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UCLA takes comprehensive look at urban gardening in LA

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A Place Called Home's community garden.
José Martinez/KPCC
A Place Called Home's community garden.

A research group at UCLA has just finished a comprehensive mapping study on urban farms in Los Angeles County, looking at community gardens, school gardens, local farms and nurseries.

It may seem like you can't turn your local public radio station these days without hearing about urban gardening, city living chickens, rooftop beehives, or sidewalk strawberries. But despite all this talk, there's been very little data on how many farms there are or where they're located. Until now.

A research group at UCLA has just finished a comprehensive study on urban farms in Los Angeles County. The group didn't look at backyard gardens, instead focusing on community gardens, school gardens, local farms and nurseries.  

"Urban agriculture is resurgent in LA right now. There's great energy behind it," said UCLA's Carol Goldstein, who oversaw the project. "There's also interest among community leaders in different sectors about economic development potential, community benefits, school gardening as an educational opportunity, etc. so the arena is there, the data was not."

This is the first time a research study has verified and mapped out farms located in L.A. County. Goldstein says one of the most interesting findings is just how complex and chaotic the regulatory infrastructure for urban farms. Adjacent cities may have to follow a very different set of rules. 

"If you live in Pasadena are you following different regulatory codes than you are in Alta Dena? The answer is yes you are, but who knew that?" said Goldstein. "What strikes all of us is the complexity and the fact that it's not generally known or well organized as it might be."

The study also produced a useful matrix showing each city in LA County with 15 different categories, ranging from agricultural waste to rabbit farming. Users can search their city to find out which activities are prohibited, permitted or not mentioned at all in city ordinances. 

Goldstein says researchers found that many farmers aimed to sell their wares at farmer's markets and at their homes. She says selling at the farm location could fall under the auspices of yardsales, which have their own set of regulations depending on the city. 

One thing that is clear from the study is that urban farmers could benefit from more business experience. 

"These are small entrepreneurial businesses that could benefit from understanding how to expand their practice," said Goldstein. 

Quick findings from the study:

  • There are a total of 1,261 verified urban agriculture sites — categorized as school gardens, community gardens and commercial primary growing sites — in Los Angeles County.  
  • School gardens make up the majority of L.A. County's urban agriculture activity, with 761 sites. Commercial agricultural operations (nurseries and farms) total 382 sites, and the researchers documented 118 community gardens.
  • Among the county's 88 cities and unincorporated areas, 87 percent regulate animal farming but only 25 percent regulate fruits, vegetables and other flora. Unclear, complex and conflicting regulations were found to constrain agricultural entrepreneurs.
  • Definitions for agricultural activities in municipal codes vary widely across the county, making it difficult — if not impossible — for urban farmers to operate in compliance with local health and zoning regulations.
  • School gardens present unique opportunities for hands-on learning, combining practical experience in math, science and nutrition with outdoor physical activity. Outdated school district policies should be updated to encourage this type of educational experience.
  • L.A. County's urban farmers travel an average of 13.9 miles to distribute their goods versus the 46.8 mile average traveled by the county's farmers market vendors.

See a map of all the urban gardens in the LA area. 

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