VI. Institutional Barriers to Urban Land Use

A. Municipal Intervention

The permanence of urban gardens is consistently in question. Often, rather than repeal or rewrite restrictive zoning ordinances to allow for urban agriculture, cities prefer to grant informal permission to community groups to create gardens on vacant lots. This structure is problematic because community groups have no legal recourse when the city decides to use the land for another purpose. In New York City Environmental Justice Alliance v. Giuliani, plaintiffs argued that “community gardens are highly beneficial to minority communities and that the elimination of gardens would therefore have an adverse impact on some aspects of the lives of the neighborhood residents.” Rejecting testimony that there were other available parcels suitable for development that would be less harmful to communities of color, the court held that the harm from eliminating the community garden was justified by the city's plan to “build new housing and foster urban renewal.” Here, as in the case of the Morning Glory Community Garden, the city prioritized other types of land use over urban agriculture. Community gardeners seeking to secure land sometimes achieve this goal thorough the use of intermediaries, such as land trusts to clear title, or through typically impracticable measures such as adverse possession or implied dedication.

B. Land Grabs

Land grabs are “large-scale acquisition of agricultural, range, and forest lands by outside interests.” These acquisitions are occurring throughout the world, mainly in Africa and other parts of the “Global South.” Many tend to think of land grabs as happening mostly in developing countries, but it is happening in the United States with increasing frequency. Corporations in the United States are currently engaged in urban land grabs under the guise of eradicating the “food deserts.” The global recession is forcing food retailers, seeking profits in untapped markets, to focus on low-income urban communities.

The poor and hungry do not benefit from these large-scale land acquisitions. According to one researcher, “[l]and grabs, which aim at 20 percent profits for investors, are all about financial speculation.” Accordingly, “this is why land grabbing is completely incompatible with food security; food production--or any other legitimate economic activity--can only bring profits of 3-5 percent. Land grabbing simply enhances the commodification of agriculture whose sole purpose is the over-remuneration of speculation capital.” These land grabs take money out of the community and put it into the hands of corporations. Recent government incentives to offer healthy food are providing large entitlements to corporate grocers, such as Wal-Mart to open stores in the inner city.

Global corporations, such as Wal-Mart and Kroger, see an opportunity to “capture public entitlements” by stating an intention to address the “food desert” problem. These urban land grabs, however, “contradict the food justice movement's vision for a just, sustainable, and democratic food system,” and they do not take history into account. History reminds us that many of the same corporations have previously opened stores in our nation's low-income, inner cities and then abandoned them, taking community resources out of the community with them. One such situation occurred in West Oakland, when the grocer Foods Co. entered the community, acquired land, opened a store, and closed its doors soon after, taking with it funding and local investment. Even though funding initiatives, such as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Healthy Food Financing, are intended to support local food projects in practice, large corporations are beating out food justice advocates because they have the necessary capital to set up their stores quickly. Since there is no system in place to favor community-owned food projects, corporations are displacing local economies with the new urban land grab trend. While the corporate stores might meet some food access needs, this undemocratic development process will likely reduce green space, decrease community investment in urban areas, and further decrease food autonomy.