#3 Engaging Communities

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Urban farms require community participation and buy-in to survive and thrive. Without community buy-in, community and commercial farmers can be vulnerable to vandalism or more organized forms of community resistance. More importantly, community engagement helps align farm services with the needs and desires of neighborhood residents.
Common barriers that hinder community acceptance of urban farming include a lack of familiarity with urban farming; negative impressions of the appearance of urban farms; concerns about pests, vandalism, and/or the safety of eating farm food; fear that farms replace other valued development; seeing urban farms as projects introduced by “outsiders” who exploit neighborhood resources; and concerns about the long-term sustainability of urban farms. Urban farmers overcome these barriers and garner support by employing a range of strategies.
Tips for Engaging Communities
Each community is unique and the approaches necessary to engage the community may vary from place to place based on cultural backgrounds, multicultural relationships, neighborhood dynamics and more. While there are recommended approaches for engaging communities in urban farming projects and effective ways to encourage community members to be involved, it is important to know your community and develop an approach that will be most successful there. This is of particular importance if urban farmers or project leaders are not residents of the neighborhood where the urban farm is being developed and/or are racially or culturally different than the majority of residents. The perception that an urban farmer is an “outsider” can lead to feelings of distrust or exploitation. Newcomers to community should dedicate themselves to building strong relationships, involving community members from the beginning and empowering them to be involved. To engage your community:

  • Gain entry into a neighborhood
    • Ensure the site selected for an urban farm is not actively used for other purposes and, ideally, provides an opportunity to improve abandoned land
    • Take steps to gain an understanding of the neighborhood context (including the history of the neighborhood; challenges and assets)
    • Avoid assumptions about what local residents desire and identify ways the urban farm can provide services that they want and value
      • Discuss the farm with residents, actively soliciting community-wide input from youth and adults
    • Attend community meetings and become actively involved in efforts important to the neighborhood
    • Forge relationships with community leaders or groups. Encourage them to promote the idea for the urban farm and find areas where you can work together to achieve common and complementary goals
    • Avoid perceptions that an urban farm is an “outsider project” by demonstrating dedication to the neighborhood through active community involvement and relationship building
      • Consider implementing an urban farm in the community where you live or move to the neighborhood where you would like to start the farm
    • Introduce the idea for an urban farm
      • Include local residents in the process of planning the urban farm
      • Share examples of other urban farms via photographs and tours
      • Proactively address concerns about urban farming and explain potential benefits for the neighborhood
      • Use multiple forums to present the idea for the urban farm, including community meetings and engaging residents who live in direct proximity to the potential farm site
    • Engage the neighborhood
      • Create a welcoming environment at the farm site that promotes a sense of belonging and ownership
        • Encourage open access, such as by maintaining an open gate or no-fence policy and locating entry points where visible and easily accessible
        • Host open houses, volunteer days, community BBQ’s, events for youth or families, etc.
        • Have a diverse group of people involved in leadership roles on the farm including age, experience, race, culture and personalities
      • Create opportunities for residents to be involved with the urban farm
        • Encourage contributions from community members to share their stories and knowledge
      • Provide opportunities for local residents to access farm produce; for farms with a mission of providing food for the neighborhood, ask residents what types of food they want to eat and convenient times/locations for distribution, and ensure food is affordable
      • Communicate with residents to maintain a positive and active relationship
      • Maintain and beautify the urban farm to meet residents’ expectations for their neighborhood’s appearance, including creating a sense of permanence in the space in the off-season and opportunities for all ages and physical abilities to participate

Motivating Factors for Engagement
Below is a list of potential motivating factors for community engagement. This list is not comprehensive and does not include all motivational factors that encourage community members to become involved with urban farming projects.  It is, however, a helpful start to creating a successful community engagement strategy.

  • Social factors (forming friendships, socializing, education & youth development, cultural integration)
  • Environmental factors (Increased biodiversity, including provision of habitat for pollinators, reduced air pollution, reduction in the “urban heat island effect”, increased rainwater drainage, recycling of organic waste, environmental education)
  • Economic factors (job creation, increase in property values)
  • Health factors (physical activity, improved access to nutritious, fresh food)
  • Voluntarism (desire to contribute)
  • Food Supplementing (supplementing regular diet with fresh produce and other farm products)
  • Gardening (enjoyment, lack of gardening space, cultural traditions)

Tips for Farming with Neighbors
Urban agriculture takes place in close proximity to neighbors and within communities. Furthermore, the success of an urban farm is often dependent on the support of those neighbors and communities.  In order to gain and maintain that support, urban farmers must be careful to minimize disturbance or annoyance to others, such as by:

  • Acting in accordance to community standards of aesthetics by keeping things tidy, keeping less attractive equipment and structures away from streets and pedestrian rights of way, keeping compost piles contained, and planting flowers or other decorative plants;
  • Maintaining farm sites by picking refuse up on a regular basis, mowing, controlling weeds in pathways, repairing and maintaining fences and structures, and so on; and
  • Preventing nuisance conditions such as loud noises or offensive odors by carefully maintaining compost and other organic fertilizers, applying manure, fish emulsion, or other fertilizers in accordance to neighbor activities, and properly keeping urban livestock (see Factsheets #30-33, Urban Livestock, Chickens and Other Poultry, and Beekeeping).

It is also important to build relationships with individuals, local elected officials and local groups and organizations to ensure community involvement in the farm.  These are important for maintaining farm site security (see also factsheet #26, Site Security).
Consider attending neighborhood community group meetings to learn more about any neighborhood concerns or issues, or ask if you could make a presentation explaining your farm project.  Or, host occasional farm tours and volunteer days to get neighbors more involved in your work.
Also explore creative ways that you might give back to your community, such as donating unsold produce after a market day, hosting gleaning days to help with end-of-season clean-up, or offering free hands-on workshops.
Melissa N. Poulsen, MPH & Marie L. Spiker, MSPH, Integrating Urban Farms into the Social Landscape of Cities (RD Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, July 2014)
Christina Snowdon’s study, Urban Agriculture and City Farms and their Role in Community Engagement (Murdoch University Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy, 2010). See abstract and further resources at https://cityfarmer.info/urban-agriculture-and-city-farms-and-their-role-in-community-engagement/
Growing Food and Justice For All Initiative (GFJI) is an initiative aimed at dismantling racism and empowering communities of color and/or low-income through sustainable, local agriculture: http://growingfoodandjustice.org
Growing Urban Agriculture: Equitable Strategies and Policies for Improving Access to Healthy Food and Revitalizing Communities, Policy Link, 2012 (https://www.policylink.org/sites/default/files/URBAN_AG_FULLREPORT.PDF)

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