Position on gentrification

The SFUAA is, obviously, about food. We want more people to successfully grow food on more of our tiny 49 square mile city. We believe in the benefits of urban agriculture (UA), even for a densely populated, heavily developed, wealthy city. Besides the physical environmental benefits of UA–reduced water runoff; reduced dependence on imported food; healthier bodies through garden exercise and diets–we are committed to develop an urban farming scene that supports the evolution of a healthier and more just social environment as well. That’s why some of our members consider themselves to be part of or influenced by the “Food Justice” movement, and came to our enthusiasm for UA out of a desire to see organic, healthful produce be a widely accessible right for all, not a privileged commodity for the wealthy few.

Recently, however, some of our members who are committed foremost to social justice and community self-determination have expressed concern that our alliance may be close to supporting urban agriculture above the needs of San Francisco’s most marginalized communities. This is a response to express how much the SFUAA appreciates and shares this concern.

The SFUAA does not support UA as gentrification. Gentrification is the replacement of a local population by another demographic which is wealthier, and generally has greater access to resources and education than the previous population of the neighborhood. This is a long process which takes place over the course of years, gradually altering a neighborhood or city. Once displacement occurs, it is extremely difficult to reverse purposefully. As a new workforce enters into a neighborhood, local shops begin to cater to the needs of the wealthier clientele, not the needs of the previous lower-income residents. With every loss of rent-controlled living units, and every new renter who can afford (and will pay) higher rents, rent costs go up. This continues until the previous residents can no longer afford the cost of rent, nor the price of the amenities, restaurants, and local shops.

While we can see the UA community in SF as having a dominantly white, middle class face, correlation is not causation and we reject the notion of UA as the cause of gentrification. Urban agriculture, if anything, can follow the course of gentrification when it is associated with communities of higher incomes and education (as it is in SF). Latino immigrants in LA, Hmong immigrants in Fresno, and East African immigrants in San Diego are other populations practicing UA in California; it isn’t the act of UA itself that causes gentrification. Gentrification is caused by much larger social and economic forces, and it may be largely out of our hands. But we can at least be aware of the potential dangers of our work: Who does our urban agriculture work serve? What communities are affected, or potentially affected, by our projects? When we push for governmental support for UA, in whose name is that support requested, and who will gain from that increased support?

UA can be defanged–stripped of its critique of food systems that work only for the 1%. Even worse, it can provide cover for social injustice by promoting its seemingly benign environmental agenda and ignoring concerns over displacement and lack of community control. And considering the complex causes behind gentrification, promoting the idea that solutions to our societal problems are based on individual action (like gardening)–not the redesign of larger political, economic, and social structures–may be tantamount to supporting the status quo. And sadly, the status quo in San Francisco has been continual gentrification.

What else can we do to avoid UA becoming the “trojan horse” for gentrification? Besides asking questions of ourselves, we can and should link up our struggles with those of others. Ultimately, many of these struggles are about local community control over public resources, and that is a much larger battle. The SFUAA hopes to be one force for good in that battle, and not inadvertently give a friendly face (like “urban greening”) to eco-apartheid. We plan to continue our work to secure land access for UA, alongside other advocates for local control over land use decisions. Ultimately, we would like to see a society where land use decisions are made in favor of community benefit over private profit. The SFUAA is open, as an organization, and as individuals, to have these conversations and pursue various forms of political action: the only way things change is when we demand them to, in as powerful a force as we can muster. The wider our networks, the more common our concerns, and the less divided we stand, the more powerful that force will be.

At its best, UA can support communities in their quests for food self-reliance and community self-determination. The international peasant alliance “Via Campesina” has named this collective right as a goal for their organization; they call it “Food Sovereignty”. Food Sovereignty argues that our current food system is broken, indeed, but not just because of its ecological dangers; it argues instead that this failure stems from a fundamental lack of democracy in the food system. The food system works for a small elite who profit every day, while those of us on the consumer and producer ends have little to no control over the way the system functions or whether we can receive justice within it–because we lack democratic structures to enact our sovereignty. Growing food ourselves seems like one necessary step towards achieving that sovereignty, and so UA is valuable.

Yet UA is also insufficient. To truly achieve food system democracy would take concerted action by a dedicated social movement, just as it would take that kind of action to gain sovereignty over the way housing (or education, or health care) works in our society. The SFUAA acknowledges that this isn’t a quick or easy process, and that the act of growing food is only a starting point for political influence in the food system, just as it is only a starting point for creating political change of a much larger sort. So, while we’ve got our heads down, hands in the dirt, cultivating a new world into existence, we must think of everyone who we want to be in that new world, and what we can do to get there with them–lest we look up to find that those potential allies have long since disappeared.