Source: Indiana University
Cincinnati, Ohio Amends Zoning Code to Support Urban Agriculture
In 2019, the City of Cincinnati and the Greater Cincinnati Regional Food Policy Council worked to streamline urban agriculture policies in the zoning code. Prior to the update, farming regulations were dispersed across multiple chapters. Now there is a single chapter related to all things agriculture with updates that make it easier for residents and businesses to establish community gardens and urban farms, compost food waste, and keep animals for farming purposes. The effort was supported by local Councilmembers, multiple municipal departments, and an extensive network of stakeholders and community members.
In 2017 the Greater Cincinnati Regional Food Policy Council, a local non-governmental organization, and two Cincinnati City Councilmembers hosted a large stakeholder meeting to explore ways to integrate supportive urban agriculture regulations across City departments. A City Council motion passed shortly thereafter tasking the Planning Department to make the municipal code to be more permissive for urban agriculture, setting the stage for future community-wide engagement that would redesign the zoning code.
After the motion passed, the Planning Department convened a variety of City departments (Law, Buildings and Inspection, Office of Environment and Sustainability, Health) and the Food Policy Council to undertake a collaborative redesign process. With the goals of ensuring flexibility for residents engaged in urban agriculture and ease of inspection for regulators, the group led by the Planning Department met several times over the year to identify priorities, host focus groups, and translate feedback into draft code. Two focus groups of community growers discussed horticulture and animal keeping. Two sessions per focus group were held. All draft language was made available and posted on the Planning Department website throughout the process.
Another key priority was equity. Participants in the stakeholder meetings raised a concern that white, affluent interests would begin to farm and gentrify underdeveloped/underserviced plots in lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color. In order to ensure that all communities were aware of the upcoming zoning changes and farming opportunities, the stakeholder hosted discussions at public libraries and community council meetings in the neighborhoods that could be vulnerable to this change.
Supporting the Right to Food Access and Agriculture through Zoning
Food security and sovereignty refer to the availability, access to, and right to healthy, affordable, sustainable, and culturally-appropriate food. In addition to allowing and regulating farming, community gardens, and composting across city districts as Cincinnati's code update has done, there are other zoning strategies that can address food-related goals in cities and towns. According to Sustainable Development Code, the following approaches are some of the most successful food-related strategies/codes:
Remove Code Barriers
Allow for recycled water irrigation systems in new developments, including for agricultural uses
Reduce barriers to encourage Cluster/Conservation subdivision in rural/urban areas
Increase the opportunity for healthy food development by limiting the prevalence of fast food, drive-through services, etc.
Offer incentives for construction green roofing
Fill Regulatory Gaps
Create an Urban Growth Area in order to designate areas where development is permitted
Establish an Urban Service Area in order to define areas that receive access to public services such as water.
Designate setbacks to protect agriculture, sensitive habitats, and water quality
Encourage the implementation of rainwater harvesting systems or rainwater catchment plans
It is important to note that other municipal, state, and federal law also applies to agricultural activities in the City (for example, Board of Health, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, Ohio Department of Agriculture, etc.). Cincinnati’s urban agriculture zoning revisions did not modify any of these requirements.
Beyond staff time, this was a no-cost initiative.
After approximately 2 years of working to update the code, the City Planning Council voted unanimously to confirm the updates in 2019.
Outcomes and Conclusions
The final code went into effect in September 2019. The updates make it easier for residents and businesses to establish community gardens and urban farms, compost food waste, and keep animals for farming purposes. There are also provisions for indoor farming and aquaculture. Importantly, since the old agriculture-related code provided insufficient/scattered coverage and was too restrictive for property owners, the updated code language improves enforcement clarity for inspectors and establishes farming as a right for property owners.
Prior to the code update, farm-stands weren’t allowed, especially in residential areas. Now farm-based businesses are regulated like other home-based businesses. Areas that allow home-based accounting or doctor’s offices now also allow the sale of farm products from home. Similarly, it was difficult to implement community composting because the old code prohibited people from using off-site land materials. Since September, additional stakeholder convenings were held around community composting and gardens. In collaboration with the Hamilton County Solid Waste District, the City and Food Policy Council are working to develop a comprehensive approach to neighborhood composting. The current goals of the community now are establishing best practices for community composting, connecting with interested local businesses, and creating guidelines for composting infrastructure.
Due to the complexity and many obligations of those involved with the code revisions, the process took a long time. By nature, updating zoning language is a deliberative process and it is important to keep all participants moving at the same pace and in a similar direction. This, therefore, required all involved departments and organizations to have regular attendance at meetings and provide an allowance for last-minute input from previously non-engaged groups. While the effort was successful in the end, additional staff resources can help future efforts expedite the long planning process.
Another challenge will be making the updated code language accessible to all residents. Zoning code language often includes terms that are unfamiliar to the general public such as the difference between “conditional” and “exemptions.” To address this issue, the Greater Cincinnati Regional Food Policy Council Director created a simple document to make the updated language more accessible and included cross-referencing and linking to other relevant codes.
Keys for Success
Important keys for success were having a stakeholder-driven process, initial political backing from Council, pre-planning from community groups, and an emphasis on ensuring inclusive internal and external engagement processes (such as the inter-departmental collaborations, focus groups, and updating of low-income neighborhoods and communities color).