

    Two other things that I have seen in pushback against community gardens:

    – Allegations of attracting vermin: people will say a garden will attract rats, “bad” insects, etc. Because, you know, dumpsters don’t.

    – Pollution: Yes, I have seen/heard this – we don’t want fertilizer runoff into the sewage system. Okay, fine, the gardeners can do something about that, and probably much more than a parking lot developer will do.

  6. Sometimes change is slow.

    Some powerful people are stupid.

    Some powerful and stupid people will never change.

    One change that I see is in how news of bad decisions gets handled. It used to be only dealt with by the local newspaper but those days are numbered. With opinions being expressed freely, bad decision makers will be more accountable for their actions OR they will have to become much better at explaining themselves.

    Nowadays I see blogs and just plain internet chatter not being swept under the rug like things were in the old days. With the tough economic times, people aren’t willing to sit idly by and let bad decisions go unnoticed.

  7. If there are plenty of vacant lots to choose from then it sounds like there are plenty of other options.

    Have your friends look for property that is already zoned for agriculture or mixed use.

    If they are steadfast on setting up a agricultural business in a residential area then they must be prepared to have the zoning changed and or augmented.
    If they can afford to have the zoning changed then everybody in Buffalo who lives in a residential zone should be delighted when a business , agricultural or a Walmart, moves in next door.

    I understand why you are up in arms about not having this one family run ‘garden’ venture granted a permit , but consider how the city’s planning and building department is set up.
    By allowing a business venture to be set up in a residential zone you set prescident.
    Will you be just as happy when a dog breeding facility/ business or a liquor store is given a business permit right in the middle of a residential neighborhood ?
    If so, then get the community to approve a zoning change in your quiet residential neighborhood and be prepared for the change that will be coming next door to you.

  8. Thanks Michelle. Every zoning variance (and I am not totally sure one is needed in this case) is considered separately on its own merits and according to the needs of the area where it is requested.

    I am not in any way concerned that allowing this farm will bring a kennel or walmart to my block because there is absolutely no fear of that. There is no “one size fits all.” A farm fits here; it wouldn’t everywhere.

  9. Looks like its time to vote a local master gardener to the city hall. You could appropriatly call it a “grass roots movement”

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