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Minneapolis zoning changes would expand gardening options

hoop house

CC/Flickr/knitting iris

Proposed Minneapolis zoning changes would allow hoop houses on residential lots and in community gardens.

If one of your dreams has been to leave city life behind and move to the country where you could have a serious garden, I have good news. Country living could be coming to your backyard in Minneapolis.

The gardening options under consideration include everything from keeping honeybees to establishing urban farms that include community gardens, composting, farm stands, hoop houses and market gardens. 

Minneapolis now prohibits growing food as a business in a city yard, but that would change with a series of proposed new zoning rules. 

“I would like to see someday where somebody is getting their livelihood off this,” said Council Member Cam Gordon, who, along with his staff, spent the winter talking to gardeners about what they need to be more productive in an urban setting.

Those sessions produced a series of proposed zoning changes to allow using more land in the city for growing crops.

“In the urban farm scene, where we’re dealing with small plots of land, we need massive amounts of fertility,” says Russ Henry, who was one of those city farmers at the planning table. “We need to make it economically viable to grow on the smaller plots of land that cost a lot of money to rent or buy in the city.”

As part of the proposed changes, growers wouild be allowed to sell their crops from new market gardens and existing community gardens, but sales would be limited to one day a week for 25 weeks. That provision is already drawing fire.

“A lot of our neighborhoods that are really high density already have major parking problems,” said Council Member Meg Tuthill, Ward 10, who thinks 25 sale days a year might be more than residents will tolerate. She points out that the city limits residents to two garage sales a year.

“I’d rather see them in a place that’s zoned, like mini-markets,” said Tuthill, who thinks the idea of several vendors in one location would ease the parking crunch and also be more attractive for shoppers.

Gordon acknowledges that parking in a neighborhood with a popular market garden could be a problem, but he likes the idea of changing the zoning to allow gardeners to sell what they grow.

“Any effort we can make to expand gardening by residents on their own property, I support,” said Council Member Lisa Goodman, Ward 7,  a gardener with her own hobby farm away from the city. 

“I am not a big fan of taking buildable lots in residential areas and turning those into gardens.  This is not Detroit,” said Goodman.

Burned and deserted houses in Detroit were torn down and the land was made available to gardeners at no charge last spring. There were a lot of takers who produced a lot of gardens.

“Sadly, if you give the neighbors a choice of a neighbor or a garden (next door), of course, they’ll choose a garden,’” said Goodman, who thinks the location of community and market gardens needs regulation by the city.

Hoop houses

The proposed changes would also allow hoop houses on residential lots and in community gardens.

A hoop house is built of pipe and plastic sheeting, usually with a curved top.  The proposal would allow hoop houses to be 1,000 square feet or 50 feet by 20 feet and 12 feet tall.

Hoop houses could stand for six months of the year in the rear 50 feet of a residential property at least 20 feet from a habitable building.

“I don’t want to come out into my back yard and hear the plastic flapping, I really don’t,” said Tuthill.

Hoop houses are used for starting plants in the spring and the storage of garden tools during the summer months. They are also advertised as a place where crops can be grown through the winter, although Minneapolis would limit their use to 180 days.

“If you have a house on your lot and you also have a garage, you shouldn’t also be able to put up a thousand-foot hoop house,” said Goodman, who thinks 12 feet is too tall in a city where fences cannot be taller than 6 feet. 

Gordon has a wait-and-see attitude about the hoop houses. “I’m kind of curious to see how that will work as well,” Gordon said. “To see how responsible people will be to maintain their hoop house and keep it clean and safe.”

Tuthill said:  “We want to encourage people to garden, we want them to grow as much as they can, but this is an urban environment, this is not farm country and we have to be considerate of our neighbors. Everyone has to give a little.”

Two Cities blog, which covers Minneapolis and St. Paul City Halls, is made possible in part by grants from The Saint Paul Foundation and the Carolyn Foundation.

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Comments (2)

Lack of Imagination

Though it's not clear if she meant it that way or not, Lisa Goodman's "This isn't Detroit," comment comes off pretty snarky in print. Her insistence on building on all "buildable" space betrays a lack of imagination at best which ignores present realities of this city as well as the best options for the future. Proper nutrition for many city residents is simply out of reach, and between oil prices and cutbacks in the Federal budget, there is no question that food prices will rise significantly in the next five to ten years.

On the other hand, the population of Minneapolis is not growing. Sure, the urban renaissance is bringing more young professionals in from the suburbs, but overall the city is shrinking and it's filling a space built for a half a million people with closer to 300 thousand. There are plenty of empty houses, empty apartments, and empty lots across Minneapolis, and adding more empty space just makes for more middle class flight to the suburbs.

Gardening and urban farming is a great way to address both issues (which is why they did it Detroit). If you want to create strong communities, don't build more condos and empty retail space, give neighborhoods a focus and let the residents grow food and sell it to each other. Without an economic basis there is no cultural or political unity. And relying on the old ways of doing this seems increasingly lacking in perspective and imagination.

Detroit references/reality

As a native Minneapolitan now living in Detroit, I have a handful of thoughts in response to this article (mostly in response to the conversation itself).

First thing: The church I work for is about 8-10 blocks out of downtown. We have a three-lot farm that includes a hoop house (20'x40'). The hoop house has been in use year-round for almost two years now and never has the plastic flapped about and made noise, as is Councilwoman Tuthill's concern. (The trucks that deliver our non-local food, however, are pretty loud!)

Second, the paragraphs about land use in the city are a little bit misleading. The program regarding housing and gardening on vacant land do not transfer ownership to the new tenders of the land. It simply allows people to take care of an already-vacant lot by either mowing/maintaining the grassy space or planting a garden. Up til now, putting structures on these lots (such as hoop houses) has been prohibited, though this is being reconsidered, given the great success that has come from hoop houses in the city. (And the program tearing down burned out houses is about 50% complete at this pint -- about 5,000 of 10,000 identified homes.)

Third, with regard to Councilwoman Goodman's concern: “Sadly, if you give the neighbors a choice of a neighbor or a garden (next door), of course, they’ll choose a garden.” My housemate works for an organization that in the midst of a pretty serious, multi-year land use planning project on the Lower East Side of the city. They have done a ton of community surveying throughout the process and one of the questions always asks whether people would prefer to live near a mid-size garden/small farm or in a more densely-populated neighborhood. About 8 in 10 people choose neighborhood.

There are many ways in which these two cities are entirely incomparable, land use- and farming-wise. To some extent, Detroit would be really lucky to have the economic base that Minneapolis has. And Minneapolis would be extraordinarily lucky to have the over 30 years of roots in urban agriculture that Detroit has. (This isn't a new thing here!) Obviously, this article isn't specifically about urban ag in Minneapolis vs. Detroit. However, if the councilfolk are going to use Detroit as their comparison (which, again, doesn't make 100% sense to me), they do need to delve just a bit below the surface of what "everybody knows" about Detroit.