Want to grow food on City of Oakland land? Here’s how

By Stephanie Paige Ogburn

We’ve all seen it: the vacant lot down the street that gets full sun, or the underused city park choked over with weeds. And many of us have thought: I bet that would be a great community garden space, if some enterprising growers could take it over.

For most of us, the thought doesn’t go much further than that. But if you're serious about starting a community garden on public land near you, the following are some tips and advice to help make your undertaking more successful.

Step One: Land locator

If you think the land you’re eyeing is publicly owned, you need to find out which public agency owns it. A year ago, this might have been a challenge. Now it’s much easier, because Nathan McClintock, a doctoral student at the University of California-Berkeley, has put together an inventory of potentially-farmable public lands in Oakland.

“The land locator … is really a first cut attempt to say, here’s where some of those spaces are,” McClintock said.

McClintock’s Land Locator consists of maps of the city of Oakland and spaces on that map are keyed to the agency controlling the land and the zoning of that land. You can use the locator to find out what city agency owns the land you’ve spied, and then contact them to find out if a community garden might be possible on that space.

If the land you’re interested in doesn’t show up on McClintock’s maps, it might not be publicly owned. If you get the address or parcel number of the land, you can call the Alameda county assessor’s office to get ownership information on that space.

Since more than 50 percent of the land mapped in the locator is owned by the Oakland Department of Parks and Recreation, the department that also manages Oakland’s existing community gardens, it’s likely that they’re one of the city agencies most amenable to garden creation on their land and most community gardening projects do take place on Parks and Rec land.

It’s still worthwhile, though, to try and contact other agencies that own farmable open space, although they may be less familiar with the concept of community gardens. This may even work in your favor, as they might have less bureaucracy than the other city departments.

Step Two: Test the soil

Before you get too far along in planning a garden, you want to make sure it’s safe to grow plants there. Willow Rosenthal, founder of City Slicker Farms and urban gardening expert, gave the skinny on soil testing.

The main contaminants of concern fall into two categories: heavy metals and organic chemicals. Organic chemicals are hard to test for so the best way to ensure your soil is safe is find the land use history of that spot, said Rosenthal.

One way to do this by going to the city planning and zoning department in downtown Oakland and looking up the history of buildings on that site. Another way to find out about land use history is to ask the neighbors.

“If there was a house on the parcel ... chances are it wasn’t a Dow Chemical factory [and the soil is safe],” said Rosenthal.

You can get an inexpensive soil test that looks for heavy metals by sending soil samples to select university laboratories. The one many people use is at the University of Massachusetts-Amhurst – for $9 you can mail in a soil sample and find out if it soil contains lead, cadmium, lithium or chromium. Spend a little more and you can find out how much organic matter and nitrogen is in the soil as well, which is useful to know if you’re trying to grow healthy, productive plants.

Step Three: Community backing

If the space you want to use is on Parks and Recreation land, you need to demonstrate to the department that you have community and neighborhood support, said Maria Barra-Gibson, assistant to Councilwoman Jane Brunner. Barra-Gibson recently helped shepherd the Dover St. Park community garden – one of the most recently created community gardens in Oakland (through the Parks and Recreation bureaucracy).

Since the department does not have a specific process or a staff member who can support Oaklanders wanting to create community gardens (they are hiring a new community garden coordinator, but that individual’s time will be primarily devoted to managing already-existing community gardens), Barra-Gibson offers her time and the support of Brunner’s office to Oakland residents who might be stymied by the lack of a clear process to create a community garden on Parks and Recreation-owned land.

“We are happy to act as point people if you are not getting the connections you need or if you are not getting through to city staff,” said Barra-Gibson.

Jen Matthews, a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital and Research Center in North Oakland who recently created the Dover St. community garden in that city park, also offered some advice.

Matthews, who worked with Phat Beets Produce and the Dover St. community to create the garden, first planned to build the garden on a grassed-in area of the park. But tearing up turf requires the city to issue a conditional use permit that changes the use of a park area, a process that can be costly and time consuming.

Matthew’s advice: find a spot that’s weedy, or already covered with vegetation – not a manicured lawn or any kind of park designation that requires the city to issue a conditional use permit. Her group switched their garden’s planned location to the un-manicured outskirts of the park, avoided the expensive and lengthy permit application process and brought their garden project to fruition in just six months.

Step Four: Plan your garden

While you’re working to find the perfect spot and knocking on neighbor’s doors to rally support, make sure to write out a plan for your garden.
Rosenthal recommends you do this whether you’re creating a garden on public or private land.

“Put it in writing,” Rosenthal said.

While you’re planning, you’ll need to make sure your garden has access to water, since California gardens need irrigation and having the ability to borrow or hook up to electricity can also be helpful, said Rosenthal.

A plan also needs to include maintenance and stewardship agreements on how the garden will be maintained and run, said Mark Hall, a Parks and Recreation department employee who works on improving the process to create community gardens in Oakland.

Other than that, as long as your plan demonstrates the garden will provide a benefit to the community, there aren’t a lot of specifics the city requires, said Hall.

“It really depends on the organization, it depends on the design, it depends on the goals of the project,” Hall said.

This lack of specificity may allow for flexibility in projects, but it also can lead to confusion, Matthews, of the Dover St. garden, noted. That’s where support from someone like a City Council member can be key.

In the long run, groups like the Oakland Food Policy Council hope to work with the city of Oakland to help streamline the process for supporting farming and gardening on public land, said Margot Lederer Prado, a member of the food policy council and city employee working in economic development.

Prado sees huge opportunities for intensified urban agriculture in Oakland, but said the city needs help in better-managing the increased demand for government support of local food production.

“Six years ago, it wasn’t even in the forefront at all,” Prado said. “There were a few community gardens, neighborhood gardens, but there was not the explosion of interest that we’ve now seen.”

If you’re too impatient to jump through the current hoops or wait for the city to create an efficient process for community garden creation, there are a number of other ways to get involved in community gardening on private land and with nonprofit organizations. Our next article in the series will give the skinny on how to get involved with community and urban gardening through other avenues.

Happy growing!

Other resources:

  • City Slicker Farms has hella experience with urban farming and gardening and with dealing with the city of Oakland. They should be top on your list of contacts if you want to start any type of food production garden in Oakland.
  • Community garden creator Jen Matthews, a pediatrician at the Oakland Children’s Hospital, is willing to offer advice based on her experience. Contact Phat Beets Produce to get more information.
  • The Oakland Parks Coalition, who conducts volunteer maintenance in city parks and annually surveys their status with regards to upkeep and cleanliness, has information on the status of many parks and also links to volunteers who help upkeep and maintain those parks.
  • The City of Oakland has a community gardening program. They have 96 spaces (all full right now) and a waiting list of 150 people. You can get on the list by contacting them.Growing food on city of Oakland land

Photo by mirnanda/Flickr, of a Marston Campbell Community Garden workday at Lafayette Elementary in Oakland by OBUGS, an Oakland nonprofit with gardens at Oakland schools that serve as classrooms for science, nutrition and outdoor education. Post reprinted with author's permission from Oakland Local.

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