July 10, 2017|By Will Allen

In cities across the country, there is an increasing desire to use vacant and underutilized lands to provide community needs, such as pocket parks and community gardens. While many cities across the country, particularly those identified as part of the Rust Belt, have thousands of vacant parcels available for potential re-use as green infrastructure, cities with a high demand for development have extremely few undeveloped parcels that are not already in protected open space or are slated for development. 

This is the story about our endeavor to find potentially suitable properties for urban agriculture within the City of San Diego. At its core is the use of GIS mapping technology. One of the great values of GIS is the ability to precisely locate areas of interest that meet very specific conservation needs. By asking about the location of features (known as a spatial query) and the characteristics of features (known as an attribute query), the universe of opportunities that can help achieve a conservation goal can be greatly narrowed down without leaving your desktop.

The City of San Diego is essentially built-out, with most vacant lands allocated for future development and conservation, thanks to a multiple species habitat conservation plan and other adopted land use plans.  The first challenge is: who is your best partner? In our case, it is the International Rescue Committee (IRC). The IRC New Roots Farm program is designed to help refugee farming families achieve food security, self-sufficiency, and economic empowerment through agricultural education and business training, agricultural business development, and community agricultural partnerships. IRC enhances the relationship between new farmers, ranchers, and gardeners to sustainable land use practices and better positions those families with economic markets in key geographies across the U.S. The purpose of our analysis was to identify new lands on which IRC or IRC’s families can grow New Roots Farm activities.

7 10 SanDiego1New Roots Farm. Photo by Jena Thompson Meredith.

7 10 SanDiego2New Roots Farm. Photo by Jena Thompson Meredith.

The second challenge then becomes: how do you best find urban agriculture opportunities within the over one million land parcels in San Diego County? First and foremost, you need selection criteria provided by your partner, which IRC provided to us.

Through an extensive GIS analysis, we identified first cut “hot list” of 39 vacant parcels at 22 site locations encompassing 62 +/- acres. We narrowed the universe of opportunities through an assessment of how feasible these properties could be for urban agriculture. We used aerial photography, soils, and topography to evaluate the viability for farming uses. We also made sure it was unlikely there would be hazardous conditions through a screen of data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency including brownfields, toxic releases, Superfund sites, and other risk screening environmental indicators. 

7 10 SanDiego5This map of San Diego depicts vacant properties (0.25 – 15 acres; 4,488 total parcels) in yellow and IRC office and farm locations as red dots. The properties located in the light green buffer region are within a 20-minute drive from a current IRC farm, those in the darker green can be reached in 10 minutes, and those in the darkest green center are within a 5-minute drive. 

We also looked at pragmatic issues, such as current zoning, future land use plans, and proximity to existing water mains (to facilitate needed irrigation of crops). We also looked at how easy would it be for IRC’s families to reach the properties based on where they lived. We focused our attention on parcels within reasonable driving distances of IRC’s main office in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego and their office in the City of El Cajon. We also found properties that were a 5-minute walk from bus stops along bus lines that serviced both neighborhoods. We also analyzed who owned the land and assessed the owner’s likelihood of being receptive to a short-term agricultural lease on the property, or if they might consider an easement or fee acquisition. This ultimately led to a focus on properties mostly owned by the City of San Diego and other public agencies.

7 10 SanDiego4This shows areas that were within 5-minutes of a bus stop in the neighborhood.

We completed a day-long “windshield survey” to visit the vast majority of the 39 sites and help narrow the list of feasible opportunities to 11. The survey team walked the sites and took extensive photos of many of the potential properties. The Fund and IRC have pursued some of these opportunities with their respective landowners to see if a short or long-term lease with IRC is possible.

7 10 SanDiego3This is a GIS screen capture showing one of the potential properties of interest outlined in pink. The lines and nodes are the bus lines and bus stops. Close proximity to a bus line and to a property that was already being used for urban agriculture made this site a good candidate for new land for New Roots Farm activities.

Without recent advances in GIS mapping and high-resolution data to support the critical on-the-ground knowledge provided by IRC, this type of project would have been cost prohibitive and therefore likely never even attempted. But after seeing that it worked in San Diego, we hope to apply this methodology to other cities where partners are pursuing urban agriculture opportunities. This project has shown that it is definitely worth looking for the needles in the haystack, even in cities where every parcel of land appears spoken for!