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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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City of Portland Continues Long History of Sustainable Urban Farming

City of Portland Continues Long History of Sustainable Urban Farming

April 10, 2014 |

 Photograph courtesy of the City of Portland Department of Parks & Recreation

Photograph courtesy of the City of Portland Department of Parks & Recreation

With just over half a million residents, Portland is a small northwestern city with long roots in sustainability and urban agriculture. In 1981, an urban growth boundary was approved for the city forcing a dense population into a restricted space and transitioning the city into a space savvy social economy.  Popular Science name Portland the most sustainable city back in 2008. Today, Portland remains a 400-square mile haven for sustainability enthusiasts and avid gardeners.

The city has two main programs that cover urban agriculture: a Community Gardens Program established in 1975 and a Sustainable Food Program.

“We have really focused on preserving the agriculture land that is right outside our border,” says Steve Cohen, who manages food policy and programming for Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. “So yes we want people to grow within the city but I think there is a realization that it is going to be limited in scope in terms of what other cities can do.”

Dozens of sustainable small farms on the outskirts of the city deliver to the metro area CSAs. The City of Portland also models its commitment to urban agriculture via a green space in front of the city building devoted to growing vegetables for Meals on Wheels. With little available vacant space, Cohen and the sustainability planning team assist residents in utilizing underdeveloped areas such as pathways between buildings that can become zoned to house an orchard or edible forest.

There are 26 farmers markets in the city, a thriving local food cart businesses and community gardens programs in Portland.

“It sort of normalizes this idea of food being grown— lot of us are very disconnected from how to grow the food that we eat,” says Laura Niemi, Community Garden Program Coordinator for the Department of Parks and Recreation. Niemi agrees with Cohen that Portland’s sustainability efforts are focused on creating community and cultural awareness of food production rather than creating an urban economy based on locally grown food.

“When people come together, they can talk about neighborhood issues. People can be aware of other things that happen outside of the garden they may want to participate in,” says Niemi. She reiterates the fact that the gardening program offers not only awareness of food production but also enriches the city soils, increases biodiversity and effects rainwater infiltration.

As of 2014, the Portland Community Gardens covered 22 acres inside the city. Despite offering immigrant and refugee farmers a meeting place and apartment dwellers a chance to grow their own food, the amount of available growing space is limited, meaning many of the gardens have multi-year waiting lists. According to both Cohen and Niemi, rooftop growing hasn’t found much footing in the city. Backyard gardening is encouraged.

Portland funds the Community Garden classes run by Oregon Tilth, a regional expert in sustainable growing. With over 40 city-owned community gardens offering allotment style plots, there are numerous opportunities for free sustainability education for residents.

“For the community garden there are so many positives, you’re socializing, you’re outside, you’re emoting, you’re exercising and the physical print you’re leaving by growing your own food is just remarkable,” says Colleen Lockovitch, gardening program manager at Oregon Tilth.

Portland’s backyard gardens sport chickens and bees, with a growing trend in dairy goat ownership.

“The level of urban homesteading that is occurring within the city limits is pretty exciting, “ shares Sarah Brown, newly appointed Education Director at Oregon Tilth and owner of Diggin’ Roots organic farm.“I think there are immense opportunities for people to be growing food in their yards and sharing it with neighbors. In that sense it’s a really amazing community building opportunity,” says Brown.

The Zenger farm, an urban farm that teaches classes, provides a CSA and chicken cooperative works with immigrant farmers and offers cooking classes is partially funded by the city to illustrate their commitment to educating its residents.

“It’s anything we can do to give people more choices in the food system,” says Cohen.

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